Location: Padre Island National Seashore
What You’ll Need: Sleeping bag, marshmallow-roasting stick
Summer is not endless, and neither is the Padre Island National Seashore. But its 67.5-mile length is more than half of the whole of Padre Island, the world’s longest barrier island. And with that comes the biggest stretch of undeveloped barrier island and sand beach on the planet. While the Padre Island National Seashore’s stunning ribbon of fine-sand coastline may not be without actual end, opportunities for all manner of activity (fishing, birding, beachcombing, surfing, swimming, or just relaxing) abound.
After a quick stop at the Malaquite Visitor Center, which is chock-full of informative brochures and park rangers, both a good idea for the most up-to-date skinny on flora, fauna, beach conditions, weather forecasts, and the presence of jellyfish and debris, wife, daughter, dog, and I left the paved roads and the rest of the civilized world disappearing in the rearview mirror. The coastal adventure was under way, our destination the aptly named Big Shell Beach, of which I had childhood memories born of a similar family vacation some thirty-plus years ago. Big Shell lies about halfway down the seashore, between mileposts 20 and 35 (note that vehicles equipped with four-wheel drive are required after milepost 5), and proved a fortuitous choice, as the coastline beyond milepost 30 was as debris-laden as a landfill with the ghosts of Hurricane Ike, which deposited its awful plunder here in heaps. After a couple hours of what at times was some near-harrowing driving, we found a nice spot at the foot of the dunes within a mile or so of marker 25 and made camp with plenty of daylight left for barefoot traipsing: wading in the surf, shelling (par excellence), and exploring. The down-island isolation is truly amazing—not a soul in sight in any direction and just a scant few fishermen traveling by. After a stunning sunset dinner with the requisite s’mores, my daughter, all aglow in campfire light and her six-year-old’s excitement, asked with total sincerity whether it was all just a dream. As nightfall descended, we were treated to a star-filled sky that rivaled West Texas’s finest and a stunning view of the Milky Way that none of us will soon forget.
Want to know what beats your weekday alarm clock and morning shower? Waking up to a sunrise over the Gulf of Mexico and a breakfast of eggs and doughboys (biscuits on a stick) with butter and jelly followed by an eye-opening family charge into the breaking waves. We spied fresh tracks in the sand and determined that we had been visited in the night by a coyote, a deer (yes, a deer), and an army of sand crabs. With half a day spent hunting sand dollars and the ever-elusive lightning whelk—the official state shell—on what amounted to our own private beach, it was too soon time to pack up and roll out, back home to the real world, where shirts, shoes, and, unfortunately, cares are required. Driving back with tired bodies but reinvigorated spirits, it was hard not to feel like our beach weekend had, maybe, really been all just a dream.
Malaquite Visitor Center About 10 miles south of Corpus Christi on Park Road 22, 361-949-8068 or nps.gov/pais. $10 per vehicle.