The 1852 lighthouse at Matagorda Island. Justin Carrasquillo
Built in 1852 out of cast iron, the now rusted Matagorda lighthouse stands on a ridge surrounded by grassy swales of seacoast bluestem, fields of wildflowers, and briar thickets. I began my approach to the solitary landmark aboard Captain Alan “Tink” Cartmell’s 24-foot Carolina skiff; after we’d crossed the waters of Espiritu Santo Bay, I continued on the island’s rough roads for three miles on my mountain bike. The lighthouse was a popular destination back when the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department offered daily ferry rides to the island, but a fire burned the state’s boat in 2003, and budgetary and other concerns led to TPWD’s rededicating the park as a wildlife management area. Today the public has access to the island’s entire east end, including the old TPWD campsite, but there are no services—just deer, alligator, 325 species of birds, and mangroves among which you can fish and kayak. “There’s a lot of history here,” said 71-year-old Cartmell, who first visited the skinny, 38-mile island in the fifties and has guided the area for seventeen years. “What’s amazing is that it’s as wild and primitive as when I was a kid.”
To get there: Matagorda Island is just south of Port O’Connor and accessible only by boat; check the online membership directory for the Port O’Connor Chamber of Commerce to find an outfitter who can take you the 11 miles to the old TPWD ferry dock and campground on the island (portoconnorchamber.org, 361-983-2898; prices start at $125). With a $12 limited public-use permit, available at most area bait and tackle shops, you can camp in designated areas.