Texas Monthly’s Small-town Travel series explores the culture and history of destinations off the beaten path, offering advice on where to stay, eat, and sightsee.

Last fall, during a visit to the coastal town of Matagorda, I discovered one of the best stretches of sand for beachcombing in the Lone Star State. You can’t drive there. To reach the shell-strewn shoreline, I kayaked across a river and tromped along a scrub-choked trail, using a discarded mop to shoo away any rattlesnakes slithering in the brush. Then I hopped boulder to boulder down the jetty, all while following a staff member from nearby Matagorda Bay Nature Park, which offers public tours to the spot.

Once there, slightly sweaty and sunbaked, I found treasure that would make the Little Mermaid swoon. The sand was dotted with dozens of lightning whelks, the delicately twirled state shell of Texas; a few lettered olive shells, cylindrical and so shiny they looked like they were lacquered; scallops ranging in color from sunset orange to Army green; and Atlantic giant cockles. 

We turned up the best finds along the line of debris that marked the most recent high tide. Time your visit to take place just before or just after low tide, or the day after a storm has blown through, and you’ll have the most success. But when you go, stay on the beach. Though it’s a good swimming spot, the land adjacent is privately owned, and you’ll be trespassing if you wander beyond the sand. And tread carefully: sharp oyster shells were everywhere.

Beachcombing was just one highlight of a trip that included catching enough redfish to fill my freezer, enjoying some old-fashioned sunset beach strolling, and making time for a little classic Gulf Coast cooking. Located about two hours southwest of Houston, Matagorda offers a sense of seclusion that’s rare in Texas. With a population of only about 519, the sleepy fishing town doesn’t have trendy resorts or shops. Instead you’ll find nearly sixty miles of beach to explore. About half of that mileage is accessible only by boat, but the desolate beauty of these beaches—and the feeling of escape from the real world—is well worth the journey. “There are days you can walk on the beach [in Matagorda] and not see another person,” says Margo Richards, vice president of community resources for the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA). “I just love the remoteness of it, but it’s still really accessible to the rest of Texas.”

Fishing at Matagorda Nature Park.
Fishing at Matagorda Bay Nature Park. Pam LeBlanc
Beach bungalows at Matagorda Nature Park.
New beach bungalows and the RV park in Matagorda Bay Nature Park. Courtesy of LCRA Parks
Left: Fishing at Matagorda Bay Nature Park. Pam LeBlanc
Top: New beach bungalows and the RV park in Matagorda Bay Nature Park. Courtesy of LCRA Parks

During a different trip to Matagorda a year earlier, I’d parked my camper van at the 1,333-acre Matagorda Bay Nature Park, one of more than forty Texas parks operated by LCRA. The park is located where the Colorado River opens into the Gulf of Mexico, so it’s a good option for those torn between a trip to the river and a trip to the Gulf. The RV park is made up of two paved loops along the riverfront. Other than a cluster of palm trees and some bushes, there’s little shade or separation from other campers. Our spot had a cement pad with a picnic table and a water spigot; clean, modern bathrooms and showers were a short walk away. That might not sound glamorous, but the views of dolphins dipping and diving in the river each evening, along with prime riverfront for fishing and easy beach access, made the three-hour drive from Austin worth it.

Plus, the park recently unveiled ten new beach bungalows. The brightly painted rentals perch high on stilts, and each is equipped with a full kitchen, two bedrooms, a bathroom, a cozy living space, and a gas grill. The units sleep six to eight people, and rates range from $300 to $350 per night during peak season, with a two-night minimum. The park also rents four silver, bullet-shaped Airstream trailers—already parked, leveled, and outfitted with everything you need for a few nights of relaxation. Visitors can cast a line from one of two lighted fishing piers, play a round on the park’s miniature golf course, rent kayaks, or participate in organized activities, like the Paddle and Stroll tour I took, for a small fee. 

Kayakers exploring Matagorda Bay Nature Park.Courtesy of LCRA Parks

And while most tourists stick to the developed side, the park extends to the opposite side of the highway too. There paddlers can explore watery trails that slice through channels and marshland in the park’s nine hundred acres of wetlands. (Check in at park headquarters first.) Matagorda County is one of the birdiest places in Texas, so bring your camera. 

To enjoy a leisurely stroll on the sand, park your car at Jetty Park, located at the very end of FM 2031. From there you can traipse across a wooden boardwalk over the dunes (closed for repair as of this writing), then access the beach. Matagorda County operates the beachfront park, which is adjacent to the LCRA park. You’ll find covered picnic tables and bathrooms, and admission is free. You can even camp on the sand.

If you’d rather drive onto the shoreline, you can do that, too. Take FM 2031 toward the coast, but turn left onto the public access road before you reach Matagorda Bay Nature Park and follow it until it ends at the beach. You’ll need an annual Matagorda County beach vehicle permit, available at local businesses for $10. The swimming is good, but watch for riptides, and don’t get near the jetties or piers, where currents can be strong. And remember the bug spray. One last tip: bring a trash bag and pick up what others left behind. My motto is “Three for the Sea,” and I make it a point to gather at least three pieces of litter every time I cruise the beach. 

The bungalows on stilts hadn’t quite opened during my latest visit, so I opted for the Full Stringer Lodge, located in the main town of Matagorda, about six miles away. Each room at the tidy, eight-room hotel comes with a minifridge, and there are two comfy outdoor seating areas with fireplaces. The lodge is right across the street from Matagorda Harbor, which was convenient when it came time for an early morning fishing trip.

It was still dark when I climbed aboard a sleek, streamlined boat operated by Peyton Arrison, the owner of Shells2Scales Guide Service. Arrison turned on a strip of neon-colored lights and cranked up the music. Then I hung on tight as we zoomed through the braided channels at the edge of Matagorda Bay. When we finally popped out into a shallow saltwater lake, Arrison slowed the boat, and I could see redfish tailing in the shallows. He made a cast, then handed me the rod. Before my husband could yell “Let me help you with that,” the first fish hit. I yanked back to set the hook and started to reel the whopper in, as Arrison hollered, “Keep the tip up! Keep the tip up!” A few minutes later, he scooped a beautiful 24-inch redfish out of the water.  Over the next few hours, we caught more and more fish, tossing the big ones back and tucking the rest into a cooler. By ten a.m., all four of the anglers on our boat—even the show-off using a fly rod—had caught their limit. 

Back at the marina, Arrison cleaned and filleted the haul, packing it up for us to take home and freeze. My husband and I just finished the last of it a few weeks ago. It’s a versatile fish that I enjoy eating Veracruz style, tossed with veggies; making it into a ceviche with fresh lime is another delicious option.

If you’d rather someone else do the cooking, Matagorda has a handful of unpretentious, tasty cafes. Coastal Que BBQ is open from May through September and serves excellent brisket, sausage, turkey, and ribs, plus decadently cheesy Tater Tot casserole and banana pudding so good you’ll go ape for it. Cassady’s Coffee Bar & Cafe, next door to the Full Stringer Lodge, makes fresh baked goods, flavorful coffee, and generously sized sandwiches. Cassady’s also sells wine and hosts community events. 

If you’re craving Tex-Mex, gumbo, or étouffée, head to Poco Playa Fish Camp, where you’ll get a side of live music on weekends. For grab-and-go breakfast tacos, sandwiches, and burgers, try the little grill inside Stanley’s, where you can also find sundries such as gas, beach toys, and fishing gear. The recently expanded Matagorda Outfitters is a good option for fishing or hunting supplies. The shop will also come in handy if you need a hat, a new pair of flip-flops, or a T-shirt to let everyone know just how much you love Matagorda.