Padre Island National Seashore on the Texas Gulf Coast is one of our favorite places to visit in the state. The island is located close to Corpus Christi and about 3 hrs drive away from Houston.
Padre Island National Seashore is popular with locals and visitors alike, one of the reasons being its exceptional beach camping.
Texas’s Padre Island is actually a barrier island in the Gulf of Mexico. The barrier island separates the Gulf from Laguna Madre. On the island, you will find sandy beaches, coastal dunes, prairies, and wind tidal flats.
This long and narrow island actually consists of two small islands separated by a small inlet. North Padre Island is home to Padre Island National Seashore, NPS managed site, and is beautiful and secluded.
South Padre Island, on the other hand, is a resort city and a popular destination for families, couples, and spring breakers in Texas. If you want to plan a trip to South Padre Island, then read our guide here.
We have always loved North Padre Island more than South Padre Island. Because of its protected reserve status, there is almost zero development on the island. The island is simply huge and spread over 130,434 acres. That’s Texas-sized fun for y’all!
Here you will find pristine beaches, nature trails, excellent birding, and wildlife viewing. The island is a paradise for water sports enthusiasts. You can go for a swim, enjoy sea kayaking and paddleboarding, kite flying and windsurfing on the island.
Padre Island National Seashore is a paradise for nature lovers. You can camp right by the beach and have the entire coast to yourself. It is an amazing place to just relax by the water and feel one with nature.
We recommend visiting Padre Island National Seashore as a must activity for any True Texan. Here you can experience the best of the Texas Gulf Coast.
Here is a detailed guide to planning your visit.
Padre Island National Seashore Hotels
As we mentioned before, Padre Island National Seashore is an undeveloped island. That means there are no hotels inside the National Park. Also there are no lodges or cabins of any kind. The only option to stay on the island is RV camping or tent camping.
If you do not want to camp but wish to visit Padre Island National Seashore as a day trip, then the best place to stay is in Corpus Christi. There are many good friendly hotels with pools in the city. Some of them are even oceanfront properties and make for the perfect beach getaway.
The island is also located south of Port Aransas and the city makes another great option for those who want to stay in the hotels.
Padre Island National Seashore Camping
The national park has 4 campgrounds. Visitors can camp directly on the beach at North Beach and South Beach. The other campgrounds have assigned campsites.
For beach camping, you can choose to drive on either North Beach or South Beach side to find a beach campsite. Stop at the Ranger station and get a tidal chart before you set up the tent.
Camp between the sand dunes and the beach to stay safe. If you have any questions, ask a park ranger – they’re super helpful.
North Beach is not very long but rarely visited; hence you will find a lot of secluded sites here. Thsi beach area is said to be generally great for tent/car camping for 2WD vehicles.
South Beach is our favorite area to camp. Here you have access to over 60 miles of beach sites. The first 5 miles are accessible for 2WD vehicles and hence more crowded. But as you drive south, you can find plenty of secluded camp sites.
Malaquite Campground is located close to the Visitor Center. This campground has about 50 beautiful campsites with picnic tables and grills and a rate of $8 per day/night.
The sites are located close to each. About half of them, the parking lots sites, face the sea while half have their backs to the beach, these are called the water / dune side sites. We recommend getting a dune side site if you are staying here.
The campground also has a clean dump station, clean showers, and free potable water which can be used by all national park visitors.
Malaquite Campground is good if you don’t want to camp directly on the beach. You are close enough to the ocean and get to enjoy the beach but not have all the sand blowing around you.
Bird Island Basin Campground
This is the only campground on the Bayside of Padre Island National Seashore. It is popular with windsurfers and surf fishers since the Laguna Madre bayside is excellent for these activities.
The beautiful water’s edge sites are a mere 10 feet away from the bay. Lots of birds can be seen along the water’s edge including pelicans.
However, the sites are right next to each other and offer little to no privacy. Also, there are no picnic tables or shade in this campground. The sites are $5 a day/night and the campground has no dump or potable water available.
The nearest dump and toilets are 4 miles down the road to the park entrance at the Malaquite campground. Most cell phones seem to have coverage at this campground.
Padre Island National Seashore Map
Visitors can easily get a map of Padre Island National Seashore at the Visitor Center. We also recommend getting a tidal chart so you can set up a campsite out of the water’s way.
When to visit South Padre Island National Seashore
The best time to visit the island is from winter to spring. The Gulf Water is cold during these seasons but the weather on land is just perfect to enjoy a sunny winter escape. The island enjoys mild winters.
Summer on the coast is hot and humid. This is also the hurricane season and you can have unexpected thunderstorms. The water is great to swim but you need to apply a lot of sunscreen lotion to avoid burning in the heat. Summer is also the time when you can watch a sea turtle hatchling release.
Fall is another great time to go for mild weather however you need to watch for hurricanes. Overall, the island makes a great year-round destination for nature lovers on the Gulf Coast.
Things to do on Padre Island National Seashore
Padre Island National Seashore comprises 70 miles of shore line and is home to some of the best beaches in Texas.
Naturally, beachcombing and water activities are big on the island. However, that is not the only attraction here.
There are multiple things that you can do on Padre Island National Seashore in Texas. Here are some of our favorites to indulge in your next road trip.
Remember: you do need to pay an entry fee of #25 to enter and camp in the park or a $ 10 day-use fee. To reach the park, drive across the John F Kennedy Causeway then drive towards the Visitor Center.
The park also allows pets, so feel free to bring along furry pals for a dip in the ocean. ATVs, fireworks, and bonfires are not allowed at the park.
See the exhibits at the Malaquite Visitor Center & Pavilion
Start your trip here. This is where the restrooms and amenities are located. Enquire about the schedule of sea turtle hatchling release while you are here. Get a park map and shop for souvenir magnets.
The visitor center also has interesting exhibits to understand the history of the park. You can get information about the interpretative nature programs held at the center including the beach walk and deck talk.
Hike the Grassland Nature Trail
Find the entire island is open to explore, there are very few assigned trails for visitors. One of the easiest assigned trails is the Grasslands Nature Trail. It is located just inside the park entrance and is paved which makes it perfect for kids of all ages. The trail is less than a mile long and a perfect way to observe the marshlike environment.
Bike all the way down to South Padre Island
Biking is one of the best ways to get around Padre Island National Seashore. Overall the island is flat which makes biking very easy. You can bike on the park roads as well as on the beaches.
One of our favorite things to do is to bike all the way south as much as you can. We have heard reports of people biking all the way down to the inlet separating the national park from South Padre Island.
Camp on the beach in Texas
As we mentioned before, Padre Island National Seashore camping is one of the essential experiences while visiting the island. You can camp right on the beach, underneath the stars, and wake up to the fresh morning gulf breeze.
A really good secluded beach campsite can be accessed only by a fair bit of driving on the sand in a 4WD. Camping in the park requires a permit which you can obtain at the Visitor Center. Get supplies at the Pavilion Convenience Store before you go on the beach to ensure you won’t have to drive back after setting camp.
The beach campsites are primitive and have no facilities. Simply choose your site on either north Beach or South Beach and set up your tent. Campers can use the restrooms at the Visitor Center or Malaquite Campground.
Watch the Sea Turtle Hatchlings Release
This is literally the most amazing experience that you can have on the island, but you will have to time it right!
The beach at Padre Island National Seashore is the most important nesting habitat in the country for Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtle. This is the most endangered sea turtle in the world. The park works hard to conserve and save these species.
The sea turtles swim to the beach and lay their eggs in a nest on the warm sand. Then the sea turtle swims away. The park conserves and incubates the eggs. It then releases the hatchlings back into the ocean as they emerge.
Seeing the tiny hatchlings swim out to the sea is an amazing experience. You can read more about it in our post here.
Participate in a free birding tour
The park rangers often offer free birding tours on the island. Visitors can sign up for the tour a day in advance at the Visitor Center. The tour lasts for about 3 hours during which you will visit various birding sites along the shore.
The tour guides are very knowledgeable and share interesting information about the coastal birds. They also provide binoculars for use during the tour. You can also go birding on your own at Padre Island national Seashore.
The coastal wilderness here is home to about 400 different types of bird species. The best birding is on the bayside of the island. We easily saw roughly 30 different species of birds during our visit including pelicans, sea gulls, and more.
Watch the marine wildlife and land animals
Apart from birds, turtles, and crabs, you can also spot precious marine wildlife on the island. You can spot jellyfish, pufferfish, frogs, ghost crabs, and several types of fish.
The dunes are home to coyotes, deer, hare, squirrels, and snakes. We recommend bringing a pair of binoculars for observing the wildlife.
Beachcombing on Padre Island National Park is pretty amazing. While driftwood is scarce here due to a lack of tall trees in the area, you can easily spot sea shells, sand dollars, sea glass, and more.
The soft, wide, sandy beaches are perfect for taking a stroll with your loved one and looking for treasures on the coast. Beachcombing is also a hit with the kids as they can spot colorful rocks and seashells.
While many national parks do not allow you to remove natural resources, at Padre Island National Seashore you can keep up to a 5 gallon bucket of beachcombing treasures unless it is an endangered animal or historic artifacts from shipwrecks.
Build a sandcastle
The soft sand in the national park is perfect for building sand castles. You can try your own hand at building a large one or even take one of the classes offered by the visitor center. These classes take place occasionally and are just amazing. Families and kids of all ages can have fun while learning to build a giant sand castle.
Relax and read a book
One of my favorite activities on the island. I love relaxing on the beach in a beach chair and reading a book as the kids play in the sand near me. Really, the beaches here are just perfect to take a break from the routine, catch a nap on the sand, and spend some time unwinding from your daily stresses.
Drive on the beach at sunset
If you have a 4WD vehicle, which is a must for beach camping on Padre Island National Seashore, we also recommend driving on the beach at sunset. It is a fabulous experience.
Make sure your car is equipped for sand driving and brush up on your sand driving skills before you go. Towing is very expensive and time consuming, so don’t get stuck!
Walk the beach at night
One of the best things about camping at Padre Island National Seashore is that you can go for a walk on the beach at night. This is a simply amazing experience especially if it’s a full moon night. You can see the large coast crabs come out and skitter on the sand. You can also dip your toes in the warm Gulf water. We recommend carrying a flashlight and looking out for wildlife.
See the night sky
The night sky at Padre Island National Seashore may not be as dark as the night sky in Big Bend but it is still an amazing experience. If you happen to visit on a clear night then you can observe many popular stars and constellations.
The visitor center also often holds night sky and astronomy viewing programs. Seeing the stars come out and watching them through a telescope while listening to the waves crash behind you is an incredible experience.
Explore the island on horseback
Padre Island National Seashore has many horseback trails. Exploring the extensive barrier island on horseback is great fun. Royal horses are allowed on the beach and they are not allowed on the roads, dunes, and grasslands.
Propose or get married on the beach
The beach on the island is pretty, secluded, and just perfect for an intimate romantic moment. You can either propose to your loved one or renew your vows or even get married right here on the beach. You do need permits to get married though, so inquire and plan in advance.
Water Activities on North Padre Island National Seashore
The park is a paradise for water lovers. Over 70 miles of the beach means amazing water sports and outdoor activities.
Most of the water activities are located on the bayside. To reach the bay side from the Gulf side, you need to drive through Yarborough Pass which is located at mile marker 15.
Here are some of the things you can do on the island:
Boating and fishing
Visitors can launch boats at the assigned ramps in Laguna Madre. There are 2 within the park: Bird Island Boat Ramp and Yarborough Pass Boat Ramp. Only soft sided boats can be launched in the Gulf waters. Personal watercrafts like jet skis are not allowed.
While fishing is allowed, you need a license with a saltwater stamp. Visitors have got catfish, trout, anglers, and many more fish in different seasons.
Scuba dive or snorkel on the island
While Texas is known more for its barbecue and cowboy ranches rather than scuba diving and snorkeling, there are a few places where you can try these activities in the Lone Star State. And of course, the pristine natural environment of Padre Island National Seashore is one of them.
While you will have to bring your own equipment and gear and there is no kind of rental available on the island, we do recommend bringing it for an amazing experience. The best place to snorkel is obviously the Laguna Madre Estuary. A variety of colorful tropical fish called this hypersaline lagoon home and you can easily spot them on a swim.
Windsurf on bayside of the island
The calm waters of Laguna Madre are perfect for windsurfing on the bayside of the island. At what island basin you will find a half mile beach area that is one of the best windsurfing spots in the country. The shallow lagoon and an obstructed wind is perfect for the watersport.
The best time to go windsurfing is in the spring and fall. You can either bring your own boards or rent one here at the Bird Island Basin. The park also offers windsurfing lessons for those interested in learning.You can also kitesurf here.
Kayak, canoe, or paddleboard the Gulf waters
Kayaking, canoeing, and paddle boarding are popular activities in both the open ocean and in the shallow lagoon. If you are a beginner, we recommend the calm waters of the Laguna Madre. Experienced kayakers can go sea kayaking on the Gulf waters.
If you are not very enthusiastic about water sports but want to cool down then you can enjoy your trip to the island by just swimming in the warm waters. Go for a swim when you get too hot and just lay down and relax on the beach when you get tired. This is just the perfect holiday in Texas for almost everyone.
Things to do near Padre Island National Seashore
Padre Island National Seashore is close to Corpus Christi. You can easily plan a trip to the city while you are visiting the national park site.
Port Aransas makes a perfect base for exploring Padre Island National Seashore. Apart from the water activities on the island, Port Aransas also makes the perfect destination for fishing charters, dolphin cruises, sailing, parasailing, and stand up paddle boarding.
Corpus Christi makes another perfect base to explore Padre Island National Seashore. There are many amazing attractions here including the Texas State Aquarium, USS Lexington Museum Ship, and the Museum of Science and Industry where you can see artifacts from the old Spanish shipwreck that occured on Padre Island. The beaches of Corpus Christi are also renowned for their soft powdery white sand and warm water.
Mustang Island State Park
While you are in the area, visit Mustang Island State Park, one of the best state parks in Texas. The park is famous for its quiet and clean beaches and picnic table and shades that are right on the beach.
South Padre Island
While the resort town of South Padre Island is a part of Padre Island, it couldn’t be more different than the National Seashore. Here you will find condos, resorts, and hotels to enjoy your stay. A variety of restaurants and seafood shacks are located on the island.
There are touristy souvenir shops, golf cart rentals to go around the island, and activities such as zip lining and go-karting. Families can take sand castle lessons or go horse riding on the beach. During spring break, the island is the talk of the state. You will find loud music, beach and pool parties, and throngs of young spring breakers on the island.
While most visitors to Padre Island National Seashore or South Padre Island do not spend time in Port Isabel, the small city is certainly worth a visit. The main attraction here is of course the Port Isabel Lighthouse. You can climb to the very top and take in the panoramic views of the area. You can also explore the Pirates Landing attraction, this is fun for kids of all ages.
We hope you liked our post on things to do on Padre Island National Seashore on the Texas Gulf Coast. Did we miss any popular attractions near this national park? Let us know in the comments.