How do you counteract a winter storm warning in Minneapolis, Minnesota? Why you kick off your boots and stroll some smooth sand beaches, of course! Nothing says winter better than the sun on your face and some of that sugary soft white stuff between your toes. But where in the U.S.A. can you find THAT kind of white stuff this time of year? Well, you definitely need to head south. But how far south? Follow Parker’s clues to see if you can figure it out!
Hold On to Your Flip-Flops
Our plane touches down in the eighth largest city of the Lone Star State amidst gusty 30 to 35 MPH winds. The driving distance from the airport to our final destination is a little over 32 miles. But, of course, we can’t drive straight through. All of our adventures require a little side trek somewhere along the way.
Waging War In a Museum
First stop is the USS Lexington. This retired World War II U.S. Aircraft Carrier now serves as a museum on the bay. Parking in the area is a bit skimpy, but we do manage to find a city-run meter across the street. One step inside and the enormity of the ship hits us. It’s almost like a self-contained city. From the infirmary, chapel, engine room, mess hall, dentist office and a boat load of other cramped rooms and passages stretching seven decks down, to the open-air flight deck filled with a wide variety of fighter planes from the past, this place is fascinating.
Self-guided tours take you into the bowels of the ship. Fortunately, there are arrows pointing you in the right direction. With so many winding passageways, similar rooms and small cubbyholes, you could seriously get lost down here. This museum is the perfect combination of sights, history and memorabilia to capture the attention of a variety of age groups. Unfortunately, the steps are steep and narrow, so it is not very accessible for folks with mobility issues. For more information and admission prices check out the USS Lexington website.
Now it’s onward toward the salt water! Time to cross the approximately 4 mile long JFK Causeway Bridge from the mainland, up and over Laguna Madre (which happens to be a portion of the nearly 3,000 mile Intracoastal Waterway — ICW), and onto the longest stretch of undeveloped barrier island in the world. The engineering of this structure is amazing. The JFK Causeway (originally named the _________ Island Causeway … Ooops! Almost gave Parker’s location away), was the first post-tensioned concrete segmental bridge built in the United States.
After crossing the bridge our wheels are firmly on island soil (mostly sand!) We’re getting close now. But wait! SQUIRREL!!! There’s another side trek opportunity just off the main stretch of Park Road. A sharp left turn points our windshield directly at the Gulf of Mexico.
Less than a mile south of the turn we can almost feel the power of the crashing waves as we pull into the Bob Hall Pier parking lot. The Gulf is frothing as far out as the eye can see. We pay the paltry $2 per person access fee and start our long walk down the 1,240-ft. long and 15.5-ft. wide pier. The constant waves in motion around us causes a minor sea legs effect, even though this 35-year old structure is solidly footed in the salty water. We finally reach the 165-ft. long, 19-ft. wide T-Head at the end and peer back toward shore.
In addition to the numerous anglers dropping a fishing line over the side of the pier, the horizon offers a relaxing viewpoint. We vow to stop back later for an amazing sunset. After soaking in the calmness of the reverberating lap of the tide we head to the attached watering hole. Mikel May’s Beachside Bar and Grill serves up a delicious frozen margarita and during happy hour it’s available at a thirst-quenching deal! (But not TOO good of a deal to keep us from heading onward).
We Made It!
Finally, our adventure brings us to what we came for … the Visitor’s Center at this nationally recognized area. A trail leads down to the sugar sand beach that comprises nearly 70 continuous miles of amazing coastline. The first couple of miles away from the building are accessible by foot only. The water’s edge holds a variety of birds, shells and sea whip, some water creatures (beware of jellyfish and Portuguese man-of-war), and more.
Large sand dunes enclose the backside of the beach and are dotted with vegetation. The park holds almost 400 different plant species in all. Bristlegrass, seashore saltgrass, Buckley’s yucca, bushy bluestem, sea oats, and marshhay cordgrass are all commonly spotted near the beaches of this impressive Island. The snakes, small rodents, ghost crabs and other creatures that inhabit these areas do a much better job of camouflaging their whereabouts.
Driving Dunes and Don’ts
A short drive south of the Visitor Center the paved road comes to an end. But your vehicle travel doesn’t necessarily have to end here. The packed beach sand can accommodate most cars and trucks up to milepost 5, but don’t venture beyond that point without a four-wheel drive vehicle. With the proper setup and emergency equipment you can even drive to milepost 60 before you reach a water impasse. Keep in mind that the tides are constantly changing and the speed limit is just 15 MPH, so plan accordingly to prevent your progress being impeded by the rising water.
Also, beware of animal and turtle crossing! Padre Island is a safe nesting ground for the Kemp’s ridley sea turtle. Please pay attention and take care not to run over these special shelled creatures. The turtles are one of the most endangered species in the world. More than half of all of the Kemps ridley turtle nests in the U.S. are found within the borders of this National Seashore.
More than 380 bird species also call this National Seashore home for at least a portion of the year. Pelicans, laughing gulls, terns and ducks are quite common inhabitants. Sandhill cranes, snow geese and several other birds fly down from northern nesting habitats to spend the winter in the area. In fact, this portion of the Gulf of Mexico attracts a wide variety of bird species throughout the year.
According to a sweet (but camera-shy) Park Ranger named Marion (and aptly called “Grandma Seashell”), the farther south you travel down the shoreline, the better the beachcombing gets. This informative lady explained sea beans, pointed out some good spots to search for seashells, talked about the best times to scavenge the sand dunes, discussed sand dollars (keep the white ones, put the brown ones back in the water), showed us her beautiful seashell mosaic creations, and best of all, shared a few shells from her own personal seashell treasure stash with us! If you make it to the Malaquite Pavilion Visitor’s Center you absolutely MUST look this wonderful park ranger up!
The National Secret Revealed!
Have you figured out where Parker is parked yet? This special barrier island on the south coast of Texas makes up the Padre Island National Seashore. It’s a special place that may not hold enough winter warmth to draw hordes of beach worshipers in January, but it does contain a calming beauty that is worthy of a visit. Stop down and sink your toes in the sand, uncover some beautiful shells and maybe even glimpse a rare sea turtle. When you explore Padre Island, you never know what (or who) you might find!
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