Padre Island National Seashore has an 8 1/2-mile paved road, with good views of the Gulf and dunes, that leads to the visitor center complex. In addition, most of the beaches are open to licensed street-legal motor vehicles; some sections have hard-packed sand that makes an adequate roadbed for two-wheel-drive vehicles while most of the beach requires four-wheel-drive.
Beachcombing -- The best times for beachcombing are usually early mornings and especially immediately after a storm, when you're apt to find a variety of seashells, seaweed, driftwood, and the like. These types of items can be collected, but live animals and historical or archaeological objects should be left. Among shells sometimes found at Padre Island are lightning whelks, moon snails, Scotch bonnets, Atlantic cockles, bay scallops, and sand dollars. The best shell hunting is often in winter, when storms disturb the water and thrust shells ashore; and many of the best shells are often found on Little Shell and Big Shell beaches, accessible only to those with four-wheel-drive vehicles. Metal detectors are not permitted on the beach.
Birding & Wildlife Viewing -- More than 350 species of birds frequent Padre Island, and every visitor is bound to see and hear at least some of them. The island is a key stopping point for a variety of migratory species traveling between North and Central America, making spring and fall the best time for bird-watching. And, since a number of species winter at Padre Island, there's good birding almost year-round except for the summer. Additionally, this is the northern boundary of some Central American species, such as green jays and jaçanas.
Birding here is very easy, especially with a four-wheel-drive vehicle, which can move down the coast to the more remote stretches of beach. Experienced bird-watchers say it is best to remain in your vehicle because humans on foot scare off birds sooner than approaching vehicles. As would be expected by its name, Bird Island Basin is also a good choice for birders as long as the marshes have water. The most commonly observed bird is the laughing gull, which is a year-round resident. Other species to watch for include rare brown pelicans plus the more common American white pelicans, long-billed curlews, great blue herons, sandhill cranes, ruddy turnstones, Caspian and Royal terns, willets, Harris's hawks, reddish egrets, northern bobwhites, mourning doves, horned larks, great-tailed grackles, and red-winged blackbirds.
In addition to birds, the island is home to the spotted ground squirrel, which is often seen in the dunes near the visitor center, white-tailed deer, coyotes, black-tailed jackrabbits, lizards, and a number of poisonous and nonpoisonous snakes.
Boating -- A boat ramp is located at Bird Island Basin, which provides access to Laguna Madre, a protected bay that is ideal for small power- and sailboats. Boat launching is not permitted on the Gulf side of the island, except for sailboats and soft-sided inflatables. To rent a sailboard, contact Worldwinds Windsurfing (tel. 361/949-7472; www.worldwinds.net). Personal watercraft are not permitted in Laguna Madre (except to get from the boat ramp to open water outside the park boundaries) but are allowed on the Gulf side beyond the 5-mile marker.
Fishing -- Fishing is great year-round. Surf fishing is permitted everywhere along the Gulf side, except at Malaquite Beach, and yields whiting, redfish, black drum, and speckled sea trout; anglers in Laguna Madre catch flounder, sheepshead, and croaker. A Texas fishing license with a saltwater stamp is required. Licenses, along with current fishing regulations and some fishing supplies, are available at Padre Island Park Company (tel. 361/949-9368). For current license information, contact the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (tel. 800/792-1112; www.tpwd.state.tx.us).
Four-Wheeling -- Licensed and street-legal motor vehicles (but not ATVs) are permitted on most of the beach at Padre Island National Seashore (but not Malaquite Beach or the fragile dunes, grasslands, and tidal flats). Most standard passenger vehicles can make it down the first 5 miles of South Beach, but those planning to drive farther south down the island (another 55 miles are open to motor vehicles) will need four-wheel-drive vehicles. Markers are located every 5 miles, and those driving down the beach are advised to watch for soft sand and high water, and to carry a shovel, jack, boards, and other emergency equipment. Unless otherwise posted, the speed limit on the beach is 15 mph. Northbound vehicles have the right of way.
Hiking -- The national seashore has miles of beach that are ideal for walking and hiking. There's also the paved and fairly easy Grasslands Nature Trail, a .8-mile self-guided loop trail that meanders through grass-covered areas of sand dunes. Numbered posts correspond with descriptions of plants and other aspects of the natural landscape in a free brochure available at the trail head or the visitor center. You'll need insect repellent to combat mosquitoes, and because western diamondback rattlesnakes also inhabit the area, stay on the trail and watch where you put your feet and hands.
Swimming & Surfing -- Warm air and water temperatures make swimming practically a year-round activity here -- January through March are really the only time it's too chilly -- and swimming is permitted along the entire beach. The most popular swimming area is 4 1/2-mile-long Malaquite Beach, also called Closed Beach, which is closed to motor vehicles. You have to jostle for a spot only at spring break and on summer weekends. Note that there are no lifeguards on duty here. Although waves here are not of the Hawaii or California size, they're often sufficient for surfing, which is permitted in most areas, but not at Malaquite Beach.
Windsurfing -- The Bird Island Basin area on Laguna Madre is considered one of America's best spots for windsurfing because of its warm water, shallow depth, and consistent, steady winds. Worldwinds Windsurfing (tel. 361/949-7472; www.worldwinds.net) sells and rents windsurfing equipment and wet suits here, and offers windsurfing lessons during the summer. Call for current fees and schedule.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.