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Natural Places

The Texas Gulf Coast

from Galveston to Port Arthur

With a population of under 65,000, Galveston is a fine place to visit—without the fast-paced lifestyle of the larger, more frantic Texas cities. It is a town that reflects its past, but also offers modern resort hotels, miles of beaches to explore, good fishing, and many cultural opportunities including music festivals.

More recently, three developments have brought Galveston back into prominence as a lively, working city. First, port activities were revived. The Medical Branch of the University of Texas established a large medical center which became the area's largest employer, and the people of Galveston decided to focus on tourism as a way of sustaining the economy. Instead of tearing down old historical buildings, the city renovated them. The Strand became once more an elegant, stately street. Beaches were improved, with the state developing a strip through the middle of Galveston Island as a state recreation beach.

The Moody Foundation, long a generous benefactor to local cultural and historical groups, developed a plan to build a major environment-oriented center on Galveston Island, as much theme park as educational institution. Included in the plans were a large glass Rainforest Pyramid, a beach developed on Offatts Bayou with barges of sand imported from Orlando (accommodating 3,000 people), and other facilities including an IMAX theater and a convention center. More than two dozen historic buildings are open to the public and the 1894 Grand Opera House provides a home for the Galveston Symphony, as well as ballet, opera, rock and jazz concerts. The Strand Historic District mirrors the early history of the island, with iron-fronted buildings in a six-block section housing fine restaurants, boutiques, and art galleries.

Galveston Island State Park
& the Seawall

Wildlife to be found in the park includes wading and shore birds, mallards and mottled ducks, raccoons, armadillos, and marsh rabbits. Anglers come here for spotted sea trout, sandtrout, redfish, black drum, flounder, and croaker.

To get here, take Interstate 45 and exit right onto 61st Street, travel south on 61st Street to Seawall Boulevard, and then turn west (right) and take Seawall (FM 3005) ten miles to the park. Facilities include a visitor center and Texas Park Store, campsites with water and electricity, including large sites in a group area for RVs and trailers, a tenting area with electricity and water, and four miles of trails for walking and hiking. A large, concrete boat ramp is located at Pirate's Cove, next to the park. For camping reservations, call (512) 389-8900. For general park information, call 800-792-1112.

Starting near the east end of the island, the Seawall extends for ten miles along the gulf side, protecting the island from storm surges and providing a wonderful place to stroll. Built following the devastating 1900 hurricane, the whole island was raised with the Seawall holding back the sand, and holding the gulf at bay. Galveston claims that the seawall is the world's longest continuous sidewalk. It's a great place to get some sun, and to jog, cycle, roller skate, and just walk, with the beautiful gulf always in sight.

National Wildlife Refuges

Four federally-operated refuges are located along the coast, on both sides of Galveston Bay and behind the barrier islands. These are some of the remaining pieces of marshland along the Texas Gulf Coast, and are worth exploring during a visit to the Galveston area. Three are generally open to the public.

Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge should be the reason to plan an exciting day trip from Galveston. You'll see a lot of scenery along the gulf, and visit a 30,000-acre wilderness comprised of marsh and prairie bordering East Galveston Bay. The trip is as exciting as viewing the migratory and wintering wildfowl that live in the refuge.

Starting at the east end of Galveston Island, take the free ferry that sails from the island to Port Bolivar, on the Bolivar Peninsula. Separated from the mainland by the Intracoastal Waterway, the peninsula extends from Sabine Pass and the Louisiana Border to the mouth of Galveston Bay. After you land in Port Bolivar, drive along the peninsula on Texas Route 87, through Crystal Bay and Gilcrest (27 miles) until you get to the intersection with Texas Route 124. Turn north and drive until you come to the junction with FM 1985 and drive west to the refuge. If you're coming via Interstate 10, drive to the Anahuac/Hankamer exit, drive two miles to FM 562, drive south for 8.3 miles to FM 1985, and drive east four miles to the refuge. I guarantee that the latter route is not nearly as scenic as the Gulf Coast route, but put the two routes together and you have an exciting circle trip, including a dizzying ride through the Houston freeway system.

The refuge offers outstanding opportunities for viewing waterfowl including spring and fall migrants, plus neotropical migrant songbirds with some travelers from Mexico, and a lot of alligators. For information, call the refuge at (409) 267-3337 or 839-2680.

The nearest refuge to Galveston is Brazoria, located west of Galveston Island on County Road 227. The refuge was established in 1966 as a home for migrant waterfowl and other birds. This is primarily a nesting area for mottled ducks, but also offers views of roseate spoonbills, great blue herons, rails, and sandhill cranes (not the Mississippi sub-species). The refuge consists of 40,000 acres of salt and freshwater marsh, prairie lands, salt and mud flats, freshwater lakes, and one freshwater stream.

An open house is held the first full weekend of every month. During these weekends, visitors can drive along a tour route and walk birdwatching trails to observe wildlife along the coast. Fishing is permitted, and a fishing pier is available. Hunting is permitted in season. This refuge and its neighbor to the west (San Bernard) have a special significance in December. They lie within the Freeport Bird Count Circle (Freeport is a small town to the west of the refuge) which usually garners the highest numbers of birds spotted on Christmas Day in the nation. To get there, drive to the town of Angleton from Galveston via Interstate 45 and Texas Highways 6 and 35. Then take FM 523 south for four miles, cross the Highway 2004 intersection, and continue on FM 523 for 5.5 miles to County Road 227. Turn left and proceed 1.7 miles to the refuge gate. For information, call (409) 849-6062.

San Bernard Refuge, located southwest of Angleton, was established in 1968 and holds nearly 18,000 acres of the same kind of mixed marsh, mud flat, and prairie landscape as you'll find at Brazoria. This refuge includes a small grove of trees. It attracts more than 25,000 ducks and as many as 30,000 snow geese every year. The refuge is a haven for many species of migratory birds, with the greatest numbers arriving in April and May. A car tour runs through the refuge, and foot trails are provided for getting closer to the birds. Fishing is permitted, as is seasonal hunting.

The route to the refuge from Galveston involves driving on several country roads in an area with many small villages. From Galveston, drive to Lake Jackson, a community a few miles southwest of Angleton (see Brazoria Refuge, above), Turn onto FM 2004 and drive seven miles. At the intersection of Texas Highway 36 and FM 2611, take FM 2611 south for four miles to FM 2918. Turn left and drive one mile to County Road 306. Turn right and drive one mile to the refuge headquarters. For information, call the refuge at (409) 849-6062.

The smaller Big Boggy National Wildlife Reserve, near the little town of Wadsworth, is closed to the public, except for hunting purposes. A notable feature (for boaters only) is Dressing Island -- part of the reserve -- one of the major rookeries for colonial nesting birds on the Texas Gulf Coast.

Bryan Beach State Recreation Area

The Brazoria and San Bernard wildlife refuges are located in the area known as Brazosport. This is not a city, but a collection of small towns on or near the coast near the mouth of the Brazos River. These towns include Lake Jackson, and the beach communities of Quintana and Surfside. This is an area rich in Texas history. Stephen F. Austin and his colonists arrived on the Gulf Coast at Brazoria, and an important skirmish in the war with Mexico took place here -- the Battle of Velasco, in 1832, four years before the assault on the Alamo. It is also the place where General Santa Ana was brought to sign the peace treaty with Texas, and where the first provisional government of Texas sat. This is a prime fishing area, and a magnet for sport anglers, as well as the home of a large commercial fishing fleet. And be warned: it is also the home of a fast-growing petro-chemical establishment that stretches along the coast for nine miles.

However, there is a saving grace to the area, and it is Bryan Beach State Recreation Area. Located on an undeveloped 878-acre peninsula, bordered by the Intracoastal Waterway, the gulf, and the Brazos River, the park offers quiet locations for sunning and swimming, fishing, bird watching, and primitive camping. Getting there can be problematical. There is no road to the park. You must drive over the beach and your success will depend on the height of the tide. The most certain way to reach the park is by boat or canoe, although you can certainly drive when conditions are right. That's the kind of challenge that makes me want to visit a place. To get there (four-wheel-drive or a high clearance vehicle such as a pickup are recommended) take FM 1495 to its end at Bryan Beach, turn right and drive down the beach for about two miles. The park is open during daylight hours, with exceptions for campers. There is no entrance fee.

Sea Rim State Park

The only mainland state park along the whole of the Texas Gulf Coast, Sea Rim offers an environment that is a combination of Louisiana bayou, gulf beach shoreline, and a grassy salt marsh. With more than five miles of beach, and more than 15,000 acres of marshland, the park offers a wide range of habitats, with superb wildlife viewing. This is a genuine, marshy river delta, mostly left in its natural state before the land was purchased by the state from Planet Oil and Mineral Corporation in 1972. It was opened to the public in 1977.

Park activities include camping, wildlife viewing from blinds in the marsh (a great advantage for bird watchers) walking along the gulf beach, canoeing and kayaking, swimming, and fishing. Boat tours are offered during spring, summer, and fall. They are one hour long and must be reserved. Air boat tours are also available, also lasting one hour. Fees are charged.

The park is a wintering area for waterfowl, including migratory species. Other wildlife in the wetlands includes alligators, mink, nutria, muskrats, raccoons, rabbits, opossums, skunks, and the rare river otter. The waters of the marshes are home to white and brown shrimp, crabs, and a variety of sport fishes. Fishing is permitted from dawn to dusk.

Park facilities include a visitor center and Texas Park Store, campsites with water and electricity, two miles of primitive beach camping—one of the few places you can camp on a gulf beach; another is Perdido Key in Florida, and on South Padre Island—picnic tables, and restrooms (with and without showers), plus a dump station and boat ramp. A canoe trail leads through the marsh areas. Swimming is permitted only in the sandy beach area. In the marshlands, camping platforms and observation blinds are available for bird watching, photography, and fishing.

The park is located in Jefferson County, south of the city of Port Arthur, only a mile or two from the Louisiana border and Sabine Pass. To get there from Galveston, you can drive to Houston via Interstate 45, and take the loop freeway (Interstate 610) east to Interstate 10. Drive east on I-10 to the Winnie exit, turn south and turn onto Texas Highway 73, toward Port Arthur. Turn south onto Texas Highway 87 and drive to the park.

Another way to get to the park from Galveston (if you're not inclined to freeway travel) is by taking the free ferry to Port Bolivar, and then driving east on Texas Route 87 to High Island and Texas Route 124. Drive north on TX 124 until you get to Texas Highway 73 and drive east toward Port Arthur. Turn south onto TX 87 and drive to the park. TX 87 used to run across the length of the Bolivar Peninsula, but hurricane winds destroyed a section of the road. For information on the condition of this scenic stretch of road, or for general information, call the park office at 409-971-2559.

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