Padre Island cranes

Photo above: Sandhill cranes in winter at Padre Island National Seashore. Right: A Kemp's Ridley sea turtle in spring. Source: National Park Service.

Padre Island National Seashore

Padre Island National Seashore

Yes, this is a park where nature takes the lead, where history, which it has plenty, has almost receded from view, with the exception of a ranch you rarely see. Today, there are beaches here that stretch for sixty miles and places to camp right on the shore instead of a working ranch. There are sea turtles that come back to lay their eggs, then hatch, and waddle to shore. It's about as pristine a Gulf of Mexico scene as you can witness, almost as if you've gone back in time before man made ... anything. Well, there is a visitor center and bathrooms and even showers at one of the campgrounds, so we might be taking that a bit too far. You get the drift, and here, that means sand, fun, sun, and the gulf.

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Padre Island National Seashore

Padre Island Then

Novillo Line Camp - Over three quarters of the island was a ranching operation operated by Pat Dunn from 1879 until 1937. He moved down to South Padre from Corpus Christi and built three line camps fifteen miles apart on the island with an initial herd of four hundred. It was a ranch that needed few fences, due to the natural water boundaries, except for the south boundary near Mansfield Channel. Novillo was the northernmost camp, followed by Black Hill and Green Hill.

Wreck of the 300 - On April 9, 1554, four Spanish ships left Veracruz, Mexico, for home, but only one made it past Padre Island. On April 29, a storm hit, and three ships, the San Esteban, Espiritu Santo, and Santa Maria de Yciar ran aground on the sand bars. Three hundred and the four hundred people on the voyage died. Of the survivors who made it off the ship, more hardships were to come. The local Karankawa Indians offered food as assistance, then attacked them. When news of the shipwrecks reached Spain, a salvage mission was sent. There had been $9.8 million worth of treasure on those ships. Over thirty-five thousand pounds of treasure were found, but fifty-one thousand still waits at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico. Modern salvage efforts began in the 1960s.

Photo above: Existing buildings of the Novillo Line Camp ranch. Courtesy National Park Service. Below: Sand dunes reaching toward the Gulf of Mexico at Padre Island National Seashore. Courtesy National Park Service.

Dunes at Padre Island

Padre Island Now

It's not far from Corpus Christi, and no, it's not the South Padre Island known more for Spring Break. This is North Padre Island and a shoreline so long and wonderful, you'll spend countless hours just wandering up and down it. Too far south and you'll need your feet or a four wheel drive vehicle. At one time, Father Jose Nicolas Balli', i.e. Padre Balli' and the name, owned the island, served as missionary priest, and finance director of the missions in the entire Rio Grande Valley. The land had been granted to his grandfather in 1759 by the King. He would ranch it and that legacy would continue after he was gone.

Today, you'll be entering the park from the north where the Malaquite Visitor Center sits around Milepost 0, not far from one of the legacy ranches. It's actually a bit inside the actual entrance, but this is the area most people focus around. For the majority, it's the beach that brings them for fishing, sunbathing, and water activities. For some, it's those sea turtles and being there at the perfect time the hatchlings hatch and make their way to the water. No matter why you come, you'll marvel at the vistas over the Gulf of Mexico, or for some, that marsh water on the Gulf Intercoatal Waterway side, Laguna Madre, that has all those birds.

Very little of the past can be seen in the park. Yes, the Novillo Line Camp is there, but not open for visitation. Those shipwrecks still sit in the water, but not viewable for the regular public. Now the pleasures of the park go further back to the beach, Gulf of Mexico, the variety of birds that wade through the estuary and marshes and take flight in flock. And the Kemp's ridley sea turtle, one of five species that ply the Gulf of Mexico, have become one of its stars. They are the smallest of the gulf sea turtles, on average around 25 inches long as adults. They come ashore every two years to lay eggs; each female can lay hundreds of eggs in one season.

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Thousands of birds at Padre Island

Padre Island

Things You Should Not Miss

1. Watch a Hatchling Release. These are sporadic releases between June and October, 6:45 a.m., and usually located in front of the Malaquite Visitor Center. There is no schedule; they occur when the nests hatch. If you want to know more, call the Hatchling Hotline 361-949-7163.

2. Camp on the beach. The entire south beach, needing a Four Wheel Vehicle, or walk-in, is open to primitive camping. The other campgrounds, most near the north entrance station and Visitor Center, have more amenities, but are just as close to all that nature.

3. Orient yourself to the park by visiting the Malaquite Visitor Center and take in a ranger guided tour by walking the beach or talk on the observation deck, if available.

Photo above: An estimated three hundred and seventy-three thousand western sandpipers taking flight on Laguna Madre. Source: National Park Service.

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