Day Trips

Boca Chica Beach might be the most unspoiled public beach on the Texas coast

Boca Chica Beach
Boca Chica Beach (Photo By Gerald E. McLeod)

Boca Chica Beach might be the most unspoiled public beach on the Texas coast. At the southern tip of the state map, this is the kind of place you only divulge to your best friends.

The khaki-colored beach stretches about 10 miles from the mouth of the Rio Grande (when it makes it this far) to the end of Brazos Island and its view of the hotel towers of South Padre Island. The two recreation areas couldn't be more different, even though only a narrow channel of sea water separates them. But that is the dichotomy of the Lower Rio Grande Valley. For 100 miles from Roma to Brownsville, U.S. 83 is Main Street for a long list of towns. The highway is lined with national franchise stores and restaurants beginning in McAllen and extending to the international bridge in Brownsville. The old downtowns are left to the beauty shops and antique dealers.

Sometimes called the Riviera of Texas, South Padre Island is a world of T-shirt shops, restaurants, condos, and high-rise hotels. You have to drive nearly 10 miles north on the island to find unfettered beaches. It is hard to begrudge the locals for this enclave of tourists and winter Texans. The taxes support one of the richest school districts in the southern part of the state.

Once you get away from the major roads and tourist districts, pockets of the "old valley" remain. Head east from downtown Brownsville on TX 4, and it doesn't take long before houses replace Walgreens, fields replace houses, and then tidal flats replace the fields until you reach the rhythmic waves of the Gulf of Mexico.

Like a pearl necklace, 24 state and federal land parcels in the Lower Rio Grande Valley string together pockets of protected wildlife areas. If Bentsen State Park in Mission is the crown jewel of the refuges, then Boca Chica State Park is the hidden jewel.

The 1,054 acres of undeveloped coastal wetlands and beach area are owned by the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department, which is pursuing a lease-purchase agreement with the feds, the owners of the nearby 45,000-acre Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge.

As TX 4 leaves the city, it turns into a narrow country road lined with yuccas and prickly pear cacti only a few feet above the bare flats that disappear under sea water during high tide. During low tide, the muddy wastelands are occasionally scarred by tire tracks of some unseen vehicle headed toward the water. In the distance, the towers on Padre Island rise out of the water.

It's hard to imagine that the landscape was once part of a large cattle ranch. This inhospitable land was also the gateway to Texas for two invading armies. In 1846, in the opening days of the Mexican War, Gen. Zachary Taylor established his headquarters and a supply fort at the north end of the 217-acre Brazos Island, which is more of a 7-mile-long peninsula except cut off from the mainland during high tide.

During the Civil War, the fort was occupied by Union soldiers while the Confederates held Brownsville, some 20 miles up the Rio Grande. More than a month after Gen. Robert E. Lee's surrender, the southerners steadfastly held the city. On May 13, 1865, the Union forces moved across Palmito Ranch along the cart path that became TX 4 only to be repelled by the Confederates in the last land battle of the Civil War. The fort disappeared in a hurricane in 1867.

As the highway nears the beach it passes Boca Chica Village, a tackle shop and convenience store. The road goes through a divide in the tall dunes and then disappears under the soft sand with the blue waves rolling onto the beach. A half dozen RVs are parked at the entrance, but no other structures are in sight, not even the towers of South Padre Island. You have the beach to yourself, with the exception of a few fishermen, a couple of beachcombers, and the wooden skeleton of a boat sticking out of the sand. There is no admission fee, nor any services on the beach, just miles of empty sand and water.

827th in a series. Day Trips, Vol. 2, a book of "Day Trips" 101-200, is available for $8.95, plus $3.05 for shipping, handling, and tax. Mail to: Day Trips, PO Box 33284, South Austin, TX 78704.

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Boca Chica Beach, South Padre Island, Texas Parks & Wildlife Department

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