One island, two halves and many differing aspects: The northern and the southern half of Padre Island in the Gulf of Mexico off the Texan coast couldn’t be more different. The northern half is covered almost entirely by one of the most important nature and coastal protection areas of the USA, while the southern half has a tourist character and is a popular Spring Break destination for thousands of party-seeking students.
The world’s largest barrier island has a total length of 210 kilometers and a maximum width of 2.6 kilometers. It has been named after the founder of the Spanish mission in Cameron County, Padre José Nicolás Balli.
In 1964, the island was artificially halved in order to give the coastal communities on the mainland access to the ocean. The island stretches all the way from Corpus Christi in the north down to the Mexican border. In the south, the uninhabited Brazos Island lies adjacent to Padre Island; in the north, there is a road connection to Mustang Island and a bridge leading to Corpus Christi. Geological research has shown that the whole island developed out of a sandbank some 4500 years ago. The southern half is still constantly being changed by the forces of erosion and at the same time, is very slowly drifting towards the mainland.
North Padre Island today is, thanks to its status as a protected seashore, in large parts an untouched habitat. Since the beginning of the 19th century, the island was almost uninhabited, used almost exclusively for Padre Balli’s ranch. An exception is the timespan between the Second World War and 1960, when a small area on the island was used to conduct bombing tests. However, structures or other visible reminders of the past can hardly be found - as far as the eyes can see, North Padre Island is an island in its natural state.
Among the various habitats on the island and around are prairie, grassland, marshland, dunes and most notably the Laguna Madre, the shallow body of water between the barrier isalnd and the mainland. Birders especially get their money’s worth, as some 380 different species can be watched here in the course of one year - that’s about half of all bird species known in North America. Many of these come here as migratory birds travelling further south, others spend the winters here. Next to frogs, toads and some mammals like rabbits, raccoons, coyotes or gophers, many visitors focus their attention on sea turtles. Five different species are known to the island, for example the species Kemp’s Ridley. Other reptiles like snakes, lizards, tortoises or salamanders also live on North Padre Island. In addition, some 150 different species of fish have been documented, with some shark species being among those. With regard to the flora, some wild flowers and fungus are notable.
Despite these intact, natural habitats, it is permitted to drive on the island’s beach by car, which is something most visitors of the National Seashore do. However, this activity is mostly limited to a comparatively small area around the entrance area. As there is no road leading off the island in the south, it gets more quiet the more southward one moves. Within the National Seashore area, there are five campgrounds for which no advance reservations can be made. There are no hotels on North Padre Island, also no restaurants or gas stations. An alternative is exploring the island by foot or bike. The Park Rangers regularly offer informational events like guided walks. The Visitor Center is located at Park Road 22 and is open daily from 9 am to 5 pm, the Park itself is accessible around the clock.