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17 FUN Tips for Visiting South Padre Island, TX

17 FUN Tips for Visiting South Padre Island, TX

Whether you’re a photographer, nature lover, birder, kite flier or simply like us in search of warm weather and sunshine during the winter, South Padre Island is a great place to start.  During our month here, we’ve been introduced to several new species of birds, found where the Rio Grande meets the Gulf of Mexico (the US/Mexico border), flew our stunt kite on wide deserted sandy beaches, collected shells, lazed at the swimming pool, discovered a polo match (yes, with horses) and generally had a month different than most January’s in our lives.

SPI Birding Center

The SPI Birding Center is billed as the Rio Grande Valley’s premier location for birdwatching. Wander the boardwalks, spot birds from the five bird blinds, enjoy the wildlife, take a bird tour or climb the 4 story observation tower for a spectacular island view.  With over 600 different species of birds and alligators and other wildlife, you’re sure to see something.  The $5 entrance fee also covers a birding tour – we learned more in that hour with Robert than we could have possibly learned otherwise.  There’s also a nature center and gift shop to be enjoyed.

W.O.W.E. & The Raptor Project

The Winter Outdoor and Wildlife Expo at the SPI Birding Center brings in speakers and presentations from all over the Rio Grande Valley.  Held annually in late January, presentations from everyone from the Texas Rangers, to local fly & surf fishermen and, of course, Birding experts.  You can find the schedule and dates here (although 2018 probably won’t be updated for a bit).  If you get a chance The Raptor Project by Jonathan Wood is AMAZING!  In their own description: The Raptor Project presentation features an extraordinary array of eagles, hawks, falcons and owls that have won the rapt attention of enthralled audiences throughout the nation. Presenting almost 1000 educational programs to over 10 million people annually, The Raptor Project leads the way in outstanding, top quality, professional wildlife education.  All for the $5 entrance fee at The Birding Center.

Laguna Madre Nature Trail 

The Laguna Madre Nature Trail is a birding delight.  The boardwalk begins in back of the Convention Center (close to the Whaling Wall Paintings).  It meanders through the same general territory that the SPI Birding Center boardwalk covers, except someone told us it’s primarily salt water and the Birding Center has both salt and freshwater.  Supposedly different birds, although we saw many the same.   FREE!  But free comes with strings, of course.  The boardwalk is not as well maintained as the SPI Birding Center and there are no free guided birding walks, but hey, it’s FREE and worth a look.  We saw our first Reddish Egret on the Laguna Madre Nature Trail.  FREE.

SPI Farmers Market

The SPI Farmers Market is small, but I always love exploring farmer’s markets.  South Padre Island’s VERY FIRST Farmer’s Market is OPEN!!!  Open every Sunday from 11am-1pm located just north of the convention center at the Shores 8605 Padre Blvd. Find local vendors with the freshest produce, eggs & seafood.  FREE.

SPI Polo/SPI Stables – Enjoy a Horseback Ride on the Beach

Imagine our surprise headed to the Sunday morning farmer’s market, to find a rousing polo (yes as in horses and riders) match en progress.  David & I have never had the privilege of seeing a polo match in person.  It was fun to watch and photograph.  SPI Polo is based out of the SPI Stables where you can enjoy a horseback ride down the beach.  The website also has the polo schedule.  FREE to watch unless you want to pay for seats beside the court $7 (and the responsibility to stomp the divets).

The End of the Road

The end of the road is exactly as it sounds.  Driving the one main street on South Padre Island north until it ends a few miles past the convention center.  You may see a front end loader pretending to be a snowplow hard at work keeping the road open from the drifting sand.  You’ll know when you’ve reached “The End of the Road” by the roadblock.  Pull off the side of the road to park (hopefully on clear pavement) and make your way across the sand dunes to the beach where you’ll find more shells than in the more inhabited parts of the island.  On a weekend you’ll encounter people, but through the week (at least in January), we had the beach almost to ourselves.  If you’re a surf fisherperson, take turnoff #5 or #6, hang a left and pick your spot.  The fishing must be OK since several folks on the island seem to be enamored.  BTW, we noticed that #5 has a more solid sand entry to the beach than #6, so in the interest of not getting stuck, you may want to take #5 and drive a bit farther on the beach if you want to go farther. FREE.

Beachcombing, Shell Collecting & Surf Fishing

There are more shells at the far end of the island than in the main hotel/condo area, so go beachcombing at The End of the Road!  We’re not surf fisherpeople, but it appears to be a popular sport and the beaches off Boca Chica or at The End of the Road are perfect, as is the Jetty in Cameron County Park at the far south end of the island.  FREE.

Watch Ships Come in the Jetty 

Get a free ship AIS app on your phone and check every morning to see if there are any ships coming in and their expected time.  We used VesselFinder which didn’t always get it right, but it sure helped.  When ships are coming in the jetty, we loved going over, sitting on the jetty to watch.  One day we got to watch the pilot boat too, although I never did spot the pilot climbing down the ladder from the ship to the pilot boat.  FREE if you walk or bike in, $10/car to drive into the county park.  (Or buy a $25 month long entrance pass to all Cameron County Parks, as we did – well worth the price for us. Buy the pass at the Cameron County Park RV registration building – just past the entrance to the KOA on the right side as you come off the causeway)

Finding Boca Chica State Park.

Despite descriptions on TripAdvisor and Google, we could not find Boca Chica State Park during our first exploration.  Our GPS took us to another “End of the Road” – where TX4 ends directly at the Boca Chica Beach.  We were hoping to find the Rio Grande delta – where the Rio Grande intersects with the Gulf Of Mexico, which we understand is a “bit down the beach” to the right of where it T’s.    We walked a bit over a half mile and then gave up since we had no idea how far “a bit down the beach” might be.

On the return trip, we passed a former fishing access road off of TX4 in the National Wildlife Preserve, parked the truck and walked back and finally found the Rio Grande as it meanders toward the Texas Coastline.  So we did find it, we just didn’t find the Rio Grande Delta we were seeking … another day!

Driving on the Beach

I hate vehicles driving on the beach.  Have hated the practice ever since we first experienced it in the Outer Banks, NC.  On the other hand, when David suggested we drive the three miles down the beach over at Boca Chica to find the Rio Grande river delta, I acquiesced.  I must admit, it was fun.  Lots of folks must agree, particularly the surf fisherfolks.  If you go, make sure you know the tide tables – don’t want to get caught on the “other side of high tide”!

Finding the Rio Grande Delta Into the Gulf of Mexico!

Since we weren’t sure how far it would be to hike to the Rio Grande Delta from where TX4 dead ended into Boca Chica Beach, we opted to drive.  It’s a bit over 3 miles to the right.  The river empties into the Gulf of Mexico.  We understand at low low tide you can wade across to Mexico, but we didn’t have our passports and didn’t want to attempt it.  BTW, no wall there yet.

Dolphin Cruise

You don’t have to go on a dolphin cruise to see dolphins in South Padre Island.  Hang out at the end of any pier (or jetty) and watch.  You’ll likely see them.  On the other hand, if, like us, you just want a morning (or afternoon) out on the water on a glorious day, by all means sign up for a dolphin cruise.  Our recommendation is the Dolphin Sea Life Center “cruise” – actually a 6 passenger pontoon boat with either Captains Scarlett or George (her husband).  It ranks #1 of 65 things to do in Trip Advisors South Padre Island list.  Scarlett and George are high energy fun people who know the bay and, more importantly, know dolphin behavior.  The combination makes for a highly entertaining and educational experience.  You’ll meet them at the Sea Life Center – just over the bridge in Port Isabel (across from the lighthouse).  The Sea Life Center itself is minimal but the pontoon boat ride is a highlight!

Historic Port Of Brownsville Boat Tour

Did you know Brownsville is the giant ship recycling center of the country? We didn’t have a clue, but we do now!

Absolutely the best way of of touring the historic port is the Breakaway Cruises Historic Port of Brownsville Tour, a 4 hour tour watching the sad sight of decommissioned US Navy ships being dismantled and recycled,  viewing cargo ships loading and unloading, and seeing oil rigs being repaired.  When we were there, there were three US aircraft carriers, including the USS Constellation and Saratoga, being cut apart with blow torches.  Other highlights included seeing the dolphins frolicking in the boat’s wake as well as a “shrimp boil” feast of fresh Texas Gold Shrimp cooked on board AND complimentary beer, soft drinks and water.  Did I mention FREE ICE COLD BEER???  🙂

Sunset on the Laguna Madre

There are many places to watch spectacular sunsets over Laguna Madre (the bay side of South Padre Island).  We enjoyed fajita night at Louie’s Backyard.  $7 for shrimp, chicken or beef fajitas and $2.75 for margaritas.  Check the local freebie newspapers for the current schedule, pick a night for sunset (preferably with a few clouds but not alot of cloud cover) and enjoy!

SPI Causeway Walk

Don’t miss your chance to walk across the beautiful Queen Isabella Causeway over Laguna Madre – two 5K fitness walks/10K runs are scheduled annually in January and June.  If you’re on SPI during the walk, be sure to sign up at the Port Isabel Chamber of Commerce or online.  It’s your chance to walk across the almost 3 mile causeway bridge connecting mainland Texas to South Padre Island … and it only comes twice a year.  The 5K fitness walk is not a timed 5K so anyone can do it & have fun.

Let’s Go Fly a Kite!

We love flying our Beetle stunt kite, but because we’re not exactly in control of the dual line stunt kite, we need LARGE open areas where we’re not endangering anyone else or entangling the kite in trees or worse.  The beaches off the north end of South Padre Island are perfect (see The End of the Road).  There’s also a kite specific area just north of the Convention Center where you’ll see dozens of kites being flown on the bay side flats.  It’s also the location for Kite Fest, should you happen to be so lucky to be on South Padre in early February.

Kite Fest 2017

Speaking of kites!  SPI Kite Fest is a kite flying festival that brings in professional kite fliers from all over the US.  Amazing stunts and syncronized flying to music with fliers as young as 17 and as old as … methusala.  🙂  Plus locals and others, all flying kites at the same time – good thing it’s a large area (just north of the Convention Center on the bay side) or all those lines would end up in a tangled knot! It’s a couple days of nonstop kite entertainment – bring your lawn chair, sit back and enjoy!  Did I mention it’s FREE????   🙂

Sandcastle Trail

South Padre Island claims to be the Sandcastle Capital of the Universe! ​About 30 sandcastles, some truly works of art, are being maintained at different locations around the island, from the Visitors Center to various businesses… one of my favorites was at an Irish Pub.  The Sandcastle Trail even has a Facebook Page … click here.

Are there MORE fun things to do on South Padre Island?  What did I miss?  Please leave a comment and let us know!  Cheers!  Jan

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    4 Comments

  1. Fascinating ideas
    You missed out quite a few things but it sounds like you were looking for free things to do
    thats fine
    but for a great time when you are at KOA you should try the islands newest resource
    http://www.southpadre1.com which helps you find the best people who run activities and attractions on South Padre Island and Port Isabel

    We built this resource to help people find better things to do that are listed on other city sites. We have found them to be less than exciting and we are trying to get more people to travel to our unique little tropical tip of Texas.
    Listing empty county parks and the beach and shells and..well you get the idea – there are plenty of exciting vibrant family activities you can find with our new site
    congrats on finding out that isla Blanca is less than attractive and i will be reading your report on Los Fresnos with interest as i live down the road but South padre island and Port Isabel have lots of great things to do which make your family vacation worth repeating
    We know people have limited or fixed incomes in the RV community but we encourage them to try the best not just free
    thanks for the review and if you want to write about the best give us a call
    oh and btw – B&SKites are one of the best businesses on SPI and Kitefest is probably one of the best run events in the RGV

  2. Hi, where did you stay for a month and do you use the weekly rates?
    Looking forward to when we can have the time to go on long trips like this. I would love to go down to South Padre. Did you get to Austin TX too? We love Texas and want to spend some of the winter down their in the future. Great Pictures! And thank you for informing us on the FREE!

    • Hi Susan! We stayed at the South Padre KOA – there are essentially 3 places to have an RV – KOA, Isla Blanca Park & Andy Bowie Park. We booked a month rate. The latter 2 are Cameron County Parks. Isla Blanca is OK, it’s HUGE and at the very south end. Difficult to get a reservation, book way in advance and rethink the idea if you don’t use your own shower – we peeked at the shower houses and for me, they’re much less than desirable. Andy Bowie Park is a parking lot, but over the dunes to the beach. I’m writing a campground review on the KOA for this coming Sunday so stay tuned! It’s also possible to stay off island and drive over – half or less the rate and an easy drive to spend the day at the beach. We just moved to Los Fresnos on the mainland – about 19 miles from South Padre & I’ll be writing a blog post on why and what we’re doing here – as well as a campground review, soon. 🙂 Please feel free to ask any more questions! Cheers! Jan

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