Texas is a land of big things, known for its world-renowned BBQ and cowboy culture. But when it comes to islands and beaches, people don’t think of Texas that much. But Texas has them – after all, the Lone Star State is on the Gulf of Mexico.
Texas is home to several islands, including seven major barrier islands, which are long, narrow strips of land that protect the mainland from storms and erosion. The Texas barrier islands are home to a variety of ecosystems, including beaches, dunes, marshes, and forests. They also serve as important habitats for a variety of wildlife, such as sea turtles, dolphins, pelicans, and shorebirds – which are all fascinating to see in person. Like other islands, Texas islands are also popular tourist destinations, offering a variety of activities, such as swimming, sunbathing, fishing, bird watching, and camping.
Though you’ve probably heard of Galveston and South Padre Islands, there are also a few lesser-known islands that are worthy of a visit. Here are some of the largest islands in Texas:
Padre Island (113 miles)
Padre Island, renowned across Texas for its pristine turquoise waters and glistening white sands, holds the distinction of being the world’s longest barrier island.
Spanning a staggering 113 miles, Padre Island is not only the largest island in Texas but also the largest barrier island worldwide. It is flanked by Corpus Christi and Padre Island National Seashore to the north and vibrant beach bars and thrilling theme park rides to the south. As expected from an island surpassing the size of Delaware, Padre Island boasts an extensive range of attractions. This haven caters to all tastes, featuring everything from urban excursions to unspoiled tranquility and preserved natural areas.
This expansive island offers a multitude of activities, ranging from the exhilarating Schlitterbahn Water Park to leisurely beach days and thrilling water sports. Additionally, if you happen to visit at the right time, you may have the extraordinary opportunity to witness the enchanting spectacle of Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle hatchlings, an exceedingly rare species of sea turtle.
Padre Island is divided into North Padre Island and South Padre Island by the Port Mansfield Channel.
North Padre Island
North Padre Island begins with Corpus Christi, the region’s most populous area. Here, you can immerse yourself in captivating sights, such as the Selena Museum, the Texas State Aquarium, beachside breweries, and guided tours aboard the USS Lexington. North Padre Island is also home to Padre Island National Seashore, a national park encompassing the world’s longest stretch of undeveloped barrier island. There are also five camping areas on North Padre Island, with over 1,000 campsites available.
This remarkable 66-mile park serves as a sanctuary for sea turtles and hundreds of bird species. It offers excellent opportunities for fishing, kayaking, windsurfing, and primitive tent camping amidst the sandy landscapes. It stands as a testament to the saying, “everything’s bigger in Texas.”
South Padre Island
South Padre Island is known equally as a collegiate spring break destination and as a family-friendly getaway. Accessing the island is convenient via State Highway 100, which connects it to the mainland city of Port Isabel. It is home to a variety of hotels, resorts, carnival rides, and beach bars. You can also find an enormous water park and Gravity Park, a theme park with thrilling attractions, like the tallest reverse bungee in the world. There are also many things to do on South Padre Island, including fishing, kayaking, standup paddleboarding, and windsurfing.
The sea turtle hatchling release is a popular event that takes place from mid-June to August. This is when sea turtles hatch from their eggs and make their way to the ocean. The Malaquite Visitor Center offers programs that teach visitors about sea turtles and the importance of their conservation.
Galveston Island (27 miles)
Galveston Island is a bustling destination perfect for families seeking sun, sand, and fun. Situated as the northernmost barrier island, it attracts more than 7 million visitors annually, making it the most popular island in Texas. Its appeal as a summertime beach destination for Texans can largely be attributed to its proximity to Houston. While it may have a somewhat campy reputation due to attractions like the eccentric mini-golf courses, vibrant sea turtle statues, and a pyramid-shaped aquarium reminiscent of Atlantic City, Galveston offers much more.
In addition to the beach, kids will delight in visiting Moody Gardens, an entertainment complex that features an aquarium, a rainforest, and a discovery center. You can also visit the Schlitterbahn (the world’s first “convertible waterpark”), and Pleasure Pier, featuring an array of thrilling carnival rides perched over the water.
This barrier island seamlessly blends historic mansions with waterfront fun. Spanning 27 miles, the island boasts a unique charm characterized by endearing kitsch, historic architecture, and captivating maritime history. With nicknames like “Playground of the South” and “Ellis Island of the West,” Galveston is undeniably intriguing. Families and couples alike can indulge in Galveston Island’s distinct architecture and mansion tours, engage in boating and beach relaxation, explore ecotourism options, and partake in dolphin and whale watching as well as museum visits.
If you are looking for some historical attractions, you can visit The Strand, Galveston’s historic bayside district, adorned with magnificent Victorian and Greek Revival architecture. This historic district is home to a variety of shops, restaurants, and art galleries. You can also visit the Grand 1894 Opera House, which is an ornate theater that is home to a variety of performances. Further south on the island, Jamaica Beach offers a tranquil respite from the bustling tourist hub, providing a serene sunbathing experience away from the shadows cast by the Galaxy Wheel.
Matagorda Island (38 miles)
Matagorda Island, the less-frequented neighbor of Galveston, is a remote island only accessible by boat. Spanning 56,688 acres of offshore barrier island and marshes along the bay, this island is an ideal spot for campers and adventurers who can take up the challenge of zero electricity or running water. Here, you can trade the conveniences of modern life for saltwater fishing, hunting (during the appropriate seasons), bird watching, and stargazing.
Outdoor enthusiasts and sporty types will find delight in exploring Matagorda Bay Nature Park. Take on the challenge of the numerous walking and hiking trails, work up a sweat, and then cool off by renting a kayak and immersing yourself in the refreshing waters.
The island is also home to several wildlife refuges, providing opportunities to encounter fascinating endangered animals you may have never seen before, including over 15 threatened or endangered species. Stargazing becomes a popular pastime as night falls thanks to the island’s remote location and minimal light pollution.
It’s worth noting that the beach on Matagorda Island is relatively primitive, so it’s essential to bring all necessary supplies and depart with all your trash. Additionally, if you plan to drive on the beach, make sure you have a four-wheel drive vehicle to avoid getting stuck in the sand.
San José Island (21 miles)
San José Island is equally as underdeveloped as Matagorda, but it’s easier to access. Situated across from Port Aransas, this privately-owned island is a must-visit for those seeking a unique experience. Most of the island is off-limits to the public, resulting in very few (if any) people present, making it an ideal spot for those craving solitude on the beach. The island offers miles and miles of pristine, untouched sandy shores to explore, and the water boasts remarkable clarity, ranking among the clearest in the state. Access to the barrier island is limited, except for the beach area.
Located just north of the populated Mustang Island, it can be reached via a ferry that shuttles visitors back and forth throughout the day. The island offers 21 miles of untouched beachfront, excellent fishing opportunities for redfish and trout (especially along the craggy edge of the North Jetty), and endless beachcombing adventures for seashell enthusiasts. Cars are prohibited on San Jose Island, which serves as a sanctuary for wildlife, both marine and terrestrial. As a result of its history as a former ranch, wild cattle roam freely, and it’s not uncommon to encounter them on the beach.
Despite its tranquil and unspoiled appearance, San Jose Island boasts a rich Texas history. It was the first location in Texas to fly the American flag on its soil when a lieutenant from the USS Alabama swam ashore and planted it in the sand in 1845. The island was home to a short-lived town called Aransas, which was destroyed by Union forces during the Civil War. In 1935, wealthy oil magnate Sid Richardson established an extensive ranch and estate on the island, where he entertained notable figures like President Franklin D. Roosevelt. While the estate no longer exists, there are rumors of buried treasure from the pirate Jean Lafitte being hidden on the island.
Jetty Boat provides round-trip ferry service from Fisherman’s Wharf in Port A for $12 per passenger. Remember to pack your own food, drinks, and any necessary supplies, as there are no facilities or amenities on the island. You can get cozy cottages for accommodation at nearby Port Aransas, in which waterfront neighborhoods are perfect for exploration, dining, and shopping. Additionally, it is crucial to maintain the pristine condition of this extraordinary beach by leaving no trace and cleaning up after yourself, as the island features one of Texas’ most special beaches.
Mustang Island (18 miles)
With its white sandy beaches, deep blue waters, and majestic green dunes. Mustang Island stands as one of the most stunning and scenic sections of publicly owned land on the Gulf Coast. This barrier island is teeming with wildlife, including migratory birds, white-tailed deer, sea turtles, armadillos, jackrabbits, and an impressive array of over 600 species of saltwater fish. The island offers a plethora of activities to engage in, such as kayaking, swimming, fishing, hiking, bird-watching, and the opportunity to spend the night camping in tents right on the beach.
Mustang Island draws visitors as a popular destination for spring break and summer vacations for various reasons. The beaches are exquisitely beautiful, the waters are abundant with colorful fish, and there is even a resort village that evokes a tropical paradise ambiance. In addition, each April, Port Aransas hosts the annual Sand Fest here, where talented sculptors create elaborate sandcastles to compete for prizes. And who knows, if luck is on your side, you might even stumble upon some buried treasure, as the area was once inhabited by pirates.
Although you may not discover buried treasure here, you will undoubtedly find treasures of a different kind, such as awe-inspiring sand sculptures, exhilarating jet ski adventures, and an abundance of shrimp and redfish to satisfy your seafood cravings.
Port Aransas, with a year-round population of around 3,000, surprises visitors with its vibrant atmosphere and delightful eccentricities. For instance, the Texas SandFest, a popular annual springtime event, offers carnival-style treats, live music, and impressive sand sculptures displayed right on the beach. It’s the perfect place to indulge in foot-long corn dogs and funnel cakes while marveling at intricately detailed giant sandcastles that rival actual fortresses.
Heading north on the island, Mustang Island stands out as one of the few beaches where you can drive your car directly onto the sand, making it convenient for avid fishermen. Additionally, you’ll find a plethora of seafood-centric restaurants further inland. Almost every establishment on the island offers top-tier fish and seafood, exemplified by Lisabella’s. This beachy-chic restaurant is nestled within the upscale community of Cinnamon Shore, named after the swirls of cinnamon-like patterns found on Port Aransas beaches. At Lisabella’s, you can enjoy on-trend espresso martinis alongside delectable dishes like cheesy baked oysters, pancetta-wrapped shrimp, and a delightful creation called Mermaid Soup, which combines lobster-coconut broth and shrimp in a flavorful curry medley, all while being assured that no mermaids were harmed in its making.
Camp on sandy shores or within protected forests, enjoy sun-soaked days on the water or immerse yourself in the island’s wildlife at museums and the local University of Texas Marine Science Institute. At the northern end of the island, you’ll discover Port Aransas, a lively hub brimming with shops, restaurants, and accommodations.
While these islands are clearly not big, these are worth checking out:
Follet’s Island (13 miles)
Follet’s Beach, encompassing a 13-mile stretch of publicly accessible shoreline between Surfside Beach and San Luis Pass, serves as a haven for visitors year-round. Whether fishing, swimming, or camping, visitors can relish the natural beauty and serenity this “free” beach offers. Public access entrances along Bluewater Highway, also known as County Road 257, provide entry to this picturesque destination.
In stark contrast to the bustling atmosphere of Galveston, Follet’s Island remains largely undeveloped, with only a scattering of remote beach houses that present an ideal rental option for introverts. The entire island serves as one vast beach, most of which exudes tranquility and openness, offering abundant opportunities for swimming, beach camping, fishing, and kayaking. As the beach remains largely undeveloped and open, visiting and camping are completely free of charge.
Additionally, horseback riding is permitted along the beach, further adding to the island’s allure. However, it’s crucial to remain mindful of the presence of sea turtles. If you happen to spot one, maintain a safe distance and promptly report sightings to local marine authorities by calling 1-866-TURTLE-5, as your actions contribute to their protection.
The island is only accessible by boat or kayak, and there are no hotels or restaurants on the island, so you will need to bring your own food and supplies. There is no electricity or running water on the island, so you will need to be self-sufficient. If you are looking for a unique and off-the-beaten-path destination, Follet’s Island is a great place to visit.
Brazos Island (4 miles)
Brazos Island is the smallest of the barrier islands off the coast of Texas. It is a tiny island, only four miles long and 217 acres in size. However, it is a popular destination for those who want to escape the hustle and bustle of city life and enjoy the peace and quiet of nature.
The island is located just north of the mouth of the Rio Grande, and it is a great place for swimming, fishing, bird watching, and dolphin spotting. There are also a few camping spots on the island if you want to stay overnight.
In recent years, Brazos Island has become a popular spot for SpaceX rocket launches. The company’s Boca Chica launch facility is located on the peninsula just south of the island, and visitors can often see the rockets being launched into space.
Pelican Island (2.8 miles)
Pelican Island is a small island located off the coast of Galveston, Texas, and is linked to the city by a bridge. It is home to Texas A&M University at Galveston, as well as two Navy warship memorials: the USS Stewart and the USS Cavalla. Both ships have been converted into museums and are open to the public as part of Seawolf Park. There are also various other preserved war artifacts at the park, making it a great place to learn about the history of the Navy.
In addition to its historical attractions, Pelican Island is also a popular spot for fishing, bird watching, and beaches. The island is home to various bird species, including pelicans, egrets, and herons. The beaches on Pelican Island are also a great place to relax and enjoy the sun.
If you are looking for a place to learn about history, enjoy the outdoors, or simply relax, Pelican Island is a great place to visit.