January 1 – 23, 2020.
Sometime this past summer I found out that you could camp on the National Seashore beach at Padre Island in Texas for free for 14 days (*free if you have an America the Beautiful pass or for the cost of the entry fee to the park if you don’t). We weren’t planning to go that way at first but then all of our plans changed when we had van trouble and ended up in an entirely different location than we had planned at the beginning of November. I love traveling the borders of things – especially the water, so I conjured up a new trip following the Gulf Coast from Caravelle, Florida to New Orleans with my ultimate goal being Padre Island for relaxing in the sun and listening to the roar of the surf for 14 lovely days.
While I was contemplating our trip to Padre when we were house sitting in New Orleans I discovered that Padre Island wasn’t the only beach along the Gulf Coast where there was free camping. Actually there were quite a number of beaches that allowed camping for free or for the purchase of an inexpensive permit – and a few in Louisiana too!
Now I was planning a leisurely journey down the coast beach hopping. In order to help us on our beach adventure, I created a map with all of the possible beaches (and a few bay spots directly on the water) where we could roll up onto the sand and spend a few days. I’m sharing it here with the hope that you might find this guide helpful.
It all seemed like such a good idea. But then we realized that perhaps winter wasn’t the best time for such a trip. It was rainy, foggy, and often cold. On the plus side, the beaches weren’t too crowded. Let see where we went.
Our first stop was a free beach in Louisiana. The sand was too soft for us to drive on but there was a road that ran behind the sand dune where most people parked. There was also a small paved lot that was available for parking. We didn’t spend much time on the actual beach here because of the cold and gloomy skies. But we did meet some nice people traveling in an RV who invited us in for drinks.
Most of the beaches on Bolivar Island in Texas are permit beaches. The permit is only $10 and is good for the entire year. Although there are free beach areas on Bolivar Island we had intended to purchase the permit. What I didn’t realize until it was too late was that during January and February permits are only $5 but they are only available for purchase Thursday through Sunday. We were arriving on a Monday so we just opted for one of the free beaches.
We cruised the island checking out the free locations. At the north end of the island the beaches were narrow and very close to the highway – not the choicest beaches. But farther down island we turned on to a long street to arrive at Bolivar Flats. To the right was a permit beach and to the left was the free beach – no difference between them except that the free beach was more crowded.
Galveston-Port Bolivar Ferry
There are 3 free (and practically free) ferry crossings along this part of the Gulf Coast (see map). Not only do you not have to drive a long way out of your way to get to the next island – you get to ride on a boat and in your rig at the same time!
From Bolivar Flats, we ended up at Haterius Park. This park is not on the beach but rather on Keller Bay. We were heading just a tad bit farther south to Magnolia Beach but I found this site on iOverlander as we were on our way. Because this site was not as far as Magnolia Beach but still far enough from the tornado winds and because I knew nothing about it we decided to stop.
It was a nice park with a playground, a boat landing, and a big grassy field. A sign told us that free camping was allowed for 5 days. A few other rigs showed up just around sundown. It seemed like a great location until the wee dark hours of the morning when the fishermen started showing up. The sounds of trucks pulling up in the parking lot probably wouldn’t have been too bad if one truck hadn’t decided that parking right next to us and idling very loudly for 15 minutes was a good idea.
When the sun came up we saw 10 trucks with boat trailers parked in the lot. I wouldn’t recommend this location on a weekend – even if the weather is going to be bad.
Matagorda Jetty Park
After the storm passed we decided to head back north and hit some of the places we missed. There was a kayaking trail I wanted to paddle near on East Matagorda Bay near Matagorda Beach (more about this in the next post).
Matagorda beach is a permit beach ($10 for 72 hours) but it is a soft beach and not good for us driving our 2WD rig. But according to the website for the beach, we could camp free at Jetty Park next to the beach for 72 hours. When we arrived we found a sign that said that we could only camp for 24 hours. I chose to believe the website since it is much easier to update something online than a sign. We spent two nights here – no problem.
Continuing north we stopped at Follett’s Island in Free Port, Texas. We spent a free night of beach camping here on our way to Houston to do some museuming (another upcoming post). We scouted out several spots going north on the beach before landing on this one. Not much else to say here as it turned foggy overnight and we left in the morning.
After Houston, we started heading south again and finally made it to Magnolia Beach. I think almost everyone we talked to along the Gulf Coast mentioned this beach. It is not on the Gulf but rather on Lavaca Bay southwest across the water from where we stayed at Haterius Park. There is no sand here, the “beach” is covered with crushed shells. I think the attraction to this location is that it is not only free but developed. There are regular bathrooms, an outdoor rinse shower, and indoor hot showers (closed during the winter). This beach gets so busy a sign asks people to park perpendicular to the water to allow room for as many rigs as possible. We spent 3 days here.
Port Aransas was the only beach we camped on that had a commercial family vacation feel to it. The town is full of convenience stores and beach shops. There are big hotels. RV parks pack them in so tight motorhome slideouts nearly touch. And the beach is full of life – campers, day-trippers, couples strolling, bicycles. birds, and kids playing in the sand.
This was the only permit beach we stayed at. For $12 we bought a yearly permit that allows us to camp for 3 nights on the beach in any 3 week period. We only stayed for 2 nights.
The irony of this whole trip was that we didn’t camp on the beach in Padre Island. We had talked to many other campers on our way down the coast who told us that the beach on Padre Island was narrow and that when the tide was high it came too far ashore. There are two beaches available for camping as part of the Padre Island National Seashore. You arrive at the first, North Beach, before you actually enter the park (you don’t have to pay the park entrance fee to access this beach). We drove down to it to check it out. It did look narrow and the few rigs camped on there were parked as close to the sand dunes as they could get.
After entering the park we checked out South Beach. This beach is about 60 miles long but only the first 5 miles from the north are available for 2WD vehicles. As we later learned, you don’t want to drive past this 5-mile mark in a 2WD rig unless you have an extra 3 to 10 thousand dollars laying around for an inevitable tow.
The beach also looked narrow here. Hightide wouldn’t come until late afternoon and since we wanted to make sure we had a place to stay we ditched our beach plan and went to one of the pay campsites in the park. I don’t include either of these campsites on my map since they are neither free or what I consider super cheap.
We spent our first night on the island beachside at the $12 Malaquite Campground. Perched atop a sand dune, there were a lot of rigs in sites that were very close together. The weather was gloomy and when we woke up the next morning almost every RV was running their generator. We decided to switch to the Bird Island Basin campsite on the bayside.
There were much fewer people camped at Bird Island Basin, which meant fewer generators, and the cost was only $8. We also had a great view of the bay and of lots of wildlife.
The irony of our irony was that the next week after our trip to Padre Island we met a tent camper who had visited the island the same time we did. He told us the tide wasn’t an issue at all.
Have you ever camped on the beach or do you have a favorite beach? Tell us about it in the comments. We’d love to read any comment you have about this post! If you have a WordPress account, you can press the “like” button below and let us know you enjoyed our little tour of Gulf Coast beaches!