Here's Your Guide to Discovering Texas' Stunning Barrier Islands
These islands are like the Florida Keys of Texas.
When most folks think of Texas in the summertime, visions of barbecue and Lone Star-shaped swimming pools might come to mind—but how about dolphins, rocket launches, and sandcastles the size of actual castles? The state’s barrier islands might surprise you.
What the Keys are to Florida, the barrier islands are to Texas: A 234-mile string of islands that hug the Gulf of Mexico coast, made primarily of sand built up over thousands of years from tidal ebb and flow, ranging in size from four miles to the largest barrier island on Earth. There are seven main islands in total, and just like Snow White’s Seven Dwarfs, each one has a totally distinct personality, from the touristy trappings of Galveston to the utter solitude of San Jose.
No matter your summer beach vibe of choice, Texas’ barrier islands deliver. Want some R&R on a remote beach populated almost exclusively by seagulls? You got it. Want to go kayaking in a national park? That’s a distinct possibility. Want to eat foot-long corn dogs and “mermaid soup”? You can and you should—and rest assured no mermaids were harmed in the making of either of those delicacies. Here’s your guide to Texas’ barrier islands.
The northernmost barrier island, and by far the most popular with more than 7 million annual visitors, Galveston’s reputation as a summertime beach destination for Texans can largely be chalked up to its proximity to nearby-ish Houston. Although it has somewhat of a campy reputation thanks to its Pleasure Pier boardwalk, eccentric mini golf courses, sea turtle statues in Lisa Frank colors, and pyramid-shaped aquarium, giving it sort of an Atlantic City of the South aesthetic, Galveston actually has a lot going for it. As evidenced by those previously stated attractions, the 27-mile island is Texas’ quirkiest barrier island, teeming with endearing kitsch, historic architecture, and larger-than-life nautical lore. After all, a city with lofty nicknames like Playground of the South and Ellis Island of the West is bound to at least be intriguing.
The most hard-to-miss attraction, the Galveston Island Historic Pleasure Pier is a mammoth boardwalk lined with carnival games and enough rides to fill a theme park, including the Iron Shark Rollercoaster and the Pirate’s Plunge flume ride. For something a bit more subdued, The Grand 1894 Opera House is an ornate institution, home to popular productions like Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. The theater harkens to the island’s earliest days, when Galveston first emerged as a primary shipping and immigration port in the 1800s.
Nearby is The Strand, Galveston’s historic, bayside district filled with Victorian and Greek Revival architecture. You'll also find the tall ship Elissa, an 1877 vessel that now serves as a floating museum of maritime history. Further south on the island, Jamaica Beach offers a quieter reprieve from the touristy clamor, for those looking to soak up the sun without being cast under the shadow of the Galaxy Wheel.
Next up on the coastal roster—and basically the antithesis of Galveston in terms of hustle and bustle—Follet’s Island is a smaller, 13-mile island that’s largely untouched and undeveloped, save for some remote beach houses that look like the ideal rental for introverts.
The entire island is one big beach, most of which is quiet and wide open, providing ample opportunity for swimming, beach camping, fishing, and BYO kayaking. Seeing as the beach is largely undeveloped and open, it’s entirely free to visit and camp, and horseback riding is also allowed on the beach. Whatever your chill activity of choice, be mindful of sea turtles; give them a wide berth if you spot one, and report sightings to local marine authorities by calling 1-866-TURTLE-5 to help protect them.
If you thought Follet’s Island was quiet, just wait until you see what’s next. Further south, Matagorda Island is the most remote island, a 38-mile stretch of solitude only accessible by boat. A far cry from the shrieking thrill rides of Galveston, Matagorda is largely comprised of the Matagorda Island National Wildlife Refuge and State Natural Area.
For visitors who have a private boat, or are able to charter one, the car-free island is a beachy bastion for rugged campers willing to forgo the niceties of electricity and running water. As wild as a season of Survivor, this is an undeveloped place preserved for primitive activities like saltwater fishing and hunting. For those with a valid hunting license, 20,000 acres of land are open to deer and waterfowl, just as long as you keep in mind that whooping cranes, which occasionally flock to the area, are endangered and protected. At night, thanks to its remoteness and lack of light pollution, stargazing is a popular pastime out here, too.
San Jose Island
Equally as undeveloped as Matagorda, yet decidedly easier to access, San Jose Island is the next barrier island on the docket. It’s immediately north of populated Port Aransas on Mustang Island, where a ferry takes visitors back and forth all day, offering 21 miles of undeveloped beachfront, excellent fishing for redfish and trout (especially off the craggy edge of the North Jetty), and endless beach combing for seashell groupies. Cars are also prohibited on San Jose, which is entirely protected as a sanctuary for wildlife of both the nautical and four-legged varieties. Due to the island’s history as a former ranch, wild cattle roam the island, and it’s not uncommon to see cows on the beach.
As quiet and untouched as the island seems today, it’s actually rich with Texas history. This was the first site to fly the American flag on Texas soil, when a lieutenant swam ashore from the USS Alabama and planted it in the sand in 1845. A short-lived town on the island, called Aransas, was razed by Union forces in the Civil War. In 1935, wealthy oil magnate Sid Richardson established a miles-long ranch and estate, where he once wined and dined with the likes of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Said estate is long gone, but riches may or may not remain—legend has it the island contains actual buried treasure from pirate Jean Lafitte. Ahoy!
You haven’t seen Texas unless you’ve explored the gorgeous deserts and canyons of Big Bend National Park, one of the largest national parks in the US offering breathtakingly diverse landscapes for the outdoor enthusiast. Or, take in the San Antonio River Walk—a 15-mile stretch of walkways that run alongside the San Antonio River and parts of downtown San Antonio—by eating and drinking your way through it. Whatever it is you’re after, your next adventure awaits in Texas.
While San Jose offers remote solitude and potential pirate riches, the island on the other side of Aransas Pass is a haven of seafood restaurants, margaritas, beachside festivals, and Easter-egg-colored cottages. Mustang Island is a mecca for families and spring breakers alike, especially in the city of Port Aransas that comprises most of the 18-mile island. The pirate Jean Lafitte used to frequent the island, arguably making him the original spring breaker. And while you likely won’t find buried treasure here, you’re sure to find treasures of other kinds—like award-winning sand sculptures, adrenaline-pumping jet ski jaunts, and all the shrimp and redfish you can eat.
For a town with a year-round population of about 3,000, Port Aransas is surprisingly happening and delightfully quirky. For instance, Texas SandFest is an annual springtime attraction that features carnival-style snacks, live music, and epic sand sculptures right on the beach. It's an ideal place to scarf foot-long corn dogs and funnel cakes while marveling at giant sand castles as intricately detailed as an actual castle.
Further north on the island, this is one of the few beaches where you can literally drive your car on the sand, making it convenient for heavy-duty fishermen, while seafood-centric restaurants abound further inland. Just about every place on the island offers top-tier fish and seafood, perhaps best exemplified by Lisabella’s. The beachy-chic restaurant sits in a bougie community called Cinnamon Shore (named for the fact that Port Aransas’ beaches look like they’re swirled with cinnamon). There you can pair on-trend espresso martinis with cheesy, baked oysters, pancetta-wrapped shrimp, and something called Mermaid Soup: a curried medley of lobster-coconut broth and shrimp—and, mercifully, no mermaids.
To fully immerse yourself in the action-packed island, though, you need to get out on the water, and by that we mean go on a guided jet ski romp. Gettin’ Salty Watersports takes visitors out into the bay and to a couple of seashell-strewn islands, with lots of thrilling dolphin sightings along the way.
The next island is not only Texas’ largest, it's also the largest barrier island in the world. Clocking in at a casual 113 miles, Padre Island is bookended by Corpus Christi and Padre Island National Seashore on the north and beach bars and theme park rides on the south. Naturally, an island larger than the state of Delaware is bound to have a wide array of attractions, and Padre Island is the kind of something-for-everyone enclave that runs the gamut from urban outings to all-natural tranquility and nature preserves.
Divvied into North Padre Island and South Padre Island, separated by the Port Mansfield Channel, the top half starts with Corpus Christi, the most populated area in the region. From the Selena Museum and the Texas State Aquarium to beachside breweries and guided tours aboard the USS Lexington, there’s no shortage of sights to drink in here. North Padre is also home to a national park site, Padre Island National Seashore, the longest stretch of undeveloped barrier island in the world and proof that that whole “everything’s bigger in Texas” slogan isn’t always an eye-rolling cliche. The 66-mile park protects sea turtles and hundreds of bird species, and it’s an ideal haven for fishing, kayaking, windsurfing, and primitive tent camping in the sand.
On the southern side of the channel, South Padre is known equally as a family-friendly getaway and a collegiate spring break staple. It's swarming with beach bars (including Clayton’s, the largest beach bar in the state), live music, carnival rides, an enormous water park, and Gravity Park, a theme park with some seriously intense attractions, including the “tallest reverse-bungee in the world.” You can also embark on a standup paddle board tour with Eh Brah SUP, slurp painkillers and margaritas on the bay at the Painted Marlin Grille, and go on a seafood spree with coconut shrimp, crab-stuffed mushrooms, broiled red snapper, and seafood enchiladas at Sea Ranch Restaurant. Of course, with this much mileage of coastline, there are plenty of beaches to choose from, too, like Isla Blanca park and South Padre Bayside Beach.
The last barrier island is also the teeniest. Brazos Island is a diminutive four-mile island, home to 217 undeveloped acres of seaside wilderness. Located just north of the mouth of the Rio Grande, it’s a peaceful retreat for swimming, fishing, bird watching, hopeful dolphin-spotting, and camping.
Aside from that, the main draw here nowadays is Elon Musk’s SpaceX launch facility, which set up shop on the Boca Chita peninsula. There, visitors can watch the world’s richest man—and the god of Twitter—show off his billions by blasting rockets into space.