Friday, June 02, 2006

Padre Island National Seashore camping trip

This Memorial Day weekend, Taylor, Cannon and I traveled down to the north end of Padre Island near Corpus Christi for a little camping getaway. The trip from College Station took a little over 5 hours, but Taylor and I both decided that it was worth the drive. Cannon, however, may not agree.

We didn't really know what to expect since we had never been to Padre Island, had never camped on a beach, and decided to go on Memorial Day weekend (probably the busiest camping weekend all year). If you're unfamiliar with Padre Island National Seashore, it's basically 60 miles of unimproved beach on the gulf coast barrier island operated by the National Park Service that protects Laguna Madre and mainland Texas from the Gulf of Mexico (map). The NPS seems to use the island mostly for barrier island preservation and Sea Turtle research while a private company, who owns the mineral rights to the island, uses it for oil and natural gas drilling (more info from the NPS website). Beach camping on PINS is very primitive and is first-come-first-serve. You pay a $10 vehicle entrance fee (which is good for 7 days) and drive to the visitor center to pick up your beach camping permit (no additional charge). You give them some information like your name, phone number, vehicle info, etc. then head down to the beach to choose your campsite. If you are planning to visit PINS, keep in mind that there are no restrooms, porta-potties, or potable water available past the visitor center. Once you get on the beach, it's nothing more than beach.

Setting Up Camp
The first five miles of beach is open to all vehicles with the remaining 55 miles open to four-wheel-drive vehicles only. We decided, long before we left College Station, that we would not try to get past the 5 mile marker with our two-wheel-drive pickup, but rather stay somewhere in the first 5 miles. We drove about 2.5 miles down the hard packed sand near the water (the soft sand up by the dunes just looked way too loose to drive on) and found a pretty good sized gap between two campsites. We decided that this was private enough for us and parked the truck. We had the water in front of our site, sand dunes behind it, and neighbors off in the distance to the left and right. As you can see in the photos below, the beach wasn't near as crowded as we expected it to be.

Nearest neighbors
to the left.

Nearest neighbors
to the right.

The first thing that we did was get the dog out and see what he would think about the beach. There was no questioning, however, that he didn't like it very much. I think more than anything, it was the sound of the waves that he didn't like. We could talk him into getting out of the truck, we could coax him into the water, but as soon as we let any tension off of his leash, he would head back to the truck as fast as possible. And the truck is where he liked to stay most of the trip.

Before it started to get dark, we decided to reposition the truck so that it could act as a windbreak for our tent. We got the tent up just as the sun was setting and started cooking some hamburgers in a skillet on our propane stove. We had intended to cook over a fire using a new cooking method on this trip, but there ended up being a burn ban in the park. We're pretty sure that the ban was enforced because we saw a park ranger stop at the campsite of one of our neighbors that evening. When he got there, they had a pretty big fire roaring. When he left, thirty minutes later, the fire was out and I would imagine some campers were left holding a ticket.

The Next Morning
The next morning, we woke up to a high tide and found out that we got pretty lucky when we chose where to setup camp the night before. We ended up being only about 6 feet from the edge of the water. That definitely surprised us. We checked on all of our stuff then decided to make a quick trip up to the visitor center to wash up and get some more ice for the cooler. We knew that there would be no way to keep the sand and salt out of our gear, but I don't think we really realized just how windy it would be.

The wind was constantly whipping in off of the gulf pretty forcefully. There was always plenty of wind to fly a kite (or even tie a kite to something and just let it fly itself), but it carried with it plenty of salt that created a layer on everything exposed. We had to wipe off the windshield of the truck just so we could see to drive.

We took off up the beach toward the visitor center. This time, however, we were forced to drive in the softer sand near the dunes because the hard packed sand that created the nice beach highway the day before was underwater. Everything was going fine at first and we were surprised at how well we were able to drive on the looser sand. Then we noticed quite a few stopped vehicles in front of us. My goal was to cruise on through because I knew that we wouldn't be able to get going again if we stopped. Unfortunately, the sand had a different plan and we were suddenly spinning our tires and sitting still.

Digging Holes in the Sand
If you've never been stuck in sand, it's just a little different from being stuck in mud. If you spin your tires at all, you start to dig a deep hole really quickly. We got out the carpet samples that we had brought with us and stuck them under the rear tires, unfortunately, I quickly realized that I had left our shovel back at the campsite. I was able to move some sand around with my hands and get the carpet in to where we could get a little traction. We moved just a little until we were off of the carpet, then we were just digging holes again. I'm pretty sure that the carpet idea would have worked, but we would have been there a while until we could work our way back up onto some well-packed sand.

Luckily, though, two pot-head park rangers (yes, that is correct) were nearby pulling everyone out of the sand with their four-wheel-drive park services truck. They pulled two guys out then promptly came over to us and started hooking up to our pickup. They pulled us straight out onto harder ground with no problems and headed off to the pickup behind us. We later found out that in about an hour, those two guys pulled out 11 vehicles. However, don't depend on the park rangers to pull you out of the sand. That's not actually their job, and, if they're not around at the moment, they may not be able to help you. I've also heard that it's pretty expensive to get a tow truck to come down onto the beach. The moral of this story: be careful, the sand can be very soft and very deep.

Hanging Out on the Beach
We took showers, got our ice, and headed back down to our campsite. We pretty much spent the rest of the day walking along the beach, swimming, and relaxing. Every now and then, we would spot a Portuguese Man o' War that had washed up onto the beach during the high tide. The sign at the entrance to the park notifying visitors of the Man o' War presence displayed a category of "low." However, we spotted several washed up and Taylor said that she may have even seen one in the water as well. Be careful around these as they can sting humans and cause intense pain.

For lunch, we made sandwiches and pretty much got mugged by seagulls. Somehow, the seagulls seem to know when you start making lunch and flock to your campsite. Until we finished our lunch, we had about a dozen birds flying in circles less than ten feet over our heads. I guess that years of campers feeding the birds has taught them how to identify a loaf of bread.

Later that afternoon, after a draining day of constant sun exposure, I decided to try to throw a tarp up for shade. The wind made it tough to keep a tarp up without bending our poles or letting it go flying, but, once I got it stabilized, it really helped. It was really nice to just be able to get out of the sun.

As Taylor and I were sitting under our little square of shade, we decided that we would head back to College Station that evening rather than stay another night. We wanted to be back at our apartment the next day to do some more unpacking. We could have stayed the night, but we realized that we weren't going to do anything more than cook dinner, wait for dark, go to sleep and start packing up to leave first thing in the morning. We didn't really want that extra night bad enough to chance getting stuck on the beach again.

Heading Home
As the sun began to set, we broke down our camp, picked up some of the trash that had floated in off of the Gulf and headed back up the beach to the visitor center to check out. This time, however, the tide was down and we drove on the hard, packed sand near the water with no trouble. Since the visitor center was already closed, check out consisted of tying our beach camping permit around the visitor center doorknob. That was simple enough. As we were leaving, we both assured Cannon, that the trip was over and he wouldn't have to endure the beach any longer. I'm pretty sure that he didn't understand us, but he looked like he was ready to leave Padre Island.

Final Thoughts About the Trip
Taylor and I had a great time camping at Padre Island National Seashore. It was a nice change for us since we had never camped on the beach.

I have a few points for someone who is interested in visiting PINS or camping on the beach:
  • Bring sunscreen
  • The sun is draining, bring some type of shade
  • Get larger tent stakes that will hold better in the sand
  • Bring a shovel and a couple of carpet samples in case you get stuck in the sand
  • Your best bet for not getting stuck is to pick something very big (large 4WD truck or larger) or very small (dirt bike) to drive
  • Keep in mind that cell phones don't work too well on PINS
  • You're going to get sand everywhere and in everything...just accept that