Padre Island National Seashore Camping: Stay on the Beach in Texas!
Dotted Globe contains affiliate links. If you click one of them, we may receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. Read my full Disclosure here. Thank you!
Since we live in Houston, Padre Island National Seashore Camping is a must summer experience for us. The gorgeous National Park has 4 campgrounds and the best part is you get to camp right on the beach. When we first visited this Padre Island National Seashore – we didn’t even live in Texas. The hubby worked in Chicago while I worked in Arkansas. We had just bought our new car at the end of June – and what better way to celebrate a new car than a ginormous road trip? So off we went to Texas for the July 4th weekend. (Yepp, we act crazy like that!) He picked up the car from the dealer, packed it with our gear, drove 11 hrs straight to Arkansas – picked me up – and on we drove to Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, Corpus Christi, and Padre Island National Seashore.In all we put upwards of 2500 miles on a brand new car within 7 days. Fun times! Anyways I absolutely loved the National Park and the Gulf Coast was a major part of our decision to move to Texas a year later. Since then we have made a point of visiting Padre Island National Seashore, Mustang Island, Corpus Christi, South Padre Island and the surrounding area every once in a while.
Our first campsite was tucked away beside the sand dunes and we had fun sleeping under the stars at night. Every time since then, the camping experience has been gorgeous, the water pristine, and added attractions of Turtle hatchlings release, free birding tour make the experience a delight. We always have a great time camping in Padre Island National Seashore – our campsite is secluded, beautiful, and free! It is honestly one of the best camping on the beach that I have experienced till date. If you are lucky you also get to see a beautiful sunrise – though often the views are clouded and foggy. We also enjoy the Kemp’s ridley sea turtle hatchlings release program – you can read more about the experience here. Beach camping on Padre Island is a true get away from it all activity as there is no cell service near the camping areas and I relish the opportunity to be away from all social media and connectivity.
Beach camping at Padre Island is a truly beautiful experience – the sound of the ocean in the night washes away all your aches and the sand gets everywhere – in the tent, in your clothes, in the car until it becomes a true ‘You can shake the sand from your shoes but not from your soul’ moment!
Camping on Padre Island National Seashore
So what is Padre Island National Seashore? It is 70 miles of undeveloped barrier island along Texas Gulf Coast. Located close to Corpus Christi and about 3 hrs drive from Houston, Padre Island National Seashore is a favorite with locals and visitors alike, one of the reasons being its exceptional beach camping. Here’s your full guide to beach camping at Padre Island National Seashore. There are a total of 4 campsites at Padre Island and here’s what you need to know about all of them.
North Beach is our favorite camping area. The access road to the campsites is by the entrance / near the only cell tower in this area. Then you just drive along the beach road, get clear of the area that is popular with day trippers, and stop when you find a good beach camping spot. North Beach is just 5 miles long but less popular so it is easy to find a spot here. While having a 4WD vehicle to drive on the beach is highly recommend, if you are going to try without one then North Beach is your best bet. We have seen many 2WD sedans camped out in this part of Padre Island National Seashore.
South Beach is our second favorite camping area. The first 5 miles, there is a well-defined road and even 2WD vehicles can beach drive this area. As a result, this area is often crowded. Past the 5 miles mark, you do need a 4WD vehicle for the area. The total length of the beach is 60 miles and you can camp and drive the entire length of it.
Malaquite campground is located closest to the Visitor Center. This campground has about 50 beautiful campsites with picnic tables and grills and a rate of $8 per day/night. The sites are located close to each and half face the sea (parking lot sites) while half have their backs to the beach (water / dune side sites). The dune side ones are better with nicer picnic tables and get taken up fast – but sea spray can get onto RVs and tents on this side. None of the sites have hookups available. It also has a clean dump station, clean showers and free potable water which can be used by all Padre Island visitors. This campsite is better for those who do not like sand in their cars and tents. (The hubby hates sand in the car and is forever convincing me to camp at Malaquite but hasn’t succeeded so far) You are close enough to the ocean to enjoy the beach but not camping directly in all the sand.
Bird Island Basin Campground
This is the only campground on the Bay side of Padre Island National Seashore. It is popular with windsurfers and surf fishers since the Laguna Madre bay side is excellent for these activities. Most other visitors prefer to stay on the Gulf side. Pro – The beautiful water’s edge sites are a mere 10 feet away from the bay. Lots of birds can be seen along the water’s edge including pelicans. Con – The sites are right next to each other offering little to no privacy. Also, there are no picnic tables or shade. The sites are $5 a day/night and the campground has no dump or potable water available. The nearest dump and toilets are 4 miles down the road to the park entrance at Malaquite campground. Most cell phones seem to have coverage at this campground.
When to go camping on the beach at Padre Island National Seashore:
1. Padre Island National Seashore is too hot and humid in the summer. After all, you are in Texas folks. We have never found it to be that much of a deterrent since the water is perfect and we prefer to spend the entire day splashing around. However, if you absolutely hate Texan summers – the weather is perfect for the rest of the year. Winters can get slightly windy on the coast and the water can be too cold to swim.
2. Weekends and long holidays are crowded and you will have to drive further to find a really good beach campsite. If you can go on a weekday, there will be very few people at the park and you will have the entire area to yourself.
3. Full moon nights are especially gorgeous and an excellent time to beach camp on the Padre Island National Seashore.
How to choose a gorgeous beach campsite on Padre Island National Seashore:
1. When you enter Padre Island National Seashore, stock up on any supplies you need including water, ice, firewood etc at the Pavilion Convenience Store. Use the restrooms at the Visitor Center and sign in at the registration area at the day beach. This ensures that you won’t have to drive back after setting camp.
2. Ensure that you have a 4WD vehicle that can handle beach driving. As mentioned earlier, chose to drive on either North Beach or South Beach side to find a beach campsite.
3. Find a flat spot that is tucked away between the dunes and the road. In Texas, beaches are designated as state highways meaning they can get slow moving traffic. Make sure you are well clear of the beach road which can be located only by the tire tracks. Also the dunes are protected and no camping is allowed on the dunes. If there are a lot of campers, find a spot about 100 yards from other campsites for privacy.
4. Check for any signs of high tide and look how further other tents are located to ensure you are out of water’s way. The closer you are to the dunes, the less chance of having to move in a hurry at night. You can also get a tide chart at the Ranger Station which will help you gauge how far the tide will come.
5. If you are in doubt, ask a Park Ranger. Park Rangers here are super friendly, love their jobs, eager to answer questions, and will always point you in the right direction.
What to Know before you go camping on the beach at Padre Island National Seashore:
1. Malaquite Campground has a dump station, showers, and free potable water which can be used by everyone visiting or camping at Padre Island. There is also ice available for sale at Ranger Station near the campground. Free showers are also available at the Visitor’s Center.
2. Sunscreen is necessary in Texas for almost 8-9 months of the year from February to October. This is especially true for the Gulf Coast and Padre Island National Seashore. Do not skip on the sunscreen, pack a good high SPF brand and you will thank me later.
3. Mosquitoes are abundant at Padre Island National Seashore. A good wind can clear them up but we highly recommend carrying an insect repellent for the night.
4. Wind and the beach mean only one thing – the sand gets everywhere. By everywhere I mean in your tent, in your sleeping bags, in your clothes, in your shoes, and in your car. And it is going to remain there at least for a week or so. Feeling sand everywhere is not a very pleasant experience and beach camping isn’t as glamorous as it looks. You just have to accept it and learn to love it! Or stay in the RV!
5. We recommend going to Padre Island National Seashore really early, if you are visiting on weekends, to choose a really good campsite. The nearby good sites fill up fast and you will have to drive further to snap a good location.
6. On you way, stop at the Ranger’s station and get a tide chart. Campers should be aware of the high tide line and tide times when choosing a camping location. Otherwise you are going to end up having to move camp in the middle of the night or floating on the water. Always keep a watch when high tide comes in and see how far it goes.
7. Keep an eye on the weather. The tranquil Gulf Coast is quite dangerous during hurricanes and thunderstorms. The winds are very strong, the sea choppy and resulting tides can be very high and sweep further inland. Always listen to ranger instructions regarding weather.
8. Even during normal times and high summer temperatures, the coast is windy and setting up the tent is quite a task. Be prepared with a lot of extra stakes to make sure your tent stays put.
9. 4WD vehicle is must for beach camping on Padre Island National Seashore. A really good secluded beach campsite can be accessed only by a fair bit of driving on the sand. Make sure your car / vehicle is equipped for sand driving and brush up on your sand driving skills. If you get stuck in the sand, you will need to be towed. We have heard towing horror stories costing anywhere from $250 to $1000 and have even seen vehicles getting towed at Padre Island. Fortunately, we never had to go through it ourselves.
10. For RVs, finding a spot to turn on the beach is not easy. You may have to detach your car and take extra care if it has rained the night before and the sand is wet.
11. Trash, seaweed, jellyfish, and other harmful objects frequently wash up on the beach from the Gulf Coast. We recommend watching where you step, especially if you are barefooted.
12. We have often heard reports of coyotes entering tents at night in search of food and often stealing other bare essentials as well. Though we haven’t had to ever deal with them personally, we recommend putting up food, clothes, shoes, and other things at night.
13. Windsurfing, kitesurfing, birding is better on the bay side of Padre Island National Seashore. To reach the bay side from Gulf side, you can drive only through Yarborough Pass at mile marker 15.
14. Though I’m pretty sure it’s not allowed – you may run into nude swimmers and sunbathers. We just prefer to go into an opposite direction and camp in a more secluded location.
15. Anytime the weather is windy or you don’t feel upto beach camping, you can always chose to camp at a paid campsite at Malaquite Campground and continue enjoying Padre Island National Seashore. Access to town is also 25 minutes away in case of any emergency.
16. There is no cell service at Padre Island National Seashore. That means if you are stuck in sand or otherwise in trouble, help is much farther away. We highly recommend getting a cell booster to have great service.
17. Last but not the least – Be a responsible traveler and throw plastic and aluminium trash for recycling. You can also help park rangers in collecting trash and keeping the beaches clean.