We now know why Galveston Island is one of the most
popular state parks in Texas. It is beautiful and it is
fascinating. The diversity of the various ecosystems is
incredible. And it's warm in the winter!! Can't beat that!
On the Gulf side you can watch the tide ebb and flow as you walk
or run along the saltwater beach and you can camp right next to the
sand dunes. In the interior of the park you can run on soft
prairie trails, cross freshwater lagoons on boardwalks, and watch
the multitude of birds and mammals that inhabit the native
grasslands. On the Bay side you can watch an even bigger show of
wildlife that inhabits the shallow salt marsh wetlands between
the island and the mainland of Texas.
Galveston Island is thirty-two miles long and averages
two-and-a-half miles wide. The city of Galveston dominates the
eastern half of the island. The western half is more sparsely
populated by humans, but hosts a wide variety of flora and
2,000-acre state park is on the western half of the island,
stretching. more than a mile east-west along San Luis Pass Road and
all the way north-south across the island from the Gulf to the Bay.
If you are a nature-lover, you'll love this park. If you enjoy
beaches, you'll love this park. There's even some interesting
history for history-lovers!
In the winter, Galveston Island is relatively warm. In the
summer, the ocean breezes make it relatively cool. It's all a
matter of perspective.
CAMPING BY THE DUNES
I mentioned in the last entry that we were able to score a
coveted dune-side campsite when we arrived yesterday. The park
has about 180 overnight camping sites in four units. Three units
are next to the beach on the Gulf; one unit is in the
interior prairie region. There are also 60 day-use sites. The
campground got increasingly more full each day of our stay from
Tuesday to Saturday night. We often try to reach campgrounds
where we plan to stay several days (or weeks) early in the week
to have a better selection of sites, and that worked again for
It was so foggy yesterday that we couldn't fully appreciate the
views of and from the campground . . .
. . . or see much of anything at water's edge:
Cody chases a stick Jim threw into the surf
However, we are very glad we headed south yesterday and not northeast
toward Tyler, Texas, the way we'd have gone home. About 55
people died overnight and today in 70 or 80 tornadoes that struck Arkansas,
Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, and Kentucky. There was hail, hard rain, and high wind in eastern
Texas, including the Houston area just 40 miles north of
Galveston Island. We had some 15-25 MPH winds last night on the
rocked the camper, making us wonder just how good our decision
was to come here -- but after hearing about those other places,
we're glad we did!
We woke up to chilly, clear, breezy, sunny weather this morning.
It was one of those I-can-see-forever days -- and we took
advantage of it. Although it was only 46ș
F. next to the beach when we got up, it was in the mid-60s by
afternoon. It was a great day to run on the beach and explore
the rest of the park across the highway.
We finally got a good look at the
campground, too. This view shows the interior sites in our unit
which face toward the park road:
Those are still empty but the sites facing the ocean are mostly taken:
This is the splendid view from our camper:
You'll notice at least two things in the photo above: the snake sign (!) and
the unobstructed view of the ocean. We never saw any snakes but
we sure enjoyed seeing the ocean without having to peer past
other campers. No, we weren't right on the beach and no, the
dunes aren't quite like those at White Sands National Monument,
but this was close enough to the water to suit us just fine. We
were only a short distance to the nearest wooden bridge over the
dunes, which you can see in the next photo taken from inside our
concrete picnic shelter:
Looking west from our site
We have young (30-something) neighbors on one side of us with two leash-trained cats
that the dogs find interesting, and a very quiet 40-ish couple on the
other side -- it's not just retired sunbirds here in February.
The sites are spacious and grassy. We have electricity and water
hookups at our site, and a dump to use when we leave in four or
five days. We're about seven miles from downtown Galveston,
close enough to drive to town every day if we want but far
enough away to be very quiet and peaceful.
If it wasn't for those doggone hurricanes, I might want to LIVE
last entry for the irony of
BEACH BUMS FOR A WEEK
We really enjoy walking and running along the beach with the
dogs at all times of the day, even when it is foggy. In fact, it
is most primal to me when it is foggy or dark -- the pull of the
tide, the lapping of the waves -- the visceral feeling is more
intense for me then.
The lighting is particularly beautiful in the early morning
(although we never got up early enough to catch a sunrise here) and late afternoon. The
shadows are longer, the blue, pink, and yellow colors in the sky softly muted:
Looking west from our site
Sunsets are spectacular:
Like the shifting dunes at White Sands National Monument in New
Mexico, these dunes are also constantly moving and changing with
the wind and water. So are the beaches.
Barrier islands like Galveston serve as transition zones between
land and ocean. It's very symbiotic. The beach helps the island
shelter the mainland from the ravages of wind and water. The
dunes help protect the island itself. And the grasses, morning
glory, primrose, and other plants help stabilize the dunes so
they can do their job.
MORE BIRDS & SHELLS THAN PEOPLE
I was fascinated by all the birds on the beach -- several kinds
of gulls, sandpipers, snowy plowers, sanderlings, willets, and
other species eagerly walk along the shore
as the tide washes in tasty morsels to eat and uncovers worms
hiding in the sand. Here a gull watches
as some smaller birds search the sand after a wave retreats:
The birds are not very fearful of people. I was able to get
quite close to them to take photos:
I love the mirror-image reflections of the birds on the wet sand:
We never had the place completely to ourselves but everyone else
was courteous. Mostly people sauntered near the water, watching the waves and
birds and collecting shells. All sorts of interesting stuff washes
up on beaches that requires inspection, even by runners! We saw
other people running, riding bikes, surfing, fishing, flying
kites, and just lounging as the birds gathered around them:
The beach extends for less than two mimles within park boundaries but
you can go beyond that in either direction past the beachfront
homes. The posts in the photo below are at the eastern edge of the park
This beach is wide whether it's at high or low tide. Even at
high tide there is enough sculpted, hard-packed sand to run on (it's
softer closer to the dunes). I was hoping I could try some
barefoot running but there are a LOT of shells on this beach,
close to the water's edge - ouch!
Here is a photo of two of the more interesting shells I found:
If anyone can identify these shells, please let me know. I've
looked at several seashell ID web sites, but can't find either
one. I'm curious what critters lived in them. There were many
variations of the pink type on this beach. Most were smaller
than this specimen, which is over 3" wide.
NATIVES & PIRATES & SMUGGLERS, OH, MY!
The beaches of Galveston Island have a long and
Nomadic Karankawa (Carancahua) Indians hunted and fished on the island for
Cabeza de Vaca and his group of Spanish
explorers discovered it in 1528 when their boat shipwrecked on
the beach at the eastern end of the park. The story of that
whole harrowing expedition is worthy of further investigation,
if you're interested (do an internet search on his name). De
Vaca and only
three other survivors of about 300 men who journeyed with him
to America eventually made it back home
after nine years sailing the seas, landing on Florida and then
Galveston Island, and wandering around the Southwest.
Later, pirates from various countries used the island as a refuge and base of operations
from the early 1600s to the 1800s, men like
You may have heard
the legend about pirates tying lanterns to the back of burros
and leading them along Galveston Beach, hoping passing ships
would think they were other ships and wreck in the
shallow water -- making them easy prey for the pirates to
plunder. Very sneaky.
Smuggling was also common on the more isolated western end of Galveston
Island. Slaves were illegally dropped off here in the 1800s, as
was liquor from Cuba, Jamaica, and the Bahamas during
The island has played a role in politics and wars, too. Jean
Lafitte built outposts here during Mexico's revolutionary
struggle with Spain in the early 1800s, the first government of
the Republic of Texas found refuge here briefly, and German
submarines cruised on the horizon during WWII.
Lots of drama around here the last half millennium.
Now sailboats, shrimp boats, and drilling rigs can be viewed in
the Gulf waters from the park's shoreline. Dolphins
and brown pelicans cavort among the waves. Vacationers bask in
the sun and view the wildlife. Residents build McMansions as
close to the water as they can. The beach continues to be a refuge and retreat for
humans and animals.
Busy place, this beach!
FROM PRAIRIE TO WETLANDS
We were happy to find about four miles of nature trails on the
Galveston Bay side of the park, across San Luis Pass Road.
Running the much less heavily-traveled paved road from our camper to the trails added more
mileage. Here we shared the park road with one of the local
The upland tall grass and lower saltgrass native prairie extends
from the dunes a couple of miles north to the salt marsh
wetlands by the Bay.
Prairie habitat used to dominate the entire
island, but now the native grasses have largely disappeared
because of grazing by buffalo and cattle, continual development, and
losing the battle with invasive plants that have been introduced
by humans. Native species like switchgrass and gulf cordgrass
are being re-introduced gradually but successfully in the park by the Texas
Parks and Wildlife Department.
There are several large signs along the trail that describe the
biodiversity of the prairie and wetlands in the park. The one
below shows several types of saltwater marsh grasses and
wildflowers that are uniquely adapted to survive in this harsh
environment. They can tolerate both drought and flooding, as
well as sudden changes from fresh to salt water.
Despite the vicissitudes of the weather and the loss of habitat,
many birds and mammals have adapted to life in the grassland and
wetland areas of the park. Get this: over 60% of bird
species of North America can be here at some time during the
year! Some birds live here year-round, while others are
migrating north or south.
Pictured below are the white ibis, black-necked stilt,
roseate spoonbill, willet, whimbrel, and several types of egrets
We observed a great many birds in the marsh area during our runs
and hikes, like the elegant egrets below:
This environment is also home to raccoons, opossums, coyotes (we
saw one!), rabbits, field mice, toads, and snakes that that are
able to tolerate the hazards of island life. Ducks, turtles, and
frogs inhabit the ponds that usually contain fresh water from
rainfall. When the park floods from hurricanes, those ponds
become brackish with saltwater but they eventually return to
their freshwater state after enough rain falls to tip the
We enjoyed running through the prairie on soft trails, examining
the plants and wildlife along the way:
I was surprised to see Prickly Pear Cactus (below) in such a
humid environment. I'm guessing those are not native, but I
might be wrong.
The trails follow the edges of several long, narrow bayous
that stretch like fingers through the wetlands toward the Bay.
Wildlife is prolific here, even in the winter.
Scenic boardwalks cross Butterowe Bayou in two different places:
There is an observation deck close to one of the parking areas.
From here you are rewarded with expansive views across the
wetlands to Galveston Bay:
These vegetated marshes and bayous are found between the open
bay and uplands (prairie) all along the western half of the
island. The coastal wetlands not only support the flora and
fauna I've already mentioned, they also serve important
environmental and economic purposes. They reduce the severity of
floods and erosion to the mainland. They protect water quality
for drinking by filtering out impurities, serve as a nursery for the large commercial and
sport fishing industries, and support eco-tourism (i.e.,
watching wildlife, a rapidly growing "industry" of its own).
I especially loved the views across Oak Bayou from either
direction. The next photo shows some roseate spoonbills
searching for dinner late one afternoon along the western shore
of the bayou:
The spoonbills are a lovely pale pink color.
The eastern side of Oak Bayou also offers stunning vistas in all
directions at sunset. This is one of many photos I took at dusk,
and it is more subtle than most. It is facing north toward the
I'll share more softly-hued -- and some very dramatic -- sunset
photos from Oak Bayou in the next entry, which will be mostly a
Can we move here?? (Just kidding.)
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, Cody, and
© 2008 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil