When the Civil War broke out in 1861, the state of Texas seceded from the Union and joined the Confederacy. This created a bit of a problem for successful Padre Island rancher and Union sympathizer John Singer, the brother of the sewing machine magnate Isaac Merrit Singer. Ultimately, Confederates ordered John Singer and his wife, Johanna, to leave Padre Island. Before the Singers left, they buried approximately $62,000 in coins and jewelry in the sand. At the end of the war in 1865, they returned to Padre Island and attempted to find their treasure, but shifting sands had concealed their hiding spot. According to local lore, the coins and jewelry still lie buried in an unmarked sand dune known as Money Hill.
Padre Island has spawned many tales of treasure lost and never found since the island's first recorded history in 1519. Today, there are still many stories coming out of Padre Island, but many of them are told by exploration-minded 'wheelers who have used their four-wheel-drive vehicles as tools with which to access the beautiful, remote beaches of the barrier islands. This is because almost the entire 113 miles of beach are open to travel by four-wheel-drive vehicles.
We say barrier islands, plural, because Padre Island proper is actually made up of two distinct islands: Padre Island National Seashore and South Padre Island. Padre Island National Seashore is the northernmost of the two, located southeast of Corpus Christi. South Padre island is located southeast of Harlingen and is home to the small town of South Padre. The Port Mansfield Cut separates the two islands, thus driving from one to the other is not possible. Padre Island is the largest stretch of undeveloped ocean beach in America. It was established as a National Seashore in 1962. Four-wheel-drive vehicles are welcomed on the beach for a small fee, as long as they are legal, street-licensed vehicles. The 'wheeling you'll find here isn't necessarily difficult, and most of the time the only obstacle you'll encounter is deep sand. Thus, this location is a great destination for those of you looking to enjoy some light 'wheeling, great scenery and no crowds. Padre Island National Seashore offers more than 60 miles of beach to explore, while South Padre Island offers 30 miles of beach. Vehicles are invited to drive along the beach, but they are forbidden to travel in the dunes, grasslands or mudflats.
We wanted to explore one of these islands, so we contacted Marty Garza who owns and operates Truck Toyz in nearby McAllen, a four-wheel-drive shop specializing in retail and wholesale sales and installation of everything four-wheel-drive, and asked him if he'd have some time to show us around. He was ready, willing and able, and as a bonus he rounded up a group of his customers and met us on South Padre Island. The group consisted of a fantastic assortment of well-modified fullsize rigs. We accessed the 30-mile stretch of South Padre Island beach at the one access point north of the town of South Padre. It's only a couple of dollars per vehicle, a small price to pay for 30 miles of awesome beach. Since all of the trucks in our group were shod with wider-than-stock, high-flotation tires, no one in our group had to air down. When we explored the same terrain in our stock Dodge Durango the next day, however, we had to air the stock tires down to around 14 psi to create the flotation needed to easily traverse the sand.
The first few miles of the beach are easy because the sand is tightly packed due to heavy vehicle traffic. After about five miles, though, all signs of human life disappear and the word isolation starts to take on new meaning. From this point, the sand is several inches deep and extends from the dunes to the water's edge when the tides are high. Normally, at low tide, a strip of hard-packed sand is exposed that is wide enough for vehicles.
The striking of the surf against the soft sand creates a berm of around a foot in height and this forces drivers to choose whether to drive above it in the soft sand, or below it on the hard-packed sand. As our group slowly drove along the beach, sand dunes separated us from the grasslands and mudflats on the west side of the island.
These dunes vary in height, from small to several stories tall. They are dotted with salt-tolerant grasses, and these are what help trap the sand to form the dune. After about an hour of driving we came to the end of the island at the Mansfield Cut. Here, the Army Corps of Engineers has built some jetties, and this is the end of the line. From this location we could look over the Mansfield Cut and see vehicles on the south end of the Padre Island National Seashore.
We hung out on the beach and enjoyed the solitude with our new friends from Truck Toyz, and that's a popular and common thing to do on Padre Island if you're not a fisherman. Locals tell us that if you enjoy solitude, avoid Padre Island during Spring Break, because it's a destination for hundreds of thousands of people. We actually visited South Padre Island the week after Spring Break, and found that most of the revelers engage in a mass exodus over the Queen Isabella Causeway (the longest bridge in Texas) on the last day of Spring Break.
Overall, we can recommend Padre Island as a great destination for those who like to use their vehicles as tools with which to access remote areas. Like we said, the 'wheeling isn't necessarily difficult, but you'll definitely need four-wheel-drive to explore it at leisure. They say there's treasure under the sand on Padre Island. We think the treasure is the sand.
When You Go...
For a small fee, you can access the beach in your four-wheel-drive. We found that due to ruts and debris, maximum speed is approximately 25-30 mph. This means it will take you more than an hour to drive the length of South Padre Island beach one-way and more than two hours to drive the beach on Padre Island National Seashore one-way. In Texas, all beaches are considered public highways and all traffic laws apply. Special care must be taken if you're driving during the sea turtle nesting season of April to August, as you may encounter nesting sea turtles crawling across the beach. Travel is prohibited in the grasslands or dunes, and violators may be fined heavily and assessed the costs of repairing the damage caused by driving in these areas. If your rig is shod with smaller tires, make sure that you air down to 12-14 psi to enhance flotation. The sand creates significant resistance, so make sure your cooling system is operating correctly, as well as your transmission and transfer case. As always, it's also a good idea to bring along recovery gear.
What's Up with All the Trash?
We were fascinated and disappointed by the huge amount of trash that litters the beach on Padre Island. The National Park Service says that this can vary from glass bottles to boards with nails to televisions to abandoned boats and large trees. One of the trucks in our group had the misfortune of hitting a chunk of trash. It flew up into the power-steering cooler of his Super Duty, causing massive leakage of the power steering fluid. Clearly, one has to wonder what is being done to stop the massive amount of garbage that is dumped in the Gulf of Mexico. The National Park Service has sponsored cleanups, but the result of these is a drop in the bucket. What the future holds no one knows, but for now, it's a fact that when driving on the beaches of Padre Island, the biggest obstacle you may encounter is someone else's junk.