Planning a Bike Camping Trip to Padre Island National Seashore

This post shares my planning notes for two long-distance bike ride routes I have considered at various times. I start with a brief look at the concept of a 1,600-mile ride from Mexico to Canada, and then I turn to a more detailed review of the possibilities for a 200- to 400-mile warm-up ride to Padre Island National Seashore (PINS) on North Padre Island, near Corpus Christi, TX (CC).

If you aren’t interested in planning your own trip, you might consider websites that post classified ads from people seeking companions for long-distance rides in the U.S. and elsewhere. These sites include Adventure Cycling Association, WarmShowers.org, CrazyGuyOnABike, CyclingBuddy, Bike ForumsHelpX, Cycling Touring Community, Outdoor Duo, and other sites recommended by Milestone Rides.

Contents

Background
A Concept for a Mexico-to-Canada Ride
Trip Overview: San Antonio (SA) to PINS
Taking the Bus: The JFK Causeway Bridge
The Bike Route to PINS
Biking Through and Beyond Corpus Christi
Altered Route: No Bus Aid
Activities at Padre Island National Seashore
Food Runs During and After PINS

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Background

My first long-distance bike ride was in 1974, at the age of 18. I don’t remember the exact route, but I rode maybe 275 miles, from my parents’ place in northern Indiana to visit classmates in Detroit, and partway back. My preparations consisted of deciding to do it at about 5 PM on a summer afternoon; strapping my sleeping bag to my handlebars; and leaving. Not too surprisingly, I had to push the bike for eight miles, in the middle of the night, because I didn’t have a tube patch kit. I wound up sleeping on the floor of a 24-hour laundromat, and waking to see some woman reaching over me to put clothes in a washer. Exhausted, on the return in northern Ohio, I gave up and called Mom to come pick me up — which, I’ve always thought, I wouldn’t have done if I’d been more familiar with being worn out, and with keeping myself properly fed and hydrated.

Approximate route of my ride to Detroit, and partway back

I did some longish day rides in L.A. in the mid-1970s, and a few in NYC late in that decade, but I don’t believe I took any more multiday rides until a group of friends organized a ride on Missouri’s Katy Trail in 2001. That 200-mile ride unfolded over a period of, I think, four days. I made a number of other, shorter excursions on the crushed limestone surface of the Katy, including one 195-mile ride in two days.

Since then, along with numerous brief looks at various possible bike routes, I had explored in some detail the scenarios of a long ride in Michigan in 2010, and another along the lower Mississippi. Those rides had not materialized, partly because I was busy and partly because, having been hit deliberately, I was afraid (see other post). But now I thought I’d try again.

A Concept for a Mexico-to-Canada Ride

I was considering a south-to-north cross-country bike ride. The idea was that I would leave the southland in the springtime, before it got too hot, and would arrive in the northland when it stopped being too cold.

There were a million possible routes. I favored flatland, for personal aesthetic preference and for bicycling ease. A combined northerly and easterly direction would tend to keep the wind pushing more with me than against me. That, too, was for bicycling ease, and also for purposes of auditory comfort: the wind is at least a little less likely to rumble in your ears when it’s behind you. Both auditory comfort and wind aid might further benefit if I opted for a fairing that would function as a sail in a tailwind.

I also wanted some changes of scenery. It’s hard to get that with flatland, but I thought that at least I might get transitions from desert to prairie to farmland. Finally, I wanted free camping. I would be carrying my tent and everything on my bike, so I would need a route whose campsites wouldn’t take me too much out of my way.

Preliminary searches suggested that many people had biked from Mexico to Canada. But by the time I added the preferred criteria to my search, I found that I would pretty much have to make up my own route.

In sketching out that trip, certain resources had the potential to be especially helpful. These included Google Earth, FreeCampsites.net, a KansasCyclist.com list of free camping locations (and their list of bike camping sites in other states); and a Google search for information on stealth camping.

I sketched out the overall route in Google Maps (using both the bike option at the top and the Menu > Bicycling option at the top left, as shown in the image, above), and then began looking for free campsites that were not too far apart, connected by roads that were not so minor as to be primitive (e.g., mud and sand), but not so major as to be full of traffic. Or if they did have traffic, they also had to have bike-friendly shoulders, preferably separated from the main roadway by rumble strips. I was able to use Street View, within Google Maps, to get snapshots here and there of what the roads were like.

I would have liked to travel up along the Rocky Mountains for a while, and then cut across the national grasslands of northeastern New Mexico, but that dream died at Alamogordo, NM. There were no bike-friendly routes northbound from there. The same was true elsewhere in New Mexico. Hence my route had to change from the original hope expressed in the map (above): I would have to exit NM sooner than desired, and travel across more of the Texas panhandle than I really needed. (Note my separate post proposing a more directly north-soute international bike and golf cart route.)

There was another problem with this trip concept: I was not ready for it. I would need to do at least one shakedown cruise first, to make sure the bike, the equipment, and I were ready for prime time. So I switched to planning for a shorter ride in roughly comparable conditions. That led to the following alternate scenario.

Trip Overview: San Antonio (SA) to PINS

I was particularly interested in a ride that would end up on the Gulf Shore in the off season (i.e., not summer). This was the kind of trip that could work for someone who might fly in, bringing his/her panniers or trailer; buy a bike at Walmart; attach the gear; and take off.

I was inclined toward a route from SA to PINS. Port Aransas (known locally as Port A) was another possible destination, but the city’s $12 camping permits allowed no more than three nights of beach camping in any three-week period. Mustang Island State Park was another possibility, but at $10/night for primitive sites plus a $5 daily entrance fee, the price was not as ideal. (Padre and Mustang islands were separated by Packery Channel, just north of the bus route. North and South Padre islands were separated by the Port Mansfield Channel, about 85 miles south of CC as the crow flies. Aside from the occasional reference to Port A, virtually all beachfront and island references in this post are focused on North Padre.)

For the national seashore, I would have to buy a pass; but at the age of 62, an $80 pass would last for the rest of my life, or at least until it was lost or stolen and had to be replaced. (Otherwise, an annual pass for walking or biking into the national seashore was $20.) It seemed there might be other free campgrounds along Mustang Island, but for the moment I was interested especially in PINS, primarily because it seemed to offer a degree of safety, calm, and isolation that I had not observed at the more easily accessible Port A and Mustang Island State Park. They weren’t bad, in my experience; I was just looking for something different.

FreeCampsites.net highlighted other possible campsites

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Taking the Bus: The JFK Causeway Bridge

The route from SA to North Padre would inevitably require transit through large portions of SA and CC. There were bike trails covering some of that distance. The rest would be on city streets. There was the possibility of traversing those urban distances in the wee hours. In my experience, the hours of 2-4 AM were especially good to enjoy minimal traffic contact. Given the state laws on alcohol sales, I had found that late Sunday / early Monday were best of all, for purposes of avoiding drivers who appeared intoxicated (i.e., swerving, making weird turns, being aggressive toward bicyclists). In an Adventure Cycling forum post, TCS offers Ride with GPS routes for the whole trip and for the SA segment.

Another possibility was to take the bus in those cities. Buses in both SA and CC had racks on front, to accommodate bicycles. This would work as long as my panniers and/or trailer (if any) could be easily removed and dragged onto the bus, and as long as my front or back racks or other hardware didn’t otherwise interfere with the bus rack.

Screenshot from SA VIA Bus video. The bike is secured by pulling the rack’s hook up over the front wheel.

In SA, the No. 42 bus from downtown would be the most likely candidate. In CC, the No. 65 bus would take me across the JFK Causeway to Padre Island, and I could bike down to the national park from there. Alternately, I could bike across the Causeway.

There was a shoulder for most of the JFK Causeway’s four-mile length (measuring just the part that ran over water), but there was no shoulder on its 0.8-mile segment that consisted of an actual bridge. The Causeway was fast and busy. Biking it would preferably be a wee-hours endeavor. CrazyGuyOnABike says he did it in daylight, northbound, with the aid of a motorcycle cop stopping three lanes of traffic for him. By email, Wayne of Bay Area Bicycles in CC said,

When you come through CC on frontage roads (don’t even consider staying up on the highway through town) you will come to the Oso Bridge that has a small shoulder turning into an off ramp at Flour Bluff Dr. where you need to get down to the frontage road all the way until you are forced back onto the JFK Causeway heading to the Island. It gets a little tight through there. There is very little room for bike traffic until you reach the National Seashore.

To avoid the Oso Bridge altogether, Wayne said it might or might not be safer to use Rodd Field Road and Yorktown Blvd. It would certainly be longer. In daytime, I thought I would probably not use the frontage roads, preferring to find a way to the waterfront bike lanes (see Third Coast Alternate).

The JFK Causeway was not the CC Harbor Bridge, which was actually north of downtown, not south; and the narrow walkway across the Harbor Bridge did not exist on the Causeway. Nonetheless, it may be instructive to consider this exchange with a police officer, reported by Drunk Cyclist, after he rode across the Harbor Bridge in a traffic lane, rather than try to push his bike across the bridge using the narrow walkway:

  • Trooper: Son, did you just ride over the Harbor Bridge?
  • SJ: Yes officer I did.
  • Trooper: Why? That’s stupid, you’ll get yourself killed.
  • SJ: Agreed. It wasn’t terribly fun. Was what I did illegal?
  • Trooper: No, just dumb.
  • SJ: Well, is there a better route I should’ve taken? I’m not from around here. How else can I get to Portland?
  • Trooper: This is it. We just don’t ride bikes around here.

A comment on that webpage says, “I have zero time for shitty roads with lots of angry drivers. Corpus sounds like they have a lot of each.” While researching this post, I happened to notice a case where a 61-year-old bicyclist was hit-and-run by a truck driver in CC. In general, the more I read, the more I got the impression that a lot of people found biking in this area scary. But, for the record, my call to the CC police (361-886-2603) confirmed that the JFK Causeway was not safe, but was also not illegal, for bicycling.

Originally, I expected to use panniers. Later, I bought a trailer. Both the SA and CC bus lines indicated that, basically, the trailer was not going to work. The concept seemed to be that a trailer would be allowed on the bus only if it was a folding trailer, without gear, capable of fitting into the seat with me, or perhaps under the seat. The empty space near the front of the bus, if any, was reserved for folding wheelchairs. This change of plan necessitated a change of route planning (below).

Of course, I could also try using Greyhound or a ride-sharing service to carry my bike and gear all the way from SA to CC or, perhaps, right out onto Padre Island. That approach would be more expensive and would defeat the purpose, if the purpose was to experience a long-distance bike trip. On the other hand, that approach (or simply flying into CC from remote locations) would free up more time for camping on the beach, for those who didn’t care so much about the biking. There might be more hassle and/or expense connected with partially assembling and disassembling the bike and boxing it, if the bus company required that. Alternately, it might be possible to arrive in CC without a bike and — if not getting one at Walmart — to buy one used, or perhaps make contact with a resident who would rent his/her bike for a modest price. The expense of buying a bike would be less noticeable for an extended trip, or if there was an assured buyer for the slightly used bike at the end of the trip. (Returning the bike to Walmart would obviously be wrong. Selling might entail an eBay auction ad, with a minimal reserve price (e.g., $50), highlighted with companion ads on Craigslist and on websites like the ones listed above, and with notices to local bike shops. Those sources might also turn up an inexpensive multiday rental.)

The Bike Route (with Bus Aid) to PINS

Assuming the goal was to bike from SA to PINS, and to use free or at least low-cost campsites along the way, I sketched out a primary two- to four-day route of about 190 miles. (Google Maps wouldn’t contemplate bicycling across the John F. Kennedy (JFK) Memorial Causeway in CC, so the distance from there to PINS is not shown in that link, nor in this image of it.)

This route (produced by the map link in the previous paragraph) began on the south side of SA, at the last No. 42 bus stop operational on weekends, and ran to the start of the JFK Causeway in CC. Note that, for those who would like to enjoy five or six extra miles on the SA bus, this image included a reference point at the 1604 Loop, near the last No. 42 bus stop operational on weekdays. An alternate route would begin at the last No. 36 bus stop, and would add a first camping stop at Braunig Lake Park on the south side of SA, in case the trip’s starting time was late in the day and/or the rider didn’t feel like using the wee hours to get out of the city.

By email, Wayne of Bay Area Bicycles explained why Google Maps insisted on drawing the bike route (above) down through Orange Grove, instead of returning to I-37 after the camping stop at Lake Corpus Christi State Park (LCCSP). It seems it could be dangerous to cross the I-37 bridge over the Nueces River, just a couple miles north of Calallen. Wayne said, “The river bridge on IH37 is dangerous right there because the traffic (heavy truck mostly) comes in from Hwy 181 from Odem and swings onto 37 right there. It is pretty hairy even in a car.”

(Regarding Braunig Lake Park: as a note of warning, I have had no tents stolen elsewhere in the U.S., in many camping trips over the past 20 years, but have had two tents stolen, along with everything in and around them, during the few times when I have left them unattended in heavily Hispanic locations in Kansas and Texas. One of those two thefts was at Braunig Lake Park, in the vicinity of several groups of Spanish-speaking fishermen; the other was near Dodge City (whose Anglo sheriff refused to document the theft, apparently in an effort to understate the actual level of crime in his bailiwick). My sense of the matter (based on some years of living in lower- and middle-class areas in several big cities, including New York and L.A.) is that petty theft may be higher in areas of concentrated first-generation immigration from poor countries. (See 1 2 3 4 5 sources on crime rates in SA and elsewhere: theft is above-average in this region regardless.) It appears that tents may be safer at Port A and in state and national parks. I hate to have to mention this, but it seems best to warn people of any ethnicity who might otherwise experience similar disruption of their travel plans. If a biker did need to replace camping gear, CC had Dick’s and Academy, along with other sporting goods stores, but no REI. From the beach, the nearest Walmart was in Flour Bluff, the part of CC at the inland end of the JFK Causeway.)

I was concerned about the safety of the proposed route. (This concern grew, later, when CarInsurance.org (2021) named San Antonio one of the 20 deadliest cities in the nation for bicyclists.) Therefore, I wanted to see how much of the route might have paved shoulders or other relatively bike-safe features. I also appreciated an excuse to explore some new tech. So here’s a video created from Google Street View, covering the route from SA to CC. Notes accompanying the video provide links to other posts explaining more about the why and the how of the video. (Notice the progress indicator moving, on the map, as the video progresses.)

The primary and alternative map links (above) could be zoomed in, to provide a detailed map (and, optionally, street-level view) of the camping locations at Braunig Lake Park and also at County Road 437 (i.e., I-37 Live Oak County Rest Area), optionally at Lake Corpus Christi State Park (LCCSP), and at Labonte Park, before arriving at CC. As those last three links indicate, LCCSP charged $10 per night for tents, and the other two were free, except that Labonte Park required permits, and charged for them on some holidays. The Live Oak County Rest Area was only a possibility, not a sure thing: Google Street View seemed to indicate that there was no fence between the county road and the Interstate 37 rest area at that location, suggesting that a bike camper might be able to find a place to pitch, along the county road, that would be safe and would allow foot access to the rest area facilities, without violating any laws banning bikes from the Interstate. (I emailed the Texas Department of Transportation to ask about this; they didn’t reply.) There appeared to be no other rest areas along the entire route.

The first leg of this route, from south SA to the I-37 rest area at County Road 437, measured 48 miles from the 1604 loop (or 54 miles, starting from 1327 Mission Grande; or 63+ miles, using the Braunig Lake option); the next leg, down to LCCSP, was 54 miles; the stretch from there to Labonte Park was 33 miles; the piece from Labonte to the start of JFK Causeway was another 31 miles; and then there was that final 20-mile lurch across the bridge and down to the end of the road in PINS.

North end of PINS

Biking Through and Beyond Corpus Christi

As shown by the best available map of PINS, it would be necessary to go nearly to the end of the road to get a campsite. The National Park Service (NPS) listed five possible camping areas in PINS, all first come, first served, half-price for seniors. The map provided above shows several of those sites. Those sites were Malaquite ($8/night), Bird Island Basin ($5/night), North Beach (free), South Beach (free), and Yarborough Pass (free). (Note that sometimes storm damage or other factors would close or limit access to some campsites — Yarborough, especially. As of early 2019, a park alert said the road was closed at Yarborough Pass until further notice.)

NPS explained that, starting at the park’s northern (ocean-side) boundary, North Beach extended southwards for 1.1 miles; then there was the 4.5-mile length of Closed Beach; then South Beach continued for about seven miles; then there were other beaches further south. Closed Beach was not entirely closed; Malaquite was located in that segment. It was “closed” in the sense that, as NPS said, Malaquite Swimming Beach was the only area in PINS did not allow either beachgoing vehicle traffic or pets.

NPS said that both Bird Island Basin and Yarborough Pass campgrounds were located on Laguna Madre. Various maps indicated that Laguna Madre was the long, hypersaline body of water separating the barrier islands (including both North and South Padre islands) from the mainland. In the map shown above, the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway ran through Laguna Madre. In other words, these two campgrounds did not face the Gulf of Mexico. Yarborough Pass campground was 15.5 miles south of the Malaquite Visitor Center, while Bird Island Basin was three miles north and 1.7 miles west.

Let us re-express that information in terms of the Google route map shown above. From that map’s ending point — that is, starting from the CC end of the JFK Causeway across Laguna Madre — it was 14.5 miles to the north edge of PINS, another 1.4 miles to the park’s entrance booth (or, with a left turn off the main road, 1.5 miles to North Beach), another 3.4 miles to Malaquite Campground (or, with a right turn off the main road, 2.4 miles to Bird Island Basin Campground, along the road shown as a black line), and then another mile past Malaquite to the point where the road ended, emptying out into the start of South Beach, for a total of 20.2 miles from the start of JFK Causeway. Thus, free camping on North or South Beach was either 16 or 20 miles beyond the end of the 170-mile trip shown on the Google route map.

As noted above, those distances could be substantially reduced by using CC’s CCRTA buses. Biking into CC from SA, a bus stop on the west side of town, at the Calallen Walmart (open 24 hours), was just three miles from Labonte Park — or, alternately, about 26 miles from LCCSP. From there, the No. 27 bus ran to the Staples Street station, where one could transfer to the No. 29 bus to Southside station, from which the No. 65 would go out onto Padre Island. The No. 65 bus would deposit rider and bicycle about 8.5 miles from the north end of PINS. The No. 81 bus, going a little further down the island, would be an alternative to the No. 65 only in summer. Of these buses, the No. 65 had Sunday service; the Nos. 27 and 29 didn’t. So a biker coming from SA to CC, intending to use the bus to cross CC, would not want to arrive or leave on a Sunday.

As a typical example of how the bus connections worked, if a bicyclist arrived at the Calallen Walmart at noon on a weekday, and was able to get his/her grocery and water and bathroom needs taken care of and get on the bus within 45 minutes, s/he would be getting off the bus on North Padre Island at 3:40 PM, not quite three hours after boarding, having thus traversed 34 miles of city. That example would work because, by the time the rider reached the No. 65 bus, it would be starting its afternoon schedule. The No. 27 and 29 buses ran more frequently, but the No. 65 ran between CC and North Padre only six times a day: three times in the morning, and three times in the afternoon, seven days a week.

A bicyclist might want — if arriving in CC at the wrong time, s/he might have — to break up the trip across CC by taking in some city sights and/or using some city facilities. On the inland side of the JFK Causeway, CC offered library branches and other urban attractions and amenities. On the island side of the Causeway, within the CC city limits, there was a limited selection of fast-food joints, lounges, and hotels.

The No. 65 bus would leave the rider, on North Padre, at a point about six miles past the CC end of the JFK Causeway. So the rider would subtract six miles from the park distances stated above. For instance, the bike ride from the bus stop down to North Beach would be about 10 miles; to South Beach, it would be about 14 miles. The rider would want to consider that distance and the time of sunset for the selected time of year, and might want to allow time to find and set up a campsite, in choosing which No. 65 bus to take from CC out to Padre.

Biking back to CC, for activities and/or for groceries, might call for packing up camp, if tent theft was a worry and if there were no other trustworthy campers nearby to keep an eye on things. There would then be that ride of 10 miles from North Beach (more, from the other permitted camping areas) up to a No. 65 bus stop. Depending on bus timing and CC destination, total travel time each way would probably be at least an hour and a half. Since the bus ran only six times a day, there would be a question of whether to make a quick trip in — perhaps catching the first bus in morning or afternoon, and then returning a few hours later — or instead make a day of it, catching an earlier bus in and a later bus back. A sensible grocery destination would be an H-E-B store, located about a mile before the start of the JFK Causeway. H-E-B was a major grocery chain in this region. PINS was open 24/7, and so was the nearby Walmart, but that H-E-B store was not.

Altered Route: No Bus Aid

As mentioned above, the purchase of a trailer meant a change of plans: I was not going to have the assistance of SA and/or CC bus lines to get through town. So at this point my options were to forget the trailer and boil my gear down to an amount that would fit on the bike and in my lap, in my bus seat; get an Uber ride (at least across CC’s JFK Causeway, if not entirely through both cities) from someone with a pickup truck big enough to carry bike and trailer; bike straight through these cities (and especially across the Causeway) in the middle of the night, when it would be relatively safe; ride through town in daylight, banking perhaps on the route suggested by TCS; or bus/rideshare to CC, rent/buy a bike there, and attach my panniers/rack/trailer at that point.

It appeared that much of my Highway 281 route actually consisted of Interstate 37, and that the I-37 access road originally envisioned was not necessarily safe (i.e., some truck traffic, no shoulder). On that basis, it seemed that, instead of taking the access road, I might ride on the shoulder of the interstate highway itself. Wikipedia said, and Bikelaw agreed, that biking on the interstate was allowed unless specifically prohibited — which, I assumed, meant I’d see a sign telling me to stay off, most likely in urban areas. The quality of the pavement on the shoulder of the interstate would presumably tend to be good. I wasn’t eager to have all that traffic roaring next to me. But maybe the semi trucks would beat back some of the wind for me, as they blew past. My observation was that the wind down here came from the south in the warm season, and it was getting warm, so (especially with the trailer) I could use some help against that headwind. From at least Mathis onwards, though, Wayne of Bay Area Bicycles said, “The shoulder is there and full of standard debris that can be ridden but I wouldn’t do it personally. You need to use the access roads along I-37 and not the highway shoulder.” And I knew he had a point. As I had seen, the shoulder could have not only nails and glass bottle bottoms that would defeat almost any tire, but also rocks, chunks of metal, boxes, discarded mattresses, raccoon skulls, and a great many things that might escort me to another broken collarbone or worse.

Wayne also alerted me to an interesting wrinkle. In most places, interstate access roads tended to be one-way. So if I was heading south on I-37, I would choose either the southbound interstate itself or the southbound access road, both of which would be on the west half of the I-37 roadway. But in this stretch of I-37, the access roads were two-way. You could go either north or south on either access road — that is, the one on the west side of the I-37 roadway, or the one on the east side. That was interesting because, for the most part, only local traffic would be heading southbound on the east-side access road — and out in the sticks, there probably wouldn’t be much local traffic. People going onto the northbound interstate, or coming off of the northbound interstate, would be going the opposite direction from me. So I might be able to ride along, southbound, on the east-side access road, without much traffic coming from behind me. Wayne suggested I do this starting (at least) at exit 72 (i.e., the Love’s Truck Stop, north of Three Rivers). There were frontage roads at some points north of there, but let the cyclist be warned: it looked like some of them were dead ends.

I decided that, for a change of scenery, I wanted to seek differing routes, going and returning. This would allow me to see different towns and, I thought, it would give me a chance to camp in different places. So I planned to take Highway 281 and I-37 south to CC; but for the return, I thought I’d try Highway 181. The latter was apparently the route they used to use for the MS 150, before it moved to Houston. My local bike mechanic said 181 had good shoulders most of the way. Allstays seemed to provide the most complete map of campsites in the area:

Allstays map of campgrounds between SA and CC

As indicated in that map, there were many campsites and RV parks in the SA and CC metro areas. In those cities, I would surely be able to find a place to set up the tent, or I might just choose to push on through to my destination. But on the open road, between SA and CC, choices were few. Most of the places shown on that Allstays map were RV parks whose Allstays details indicated RVs Only or No Tents. Here’s the map I produced, showing places where a person could actually pitch a tent, between SA and CC:

Plan B: Highway 281/I-37 southbound; a different route northbound

On my proposed southbound route, along Highway 281 and I-37, the campsites I found in those tent-friendly locations were as follows:

  • The I-37 Live Oak County Rest Area remained something of an unknown. It did not appear to be officially listed anywhere other than on Freecampsites.net.
  • Three Rivers: Tips Park (map). State parks would generally offer nicer camping than private and city parks. In this instance, an Allstays review said the price was $5 without RV hookups, restrooms were locked (March 2018), and there was a refinery emitting constant noise and light at night. A Campendium review added air and probable water pollution to the refinery’s features. By email, the Chamber of Commerce told me to pay at city hall or call 361-786-2528 to reserve a spot.
  • Three Rivers: Choke Canyon State Park (map) ($5 daily entrance fee plus $12 nightly camping fee). A call to the park (361-786-3868) confirmed that tent camping was available only in the Calliham unit, 14 miles west of Three Rivers. According to the reservation website as of Wednesday, March 13, 2019, it looked like few if any campsites were available before the coming Sunday night; most were already reserved for the following weekend; and a fair number of sites had already been reserved throughout the coming weeks, especially on weekends.
  • Mathis: Lake Corpus Christi State Park (map) ($5 daily entrance fee plus $10 nightly camping fee). Camping areas were located about five miles west of the interstate. According to the reservation website as of Wednesday, March 13, 2019, no sites were available for same-day camping; some were still available for Thursday night; hardly any were left for the coming weekend; but after that, most spaces were still available.
  • Mathis: Sunrise Beach RV (Facebook) (map). Located adjacent to the state park. Prices apparently comparable to the state park.
  • Mathis: Riverlake RV (map). Located right by the main highway in Mathis, just off the interstate. Prices apparently comparable to the state park.
  • Mathis: Mustang Hollow Campground (map). Located ten miles north of Mathis, at the north end of Lake Corpus Christi, on the lake, just a mile off the interstate. Reportedly pricey.
  • CC: Labonte Park (map). This was a city park on the west edge of CC. It amounted to a loop in the I-37 access road, at a bend in the Nueces River, right at the location of the notorious bridge (above). According to what seemed to be an official website, the camping was free, with a permit available online; but during what seemed to be the peak season of February 11 to April 18, 2019, there were fees on at least some days (e.g., $28 for up to three days of camping) (see also park camping rules). One site said no restrooms and tons of mosquitoes. Allstays reviews said there were restrooms and a $200 fine for camping without a permit.

That list appeared to provide the sum total of established tenting locations, in the 140 miles or so (as the bike travels) of mostly rural travel between the outskirts of SA and CC. Depending on the number of days allocated for the trip, there might be only one or two combinations of stops that would work.

But that was far better than the situation facing me in the return trip on Highway 181. According to the Allstays map (above), there was not a single tent-friendly camping location anywhere along the entire length of that highway, between those two major cities. Instead, I would have to skip much of Highway 181, and detour instead through Goliad. That would actually only add a half-dozen miles to the return route. But to make it from Goliad to the nearest campsite on the south side of SA (i.e., Calaveras Lake, $18+) (not counting the pricey Riverside Ranch nudist colony), I would face a single-day ride of nearly 80 miles: there seemed to be no other tent-friendly campgrounds in between. Assuming a route through Goliad, then, the return camping options (after leaving the coast) appeared to be as follows:

  • Refugio: Jeter RV Park (map). A TripAdvisor review expressed dismay at the $35 price. A call to the Refugio City Hall (361-526-5361) yielded the information that the RV park was smashed by Hurricane Harvey (2017) and had not yet been rebuilt. They referred me to an RV park, possibly named RCFA RV Spaces. I called them (361-646-9494). They said I’d be welcome to camp in their large field for the same $35 that they charge the RVs.
  • Goliad: Aranama RV Park (map). $25 daily. Not sure whether tents were welcome.
  • Goliad: Goliad State Park (map). Tentsites $10 + $4 daily entrance fee. According to the reservation website as of Wednesday, March 13, 2019, tentsites were mostly booked through the coming weekend, and also for the following weekends, but mostly available on following weekdays.

In effect, Goliad State Park was the only clearly tent-friendly option for the return route. This was not to deny that other solutions could exist:

  • There might be more camping options on an even more roundabout tour. For instance, a South Asian guy from the Wildflower Inn and RV Park in Cuero confirmed, by email, that they accepted tent campers. He declined to state a price. It appeared they might be expensive. The better option might be free tent camping at Cuero City Park.
  • A person could ask towns and specific organizations (e.g., churches, Craigslist) if they could offer, or if they knew of, any place to camp. But it appeared that, if any such possibilities existed, they would have been identified. For instance, a call to the City of Beeville (361-362-7600), located vaguely near the midpoint of the return route on Highway 181, confirmed that Beeville had no parks that allowed camping.
  • In-person exploration might turn up something. For example, I saw that the Diamond G RV Park near Pettus was labeled as “Permantly Closed” — but the space was still there. Would the owner mind if a tenter stayed overnight? Such questions might be best posed in person, for those riders willing to take a chance of finding nothing: people might be more willing to give camping space to someone who looked harmless.
  • There might be something at one of the few Walmart stores and truck stops along the way. Freecampsites listed one in Refugio. But this was doubtful too. Walmart was known for letting RVers stop overnight in their parking lots, at the discretion of the store manager, subject to local ordinance, but that was not actual camping. I had never seen tent campers at any of the Walmart stores where I had slept in a vehicle overnight. (See also the Allstays Walmart Overnight Parking app.) Similarly, I doubted truck stops would want bicyclists getting underfoot of their paying customers.
  • There was always the possibility of stealth camping, which for me was likely to mean waking up at everything that sounded like someone approaching — which, in this region, might not occur often, but could be meaningful when it did.

The original Plan B concept was that I would take Highway 181 home because it was believed to be relatively safe. The revised Plan B was that I would instead take a route through Goliad because a guy has to stop and sleep at some point. This raised the question of whether that alternate route would be safe too. To learn more, I tried to construct another video of the route, using the procedure with which I created my Highway 281 video (above). Unfortunately, the video capture tools that I had used previously were no longer functioning. As an alternative, I conducted spot checks along the route, using Google Earth and Google Street View. These checks suggested that the roads had shoulders along most but not all of the return route.

Unlike the interstate, these northbound highways did not have access roads. Riding on the shoulder would become a more compelling option if I did not want to risk the wrath of a vengeful, turf-conscious driver. Not many were like that, but really it would take only one to spoil my day.

When I was living in rural Kansas, I found that I could ride on a relatively major highway late at night with virtually no problems. I could see headlights coming up behind me from miles away. For the most part, I could ride in the roadway, swerving onto the shoulder only when those vehicles drew near. Even in traffic-prone areas of SA, I mostly had the roads to myself between 1:30 and 4:30 AM, starting and ending somewhat later on Saturday and Sunday mornings (to avoid the weekend partyers and to take advantage of the slower start to weekend days). I guessed that, out in the sticks in South Texas, and especially on the access roads, you might get five or six hours when it would be dark and quiet enough to ride along without many interruptions.

So maybe the plan would be to ride during the night and then crash in the tent in a city park during the daytime, not putting up the rain fly unless necessary, using the tent mesh to ward off mosquitoes. Pass the day reading or computing, in the tent or in the local library; kill some evening hours in a fast-food restaurant or truck stop; hit the road again after midnight. A few days of that, and I’d be there. Granted, I’d miss the scenery — but then, that happened to almost everyone who traveled through that region, day or night. The most scenic parts were the towns, and this approach might actually maximize my time in them. By the time I got to CC, I might have a more informed sense of whether I could get away with night riding up Highway 181, with few or no campgrounds, for my return trip.

Activities at Padre Island National Seashore

Finally, there was the question of what I would do at PINS, once I got there. To some extent, that was a question of what I would do on any long-distance bike trip. On Padre Island, there was mostly just the sun, the sand, and the water, and the answer would therefore be to sit, swim, walk, bike, look, read, listen, sleep, deal with what NPS described as “incredible numbers of [potentially Zika-bearing] mosquitoes at times” (mitigated by the wind at beachside; perhaps less so at laguna-side), watch the birds (see also Aransas National Wildlife Refuge) and other wildlife, and perhaps socialize with fellow visitors. NPS offered volunteer opportunities, though I wasn’t sure those would be available to a brief visitor. I wasn’t going to be able to carry a substantial, wind-resistant sun shade on the bike (NPS said, “The average wind is fairly strong”), so — unless I made friends with some beer-drinking, card-playing holdouts inside their RV — sunblock would be essential at most times of year, and especially if I didn’t at least include some kind of small and/or primitive sun shelter (e.g., tarp, collapsible poles, sand stakes) in my camping gear. There were some rather half-assed pergola-type shelters at Bird Island and Malaquite campgrounds, casting (at best) a mix of sun and shade on the picnic table for at least part of the day, and there were larger shaded shelters at the Malaquite Visitor Center, which might be somewhat busy during peak tourist times.

Beachside shelters at Malaquite (see Bob the Camper for more)

Trail walking opportunities in PINS were apparently limited to the 3/4-mile paved Grasslands Nature Trail loop (see map, above). A so-called birding trail actually seemed to consist of a series of drive-to locations where various kinds of birds have been reported. Another site warned of two species of rattlesnakes in PINS. Although many (e.g., 1 2 3 4 5) sites spoke of cultural and political history, evidently only a few fragments of the unremarkable Novillo Line Camp remained visible. A regularly updated rulebook known as the Superintendent’s Compendium (see also a related Laws & Policies webpage) seemed to indicate that most park service roads were closed to public use, and that camping in dunes and grasslands was prohibited, but did not specifically prohibit offroad walking. NPS did convey concerns about hiking at random, and especially about environmental damage in some locations, such as the mudflats along the Laguna Madre shoreline: “Tire tracks and footprints left over twenty years ago can still be seen in some parts.” I supported those concerns about the environmental damage caused by footprints, but it was still odd to encounter them in light of Wikipedia‘s words:

Oil and natural gas drilling is allowed within the park. Congress has not approved the purchase of the mineral rights within the park even though the boundaries were surveyed as early as 1957. This has caused some controversy because the land is a protected seascape under IUCAN. Heavy equipment is used within the park and is transported across beaches that are nesting areas for not only sea turtles but many birds, including the piping plover, least tern, and other animals that may nest within the park.

Wes Tunnell submitted an article on the environmental sensitivity of PINS in response to the even crazier proposal to reopen Padre as a naval bombing range. (The island had evidently been considered as a possible nuclear bomb test site in the 1960s.)

NPS said there were no bike trails. The Superintendent’s Compendium allowed biking only on park roads, gulf beaches, and parking areas. NPS reminded us that “in Texas [most Gulf Coast] beaches are public highways and all traffic laws apply.” One forum presented comments on police ticketing motorcyclists who exceeded the low speed limits on the beach. Another site pointed out washboarding and “the massive amount of trash and natural debris that washes ashore,” including tire hazards (e.g., “boards with nails”). In this regard, it was only somewhat different from my wilderness camping experience at Perdido Key in Florida. A video from South (not North) Padre depicted smooth biking on packed beach sand, using cruiser-type bikes with fenders. I was not sure how my hybrid (700c x 32) tires would fare. A person acquiring his/her bike locally might be tempted to opt for a mountain or cruiser bike (as low as $80 at Walmart). A bike capable of beach travel might extend the frontier of wilderness camping farther down South Beach. Bryan and Debi appeared to do fine on the beach road with road-friendly bikes (hybrids, it seemed). They provided informative remarks about their ride down the coast from Port A (note that this was in early January 2010):

The next morning we rode about 5 miles on the beach and then 10 miles on the road to bring us to Padre Island National Seashore. It’s the longest stretch of undeveloped barrier island in the world with over 60 miles of beaches, dunes, and a whole lot of plastic debris. We had a couple of nice days there but the conditions were getting a bit unbearable with sand blowing every which way. We learned late one night that there’s a way to pitch the tent for rain, and there’s way to pitch it for blowing sand. We had to completely empty our tent and restake it the first night because a sand dune was building on top of us in the tent. It was all we could do to not eat the sand.

With colder weather and high winds on the way we decided to pack up after only 3 days and 2 nights on the beach. We really wanted to stay longer as it was completely affordable-$5 a person for a week of primitive camping on the beach-awesome! The weather just wasn’t going to cooperate.

The wind problem may have been seasonal. Hurricane season could be worse — but I, myself, had enjoyed great camping at Port A in autumn. (Spring break — comprising especially the first two to three weeks of March in this region — could be crazy in Port A but apparently much less so at PINS.) A New York Times writer (Breal, 2017) said that, on his visit to PINS, the sand was firm enough to drive a two-wheel-drive rental sedan all the way down to Little Shell Beach, at the 15-mile marker:

The shells were little, as advertised, but the beachcombing was like nothing I’d ever seen. Four currents converge here, which means loads of trash from around the world washes onto Padre’s midsection; only quarterly volunteer cleanups keep the place from resembling a landfill.

The park offered some facilities that might prove useful and/or rewarding. At Malaquite, those facilities consisted predominantly of the Visitor Center, a shaded pavilion, cold-water rinse showers, a potable water filling station, and flush toilets. Bird Island Basin campground offered chemical toilets and no showers but (apparently) potable water.

Panoramic (distorted) view of the straight Laguna Madre coastline at Bird Island campground, adapted from Google Maps. NPS shelters are shown at right; the campsites at left appear not to have them. The Worldwinds building appears in the background, at the right side. (For a much larger view with a horizontal scrollbar, click, pause, and then click on the desired portion of the image.)

A bike camper might be challenged to take advantage of the boating, hunting, and fishing possibilities available through Bird Island Basin, but that location also happened to offer what one website described as warm-water swimming for nine months of the year — along with a private concession, Worldwinds, offering windsurfing lessons and rentals of kayaks and stand-up paddle boards ($25 for the first hour) and windsurfing rigs ($45 for 2 hours, $65 for a day), for what was reportedly one of the best windsurfing locations in the U.S. (See Texas Beach Watch for information on bacteria counts in the water.) Finally, bikers interested in more of a wilderness experience might appreciate one writer’s words:

During winter the seashore has very few visitors. Most are snowbirds from up north camping on first five miles of beach.

63 miles of uninhabited beach, there will be long stretches with no one in site for miles…so pick a spot that suites your needs. Remember you may want to choose a spot with some room to nest against dunes in case of high tides. DO NOT DISTURB DUNES you can get a hefty fine for doing so.

You are also the outsider, snakes, racoons, coyotes, mule deer, kangaroo rats, stingrays, and sharks run the neighborhood. A serious injury due to wildlife or human interaction (drug trafficking, poachers) can really be life or death situation. No phones, no electricity, no water….go prepared even if you can scream like a little girl chances are no one would hear.

Food Runs During and After PINS

One unavoidable activity during or after my stay at PINS: a trip to CC for groceries and to recharge electronic devices. As with the initial trip across the Causeway, there would be some logistical limits.

It was possible that I would find a business near the bus stop where I would feel comfortable leaving the bike, and even the fully loaded trailer, while I spent all day in CC. It was also possible that I would meet fellow campers whom I trusted to stick around all day and keep an eye on my campsite. In either of those scenarios, I could leave my stuff somewhere on Padre Island, bike to the bus stop — or, in the wee hours, ride right across the Causeway — and backpack groceries back to the tent site without a problem.

Those, regrettably, were not my starting assumptions. For planning purposes, the assumption had to be that I would either leave the tent, trailer, and gear unattended while I went into CC, or pack up some if not all of my stuff and take it along. Taking it along meant taking it across the Causeway; I wasn’t going to leave my bike, with trailer and gear, at a bus stop. I could only cross the Causeway in the middle of the night. But it seemed unlikely that anyone would raid a tentsite in PINS in the middle of the night, unless by some coincidence the bad guys happened to see me biking along the park road and also happened to know where I was tenting. So it seemed the only relatively secure way to make a food run and return to an established tentsite would be to do it in the quiet hours, biking all the way to the store, with or without the trailer and at least some of my equipment.

That might be the conclusion even if I did find a trustworthy fellow camper to keep an eye on my stuff, so that I could make the trip in the daytime. I hadn’t used Uber or other ride-sharing services, and was unsure how well they would work for these purposes. It appeared that local ordinances had expelled ride-sharing from many places in Texas, but a change in state law had allowed them to return. Given a lack of phone coverage in the park, it seemed I would have to bike up to the urbanized part of Padre Island before I could even put in the call. Evidently the situation could be sketchy. I had seen complaints about poor cell service throughout CC. On Yelp, the only reviewer who had posted any comments at this point gave Uber one star, because the driver could not locate the would-be passenger.

If it came down to the bus schedule, there would be severe limits on my options for biking up to the bus stop, busing over the Causeway, and hauling back groceries. If I camped at North Beach, it was 10 miles each way to the bus stop; it was at least 14 from South Beach. The bus ran only three times during each (morning and evening) rush hour, and its scheduling was not conducive to my purposes. In the afternoon, for example, if I left the tent at 4:15 PM, I could catch the first afternoon bus from Padre Island over the Causeway into CC at about 5:10 PM, and would enter the H-E-B grocery store in Flour Bluff at around 5:30 PM. I would then have a half-hour to get my groceries, stand in a rush-hour checkout line, and get back to the bus stop in time for the last bus back to Padre, leaving at 6:02 PM. If anything went wrong — if I missed my return bus — I would be using a cheap backpack to haul those groceries seven miles back to my bike, across a busy, high-speed, multilane limited-access bridge with no shoulder for part of its length. Assuming all went well and I caught my return bus, the grocery run would end with my return to the campsite at around 7:15 PM, three hours after leaving.

I hadn’t yet invested in a solar charger; I was hoping this trip would provide some insight into whether I would use such a device again anytime soon and, if so, what capacity I would need. Unfortunately, the unfolding food run scenarios were not allowing any time for charging devices. If I needed, say, six hours to recharge my power brick and everything else, then (assuming I would not leave my campsite and gear unattended for so long) it seemed I would have to bike with my trailer across the Causeway one night, find ways of napping in parks and working in libraries or restaurants without exposing my stuff to a strong risk of theft, and then bike back across the next night. Otherwise, it looked like I might be extending my food supplies by riding up to the available fast-food places on the Padre Island side of the Causeway, every night or two (i.e., when I could abandon my stuff with relative safety), to get partial recharges while eating — even if, as it appeared, the Whataburger might be the only one open around the clock.

Sooner or later, I would have to go to a grocery store. This meant either making a food run and returning to PINS, as just described, or moseying on up the coast. CC and Port A were the only places with grocery stores along the section of the coast that I intended to visit. FreeCampsites.net reported 1 2 free camping places along the road from CC to Port A, at least one of which would be much closer to CC than any PINS tentsite. The initial trip through CC, and a few days at PINS, would inform me as to whether I would prefer one of those other sites in lieu of the sense of relative safety and remoteness I usually found in national parks. So one option would be to go into CC for food after leaving PINS, and then camp at one of these other places. An alternative would be to skip the Causeway, not return to CC, and instead make a one-step move from PINS all the way to Port A, and wait until I got there to replenish my stash. Port A would give me a maximum of three nights of camping (free for tenters without a car), with convenient access to stores and library, in a small-town environment that I had previously experienced as relatively safe. From Port A, assuming I didn’t want to go back down the coast and over the Causeway, it would then be a question of whether to make 70- and 80-mile rides through Goliad back to the SA outskirts or, instead, to ride 60 miles over to Mathis, and go home the way I came.

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