Exploring Palo Alto Battlefield


Last Updated on January 27, 2024 by Bonnie

Located just outside Brownsville, TX, Palo Alto Battlefield National Historical Park preserves one of a handful of Mexican-American War battles that happened in what is now the United States. Brownsville is located at the southern tip of Texas and takes a concerted effort to get to. For us, the drive through South Texas was a small price to pay to check off another of the 400+ units of the National Park system.

We admit, visiting battlefields is not always fun. While we enjoy the history, they are not the most exciting park sites to visit. Still, we can generally enjoy learning a little about the battle and there’s usually something unique about the site or area. Palo Alto Battlefield NHP was no different.

Following a couple of skirmishes along the Rio Grande, American forces under Gen. Zachary Taylor fought a pair of lopsided battles against Mexican forces near Fort Brown. The Americans won an artillery battle the first day, inflicting heavy casualties on a larger Mexican force. 

Palo Alto Battlefield
Palo Alto Battlefield

Following their defeat at Palo Alto, the Mexican army moved south to rest and recover at Resaca de la Palma, a water-filled ravine in dense brush. By retreating and choosing an area with dense vegetation, Gen. Mariano Arista hoped to force the Americans to engage at close range, negating the advantages of American artillery.

The second battle was fierce but quick, with the American forces overrunning the Mexican forces. These two battles set the tone for the entire war and made a hero out of Taylor, eventually leading to his presidency. 

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Visiting Palo Alto Battlefield

Palo Alto Battlefield National Historical Park preserves both battlefields but the main exhibits are located at the site of the first battle, north of Brownsville. 

The visitor center at Palo Alto Battlefield National Historical Park
The visitor center at Palo Alto Battlefield was closed due to COVID but there was still plenty to see and explore.

As always, we recommend hitting the Visitor Center for basic information on the battle. We find the exhibits and film make walking or driving a battlefield a lot more enjoyable. That said, the visitor center was closed when we visited due to COVID-19 but we were able to explore and understand the battle just fine due to the excellent trailside exhibits.

Exploring the battlefield is a matter of walking a paved trail to both the Mexican lines and the American lines. There are several exhibits along the way narrating the progression of the battle. The Park Service marked the positions of both armies with banners so you can see how far they were from each other. 

Studying a map at Palo Alto Battlefield
Grant checking out the map of the battles.

Once you get to the American side, there is a raised and covered observation deck which allows you a better vantage point to see the whole battlefield.

All told, you can probably see the entire battlefield in about an hour with plenty of time to stop and read the exhibits.

The overlook at Palo Alto Battlefield.
The overlook gives a great view of the battlefield from the US Army’s perspective.

Like most battlefields, the land is pretty flat and open, so there is not much else to see.

Palo Alto’s Unusual Wildlife: Nilgai

While Palo Alto Battlefield NHP is home to several species of wildlife, including plenty of rattlesnakes (watch where you step and sit!) and crabs from the Gulf of Mexico, it is also home to nilgali.

Originally from India and Pakistan, the King Ranch brought these antelope to South Texas in the 1920s. The thought was these animals would make good game animals. The climate proved advantageous to the nilgai and they spread.

A nigali at Palo Alto Battlefield
Did you know South Texas is home Nilgai? These Indian antelopes were imported in the 1920s and have thrived in the region, including the battlefield.

We found three nilgai way off in the distance while we were walking the main trail at the battlefield. They were shy and kept their distance but, still, it was really cool to see!

Visiting Resaca de la Palma Battlefield

Located in the midst of Brownsville, Resaca de la Palma Battlefield is a unit of Palo Alto Battlefield NHP but aside from a bathroom and some informative signs, it looks more like a city park. There is no visitor center at this unit.

The main interpretive area at Resaca de la Palma.
After retreating from Palo Alto, Mexican forces took cover along the creek at Resaca de la Palma.

Once you get to the battlefield, you will see informative signs by the restroom which outline the battle and a walking trail circling the field with exhibit signs along the way. 

While exploring this battlefield does not take long, the path leads you into the brush so you can see how close the fighting was during the battle. 

Interpretive sign at Resaca de la Palma
Bonnie reading about the fight at Resaca de la Palma.

All told, I think we spent about half an hour here. 

Where to Eat and Stay When Visiting Palo Alto Battlefield

A note about our visit: We stayed in this area during the winter storm of 2021 which knocked out power to most of the state, so our options for meals were limited, as is our coverage of Brownsville and South Padre Island.

Read more about how to handle an emergency on the road here.

If you timed your visit to where you are finishing up at Resaca de la Palma and ready for a meal, just turn left out of the parking lot and head down the road to The Vermillion, the top-rated Mexican restaurant in town. 

Fajita lunch at The Vermillion in Brownsville, TX.
Fajita lunch at The Vermillion in Brownsville, TX.

We got lucky the restaurant had power and was serving customers. Most of the town was experiencing rolling blackouts. We both got the lunch fajitas, which were excellent! Unfortunately, shortly after being served, the power went out. 

The staff was great and made the experience good regardless. We would certainly eat here again if we were back in Brownsville. 

In terms of places to stay, there are plenty of hotels in town to choose from or you can do what we did and head over to South Padre Island and stay on the beach. 

The Hilton Garden Inn on South Padre Island
The Hilton Garden Inn on South Padre Island

South Padre Island was about 40 minutes from the battlefield and has plenty of restaurants and hotels to enjoy. We had hoped to have some fresh seafood on the island and were looking forward to our stay. 

Sadly, the power outages plagued the water system on the island, forcing most of the restaurants to close. It also left our otherwise excellent hotel, the Hilton Garden Inn South Padre Island without running water. 

I can’t commend the staff of the hotel enough for doing everything in their power to make the guests comfortable. They did an excellent job and I would certainly stay here again. If you are looking for a good hotel right on the beach, this one is a great choice. 

Read TripAdvisor reviews and book the hotel.

Selfie from our hotel room at South Padre Island.
Selfie from our hotel room at South Padre Island.

Final Thoughts on Palo Alto Battlefield

What makes this battlefield different than most every other battlefield we have visited is that it is for the Mexican-American War and involved us fighting someone other than the British or ourselves. 

While the ground itself is unimpressive, the Park Service did a great job with its exhibits and made the battle come alive. All told, you could easily spend half a day exploring the two battlefields.

On the Palo Alto Battlefield Interpretive Trail
Grant walking the interpretive trail at Palo Alto Battlefield.

I would love nothing better than to be able to tell you more about our visit to South Padre Island or visiting Brownsville but, alas, the rolling power outages crippled both towns. We made the best of what we could.

There is a lot more to this area to compliment your visit. We wish we could tell you more about it. Still, we had fun and it was worth the trip to come all the way to the tip of Texas. 

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