We have now visited the Texas Gulf Coast in the winter twice. Our first visit took us to the southern end, staying on South Padre Island. The second time we explored the northern region, from Galveston to Padre Island.
Visiting the beach in the winter is always a bit of a risk in terms of the weather. On the plus side, the weather along the Texas Gulf Coast is typically fairly mild in the winter. You’ll find an abundance of RV parks in the region, catering to those looking to escape freezing winter temperatures.
But, the beach can also be cold and windy in the winter. We experienced that first-hand when we visited South Padre Island in February 2021. You may remember either from first-hand experience or nationwide news, that was the winter much of Texas experienced freezing temperatures, which completely overwhelmed the power grid.
That was definitely an experience we did not want to repeat anywhere. But we did want to return to Texas in the winter. Thankfully, we had much better weather for our second trip in December 2023.
So, let’s take a look at a few of the wonderful cities to visit and things to do along the Texas Gulf Coast in the winter.
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Galveston is the main town on Galveston Island, a barrier island southeast of Houston.
I’ll be honest, Galveston was not originally on our Texas road trip itinerary. We added it when we realized there was a Hilton resort and we still had unused resort credits from our Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card.
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We figured even if there wasn’t anything interesting to do, we’d at least get to relax at a nice hotel for a couple of nights. Ultimately, we found Galveston to be well worth the stop. In fact, I’d encourage everyone to visit Galveston at some point. It’s got a great beach, a cruise terminal and plenty of things to do year-round.
We also found out during our visit that Galveston is home to one of the largest Mardis Gras celebrations in the county. So, if you’re looking for some Mardi Gras festivities outside of New Orleans, I’d encourage you to check it out.
Perhaps the two biggest draws for visiting Galveston are the beaches and the cruise port. Most of the beaches are located on the gulf side of the island, while the cruise terminal is on the bay side.
Of course, even with relatively mild winter temperatures, it was still too cold to hang out on the beach. But we did enjoy walking out on one of the many jetties to soak up the sunshine and listen to waves crash ashore.
And we were not the only people doing that. We were pleasantly surprised that for a beach town, there were still a decent number of visitors when we were there around Christmas. Most everything was open, including Pier Park, the large amusement park right on the beach.
There seemed to be ample parking, both along the main road and in a few public parking lots. Though I’m sure it still fills up in the height of beach season.
If you want to actually spend time on the beach, you’d definitely need to visit Galveston in the spring, summer or even early fall. But, we really enjoyed Galveston in the winter as just a quiet getaway.
Downtown and Cruise Port
Since we weren’t in town for a cruise, we didn’t have a chance to actually check out the cruise terminal. But, it is located right downtown and we caught a peak of the Regal Princess, which we sailed on in 2021.
The downtown area is filled with shops and restaurants and is easily walkable. The main square in downtown is Saengerfest Park. At this square, you’ll find a couple of really interesting art pieces representing the city. At Christmas, they had a large tree. I’m guessing you’ll find a variety of events in the square throughout the year.
We enjoyed wandering around downtown Galveston for about an hour checking out the shops. For dinner and drinks, we walked to the Texas Tail Distillery, which is just a few blocks off the main tourist streets (see below for more info).
At the distillery, one of the bartenders told us that there are plans to expand the airport and build up the cruise terminal. Based on our that, I do not doubt that Galveston will grow as a cruise port.
It is a great island town on its own. And it’s certainly worth at least a day or two before or after a cruise.
Overall, we really enjoyed Galveston and could easily return when temperatures are a little warmer. In particular, we liked that Galveston is not too big, like Miami, Fort Lauderdale or New Orleans. But, there are plenty of things to do for a few days, in addition to the beach.
Note: Keep the Mardi Gras celebrations in mind if you are cruising in February. We found out first-hand how difficult it can be to navigate to a cruise port during Mardi Gras when we sailed out of New Orleans in February 2023. Of course, if you want to combine Mardi Gras and a cruise, you can do that in either New Orleans or Galveston
No visit to Galveston would be complete without a stop at Moody Gardens, regardless of the time of year. This large complex includes tropical gardens, wildlife exhibits, a seasonal water park and a golf course, along with a hotel, spa and convention center.
In the winter (mid-November to early January), there are a variety of Holiday in the Gardens festivities sure to entertain the entire family. Since we arrived in Galveston on Christmas Day, that was a perfect holiday treat for us.
We enjoyed a leisurely walk through the Festival of Lights. This paved walk takes you through a mile-long trail that is covered with lights and various holiday scenes. You can take as much or as little time as you want on the easy walk.
Other Holiday in the Gardens activities include Ice Land (an immersive carved-ice experience), an ice skating rink, an arctic slide, holiday 3D and 4D films and more. Many of these cater to kids, so we skipped them. But, there were plenty of activities to keep the entire family busy!
Moody Gardens offers a variety of events throughout the year. Be sure to check their website to see what is going on during your visit.
Where to Eat and Drink in Galveston
If you’re looking for great food in a casual atmosphere, be sure to check out The Gumbo Diner. This classic American diner serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, with a New Orleans twist. We stopped there somewhat on a whim for breakfast and were very glad we did.
I had the Southwestern Omelet, while Grant opted for the Big Beach breakfast of eggs, bacon and a pancake. We also both had a side of cheese grits. And, we couldn’t resist adding on an order of beignets.
Everything we had was absolutely fantastic. The cheese grits were definitely some of the best we’ve ever had and the beignets were almost as good as Cafe du Monde in New Orleans.
We’d return here in a heartbeat for any meal.
As previously mentioned, we also visited the Texas Tail Distillery. In addition to a nice selection of whiskey, vodka and moonshine, they have a food menu featuring appetizers, sandwiches and flatbreads.
Grant and I each opted for a flight of bourbon and whiskey. We also had the Brisket Deviled Eggs, Chimichurri Nachos and Brisket Grilled Cheese.
The whiskey was solid, with several nice varieties. We also enjoyed a couple of their featured cocktails. I went out on a limb with the seasonal Oh Snap, which was a bit of a twist on Egg Nog with gingerbread. It was certainly different but not sure I’d order it again. Grant opted for an Old Fashioned, which was spot on.
In addition to a nice indoor bar and dining area, the distillery also has a large outdoor patio. This would be a great place to spend an afternoon or evening when it’s a little warmer.
Where to Stay in Galveston
There is no shortage of both chain and local hotels in Galveston. There are also quite a few RV parks if you are camping.
As mentioned earlier, we stayed at the Hilton Galveston Island Resort to take advantage of the resort credit that comes with our Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card.
The hotel is located right on Seawall Blvd, the main drag on the gulf side of the island, right across from the beach. From the hotel, you can easily walk right across the street to access the beach without worrying about parking.
In the winter, you can also enjoy the heated pool or hot tub. Alas, we forgot to pack our bathing suits for this trip. But, we did see several people enjoying the pool. And the swim-up bar looked like it’d be popular in warmer weather!
The hotel room itself was comfortable and offered a view of the ocean, even if you did have to peer over the parking lot. And, with both a dining room and a bar serving basic fare, you don’t even have to leave if you don’t want to!
Overall, we had a great stay and would certainly recommend the hotel any time of year.
San Jacinto: Side Trip from Galveston
Located east of Houston, San Jacinto Battleground State Historic Site is not far out of your way when traveling to Galveston. You could easily make a stop on your way to or from Galveston. It would also make a good day trip while staying in Galveston. We visited the site during our 2021 February trip to Texas, before it was cut short due to the historic winter storm that paralyzed the state.
The site preserves the location of the final battle of the Texas Revolution, where the Texans, under General Sam Houston surprised the Mexican Army. The Texans captured General Santa Annan and forced the Mexican government to acknowledge the independence of Texas.
At the site, you will find a 567-foot tall tower overlooking the battlefield. In true Texas fashion, the tower is just a bit taller than the Washington Monument and has an observation deck at the top. At the base of the tower, you find a museum dedicated to the battle and the Texas Revolution. There is also a brief driving tour of the battlefield and short hiking trail out to Buffalo Bayou.
The USS Texas, a battleship commissioned in 1914 which saw service in World War I and World War II, used to be anchored nearby as a museum ship but it has been taken to dry dock in Galveston for refurbishment. It is unknown where it will be anchored following the refurbishment.
All told, plan to spend about an hour or two exploring this historic site.
Aransas National Wildlife Refuge
Driving southwest from Galveston, the next stop on our Texas road trip was Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. Many wildlife refuges predominantly preserve habitat for birds and we are not big “birders.” But, we do make a point to stop at refuges occasionally, especially if there is something unique.
The Aransas NWR is the wintering home of the last wild flock of endangered whooping cranes. That definitely made it worth adding to our Texas Gulf Coast road trip itinerary. Plus, my dad is a huge fan of wildlife refuges and wanted a hat from there. So, we had to go!
To get to the Aransas NWR, we drove the length of Galveston Island to San Luis Island, then to the mainland. Note: this drive requires crossing the San Luis Bridge, a $2 toll bridge.
We found the drive along the coast to be very relaxing. There wasn’t much traffic, though I’m sure that depends on the time of year. Once you get out of Galveston, though, there really isn’t much other than houses, condos and RV parks. And that’s exactly why we enjoyed the drive!
On the mainland, you’ll drive through mostly rural farmland, dotted with the occasional small town. If you need food or gas, stop when you have the chance because much of the drive is a whole lot of nothing.
Yes, those actually are our favorite drives.
What to Do at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge
When you arrive at Aransas NWR, be sure to stop at the visitor center to pay the entrance fee (free if you have an America the Beautiful Pass!) and get a refuge map. Also, be sure to ask a ranger for tips on where to spot cranes and other wildlife.
From there, continue down the main road which follows along San Antonio Bay. There are several places to park to access a viewing platform, fishing pier or short hiking trail.
At the end of the drive, a small parking area provides access to two observation towers and the Big Tree Trail. Unfortunately, we didn’t see anything super exciting in terms of wildlife from the tallest observation tower – just a very large committee (group) of turkey vultures. But, it is a fantastic view looking down over the trees and water, and well worth the effort to get to the top.
We also walked out over the boardwalk where we saw a variety of birds. From there, the trail loops through the woods or you can just turn around and return to the parking lot.
At this tower area, you can also access the one-way Auto Tour Loop. This 9-mile paved drive loops you back towards the visitor center and is a nice relaxing drive. It has a mix of low vegetation and open grassy areas.
We didn’t see much of anything along the drive and, honestly, in the winter it wasn’t all that scenic. I’m sure it would be a much better drive in the spring or summer.
Our last stop was at the Heron Flats Trail. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to hike the entire trail but it was still a successful stop. Right next to the parking lot, we saw a large alligator just hanging out near a small pond. After snapping a few photos from a safe distance, we continued on to a viewing platform over a large marsh.
This is where we finally saw a couple of Whooping Cranes, way out in the distance. There were several other birds, along with a few deer in this area as well.
Overall, we spent a couple of hours at the Aransas NWR and easily could have spent more time. We didn’t do any complete hiking trails or spend too much time in any one spot. It’s a really nice wildlife refuge. If you can, I’d suggest you budge at least half a day, if not a full day for this stop.
Where to Stay Near Aransas National Wildlife Refuge
The Aransas NWR is in the middle of nowhere. Seriously, there’s not much of anything within about an hour. So, following our visit to the refuge, we continued our road trip southwest and stayed in Port Aransas.
The most direct route to Port Aransas is still nearly a 1.5-hour drive from the wildlife refuge. And, you’ll need to catch a small vehicle ferry to the island. Thankfully, the free ferry runs 24 hours a day and does not require reservations.
We lucked out and drove right onto the ferry just as it was reaching capacity. We departed about a minute later. The trip across the bay was quick – only 10 minutes, if that. Wait times certainly can be longer, especially if visiting during peak season. But, it’s an easy process regardless.
In Port Aransas, we stayed at the Hampton Inn, which provided the standard Hilton comfort at a reasonable price. For dinner, we kept it easy and simple, hitting the local Whataburger, one of our favorite regional fast-food chains.
The following morning, we made a quick loop through town to check it out. Port Aransas is a nice enough town but there wasn’t much to do or get too excited about in the winter. So, we continued our drive to Padre Island National Seashore.
Padre Island National Seashore
We have wanted to visit Padre Island National Seashore for quite a while. We intended to stop on our first Texas Gulf Coast trip in 2021. Unfortunately, the extreme weather and collapse of the power grid derailed that plan.
But, we knew it would be a great stop so we made a point to include it in our book, USA RV Adventures (Best of the Lone Star State route). Since we didn’t have our RV with us, we couldn’t take advantage of the opportunity to camp on the beach. And, it really was too cold to sit on the beach or swim.
Still, we enjoyed walking down the seashore and soaking up some of the sunshine. Thankfully, the sand was well-packed and easy to walk.
- Sinclair, Bonnie (Author)
- English (Publication Language)
- 560 Pages – 02/28/2023 (Publication Date) – Moon Travel (Publisher)
What do Do at Padre Island National Seashore
From the visitor center, we walked nearly a mile south to reach the camping area. We were interested to see just how the camping situation was. Even in the winter, we were pleased to find several RVs set up right on the beach (and, thankfully, far enough ashore to avoid high tide).
As you’d expect, the beach is the main thing to do at Padre Island National Seashore. But, they also have a small visitor center with exhibits and one short hiking trail that takes you through the inland dunes. It’s a nice walk to stretch your legs and see some different vegetation.
When it’s warmer, the bay side of the island, Laguna Madre, is a great place for windsurfing. A park concessionaire, Worldwide Windsurfing, rents equipment for windsurfing, kayaking and stand-up paddleboarding.
Of course, one of the most popular things to do at Padre Island NS is camp right on the beach. Seriously, you can tow your camper right on to the beach and camp for free! If you would rather stay in a developed campground, they also have two campgrounds without hookups – one on the gulf side and one on the laguna side.
At Malaquite Campground, on the gulf side, you’ll find defined campsites with picnic tables. Additionally, small line of sand dunes protects campers from the winds blowing off the Gulf of Mexico. Bird Island Basin Campground, on the laguna side, offers waterfront sites. Still, both campgrounds are little more than a parking lot and neither has any hookups.
Overall, we enjoyed our short winter visit to Padre Island NS. We got to check out the facilities and scope out the campgrounds and beach camping. I’m confident that we’ll return one day when its warmer to spend more time here.
Where to Stay Near Padre Island NS
The closest towns to Padre Island NS are Port Aransas and Corpus Christi, which is on the mainland. Both are about a 30-minute drive from the visitor center. Of course, you could also stay at one of the campgrounds at the park.
As mentioned previously, we stayed in Port Aransas the night before our visit and it was a nice and easy drive to the park. It’s a fairly small town but there are a few hotels and restaurants. If you just want to relax for a few days, I’d suggest you stay there.
Corpus Christi is a much larger city with seemingly unlimited options for hotels, restaurants and shopping. If you are looking for something other than just visiting the beach, you’re sure to find it in Corpus Christi. If you plan to continue your tour of the Gulf Coast, Corpus Christi is the biggest town in South Texas, making it a great place to stay for a few days before driving farther south to Brownsville and South Padre Island.
Alas, our itinerary took us to San Antonio, which is about a 2.5-hour drive inland. But first, we stopped for lunch in Corpus Christi, at Water Street Oyster Bar. In our book, we referred to it as “Gulf Coast seafood with a decidedly Texas flair.” I have to say, we were spot on!
Our suggestion of the wood-grilled oysters definitely hit the spot, along with the creole hushpuppies and Mesquite Grilled sampler. Seriously, we feasted for lunch and it was AMAZING! My only regret is that we didn’t have room for dessert.
Stay tuned for upcoming articles covering the rest of our Texas winter road trip.
South Padre Island
The drive from Padre Island to South Padre Island takes about 3 hours and requires driving inland. There are no roads (or ferries) connecting the islands directly.
We visited South Padre Island in the winter of 2021 because we knew a cold snap would be hitting much of the country. Since the island lies at the far southern tip of Texas, we figured we would be far enough south to escape the worst of the freezing weather.
In fact, the South Padre Island tourism board claims that the island sees more than 300 days of sunshine and an average year-round temperature of 74 degrees.
Unfortunately, our experience was far from that. And we didn’t get to experience any of the beaches or other outdoor adventures that the island is known for.
As such, we cannot offer full coverage on this part of the Texas Gulf Coast. But, it is a worthy stop on your itinerary, so we wanted to include it.
Our Winter Experience in South Padre Island
The weather was cold, rainy and windy when we arrived in South Padre Island. Parts of the island and surrounding inland towns had already experienced a loss of electricity and/or water, which we did not expect. Thankfully, our hotel, the Hilton Garden Inn, had electricity for our stay… but it lost water on our last full day.
The main purpose of our visit was to tour Palo Alto Battlefield National Historical Park, one of 400+ units of the National Park Service. The weather was so bad our first two days, that the park closed.
Driving around, many restaurants and businesses were closed, including Walmart. Open grocery stores had a big demand for water and other basic provisions. Some places had water and electricity but no internet. Without internet, the ATMs and credit card readers were down, so we had to scrounge for cash.
Yes, we learned a lot about being prepared for emergencies during this trip!
Thankfully, we were able to visit Palo Alto Battlefield on our third (and final) day in town. Yes, it was still cold and windy. But, we were prepared with layers so it wasn’t too bad.
Palo Alto Battlefield National Historical Park
There are two units to Palo Alto Battlefield NHP, which covers several battles of the Mexican-American War. You should start at the main unit, which is north of Brownsville. There, you’ll find the visitor center with exhibits and a paved walking path around the battlefield.
It’s a very easy walk that allows you to take in the South Texas vegetation and learn about the battle.
You may even spot one of the Nilgai that calls this area home. Nilgai are an antelope that the King Ranch brought to the area from India and Pakistan for hunting in the 1920s. The animals thrived in the area and spread.
So, if you spot a weird animal at Palo Alto Battlefield or anywhere in the area, that’s probably what it is.
The second unit, the Resaca de la Palma Battlefield is located in the heart of Brownsville. It’s a much smaller area that resembles a city park. There is no visitor center here but there are several exhibit signs.
If visiting Palo Alto Battlefield NHP, be sure to read Grant’s full article. Hopefully, we’ll make it back to South Padre Island when it’s warmer so we can experience all that the area is known for.
Final Thoughts on Visiting the Texas Gulf Coast in the Winter
If you’re looking to escape the freezing temperatures that cover much of the US in the winter, the Texas Gulf Coast is usually a great place to do that.
You may not be able to fully experience the beaches and all of the outdoor fun that you’d find in the spring or summer but you’ll typically find plenty of things to do. Yes, it’ll probably be cold. But, it shouldn’t be as cold as it is farther north.
We thoroughly enjoyed the Texas Gulf Coast, all the way from Galveston to Padre Island, on our most recent road trip. Highlights included walking through the Festival of Lights at Moody Gardens in Galveston, watching the birds at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge and walking along the beach at Padre Island National Seashore.
With more time, you can continue south to South Padre Island or turn inland and check out many of the great cities that Texas is known for, including San Antonio, Austin, Waco and Fort Worth.
Our first two trips to the area were short. We look forward to returning with our RV and spending much more time exploring!
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