Backroads of Texas

Backroads of Texas

San Jacinto to San Bernard refuge

By Gary Clark and Kathy Adams Clark

From San Jacinto Battleground State Historic Site, follow Park Road 186 until it turns onto US Highway 225 or Pasadena Freeway east until it merges with Texas Highway 146. Drive south 28 miles to the Texas City Dike. Drive on Texas Highway 197 to Texas Highway 3 merging to Interstate 45 south. Drive for 10 miles to Galveston on Interstate 45. Take Seawall Boulevard west in Galveston as it becomes Farm to Market

Road 3005 for 27 miles to San Luis Pass. Continue on Farm to Market Road 3005 as it becomes County Road 257 for 13 miles. Turn right on Texas Highway 332, right on Farm to Market Road 523, and then right again on Farm to Market Road 2004 to the entrance for the Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge. Approximately 106 total miles.

San Jacinto Battleground State Historic Site is where the beauty of nature and the glory of human history shine with equal splendor. The San Jacinto Monument rises 570 feet above a landscape of marshlands, woodlands, and grasslands. Birds such as herons, egrets, ducks, hawks, sparrows, and songbirds abound. Squirrels and rabbits scamper on the ground where General Sam Houston’s rag-tag army fought and won the battle for Texas independence in 1836.

Located twenty-two miles from downtown Houston, the park is an ideal place for people of all ages. Human history hovers around you with every step.

You will enter the park heading southeast on Park Road 1836. The park is a one-thousand-acre peninsula that pushes northward into the confluence of the Houston Ship Channel (once Buffalo Bayou) and the San Jacinto River.

As a result, three hundred acres of marshland border the north and east end of the park. Along the park road to the southeast, you’ll notice grasslands dotted with live oaks.

A grassland restoration project is returning the area to its original coastal prairie landscape. Grasses such as bluestem, Indiangrass, and switchgrass, along with grasslandbirds, will soon predominate the area as they did when Sam Houston fought his battle.

Proceeding on Park Road 1836, you’ll drive over a short causeway that crosses a tidal marsh. Park on either side of the causeway and look for waterfowl that lived here when Texas won its independence from Mexico. Continue past the causeway to the end of the road at Adams Point. Look toward the northeast at the vast San Jacinto Marsh. Texas Parks and Wildlife initiated a plan in 1995 to restore the San Jacinto Marsh and adjacent wetlands in the park. Since the 1940s, erosion and land subsidence have degraded the marshes, and natural bluffs that had historically protected the marsh from erosion have consequently vanished.

Ultimately, the area will look much the way it did when Sam Houston’s army chased the Mexican soldiers to their deaths in the muddy marsh. But beyond its historical significance, the marsh is regaining its crucial role as a spawning ground for Galveston Bay fish, shrimp, and crabs and also bringing back wildlife such as river otters, muskrats, alligators, wood storks, brown pelicans, peregrine falcons, and the majestic osprey.

Drive back from Adams Point across the causeway to the crest of a small hill where the road veers to the right. Park your car and wander around beneath the live oaks. Be sure to read the small monuments posted in the area. After all, you’re standing on the ground where Santa Ana and his Mexican army camped the night before they lost the decisive battle against the “Texians” on April 21, 1836.

The battle was fought during the peak of the spring migration of neotropical songbirds. Drive to the parking area for the San Jacinto Monument and visit the museum replete with displays and treasured artifacts from Texas revolutionary days. Take the elevator to the observation room at the top. Look north and east from the observation room to see the expanse of the marsh and its interaction with the San Jacinto River. Look south and east to survey the historic battlefield. You’ll be looking down on a unique area where biological diversity merges with historical legacy.

Across Independence Parkway from the monument is the battleship Texas. Officially called the USS Texas, it is the only remaining battleship that played a role in both World War I and World War II. Guided or self-guided tours give visitors a chance to see above- and below-deck.

Take a look at the guns topside and then drop below for a tour of the engine room. Walk through the ship and be rather startled at the living conditions of sailors during a different era.

Exit the park on Road 1836 headed toward Texas Highway 225. Take Texas 225 east and merge onto Texas Highway 146 south toward La Porte. Travel about twenty miles and then turn left onto Farm to Market Road 1765. Stay straight and continue along Fifth Avenue South as it changes to Fourth Avenue South, then turn right onto Sixth Street South. Turn left on Dock Road to Texas City Dike.

The Texas City Dike is a nearly five-mile-long dike that extends out into Galveston Bay. A two-lane road runs along the dike that includes several pullouts for fishing, bird-watching, water sports, and sightseeing. The dike was built in 1935 to reduce sediments in lower Galveston Bay.

Anglers love the dike so much they’ve named it the “world’s longest man-made fishing pier.”

Stop at Boyd’s Onestop if you’d like a little fresh seafood to eat at one of the picnic tables on the dike.

Drive to Galveston. It would be a shame to drive through here for beaches and seafood restaurants and not stop for an hour or more on The Strand. Park your car near the corner of Twenty-Fifth and Strand to begin a walking tour.

The Galveston Island Railroad Museum is housed in the old Santa Fe Railway Station. Inside are interesting displays, but the real treasures are out back. Vintage engines and railway cars stand on the tracks just as they might have been seen in the 1940s or 1950s. Walk through dining cars and mail cars.

If you can, pull yourself away from this gem and walk along the Strand. The Strand is filled with history but also has outstanding restaurants, gift shops, and hotels. Many  of the historic buildings that line the Strand survived the catastrophic hurricane of 1900, among the worst natural disasters in US history. Everything you see still standing also survived the devastation of Hurricanes Ike and Rita in the twenty-first century. Notice the high-water marks on many of the buildings.

Leave the Strand and drive to Seawall Boulevard. The entire island of Galveston is a mere three miles wide at its widest point and twenty-seven miles long. Spanish explorers surveyed the island in 1519, and Cabeza de Vaca was shipwrecked on the island in 1528. The Mexican government established a port of entry here in 1825. Shipping commerce dominated the economy after the Texas war of independence in 1836, and thirty-seven thousand people inhabited the island in 1900.

When a huge hurricane hit the island on September 8, 1900, it covered the island with a 15.7-foot high wall of water. The devastation was horrendous, beyond anything we’ve seen in the United States except perhaps for the catastrophe of Hurricane Katrina hitting New Orleans. A long-range plan was implemented to protect the city from future storms. By 1904, houses had been raised to protect them from flooding, and a three-mile-long seawall that stood seventeen feet above the mean low tide line had been constructed. The seawall is now ten miles long.

Seawall Boulevard changes into Farm to Market 3005 that runs the length of the island. Stop at Galveston Island State Park for access to the Gulf of Mexico. The two-thousand- acre park sweeps over both sides of FM 3005 on the west end of the island, bordered by the Gulf of Mexico to the south and Galveston Bay to the north. Diverse habitats from beaches to marshes, ponds, prairies, and trees yield diverse birds such as water birds, hawks, and songbirds.

From the park headquarters, head east along a short road running parallel to the coastline and looping like a lasso as it borders a marsh. You might see a skinny, chickensized, brownish-gray bird called a “clapper rail” skulking in and out of marsh grasses. A bird you’re bound to see is the common gallinule with its slate-hued body and red beak scooting like a duck over shallow water while maneuvering through aquatic vegetation.

Along the road west near the campsites, stop and walk to the beach. A reddish egret will seemingly dance in the nearshore waters as it struts and flares its wings. The tall egret with shaggy auburn feathering on its head and neck spooks schools of fish under the shade of its outspread wings.

Gawk at the brown pelicans flying like military squadrons over the surf before they suddenly plunge headfirst into the water to scoop up fish in expandable throat pouches.

Now to the bay side of the park across the highway. Notice coastal cord grasses and switch grasses that blanketed the island when a shipwrecked Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca apparently arrived on the beach in 1528. Atop tall grass stems are eastern meadowlarks singing piccolo like melodies resembling the words spring-of-the-year. In summer you’ll see scissor-tailed flycatchers taking wing like aerial ballet dancers to snap up flying insects.

Continue toward the observation tower, stopping to gaze over Oak Bayou that looks like a shallow lake with herons and egrets stalking the water for fish. The observation tower provides a panoramic view of the beautiful marsh and grasslands wonderfully full of living things.

Return to FM 3005 and enjoy a drive through coastal prairies split by charming beach communities. A toll bridge crosses San Luis Pass at the end of the island. Turn into San Luis Pass County Park right after crossing the bridge.

Dunes and tidal flats are full of birds year-round as well as anglers trying to catch fish in the waters.

At the bridge, FM 3005 becomes County Road 257, better known as the Blue Water Highway. The road hugs the coast for thirteen miles. Waters from the Gulf of Mexico are a short distance away on one side with coastal marshes on the other side. Turn right on Texas Highway 332, right on Farm to Market Road 523, and then right again on Farm to Market Road 2004 to the entrance for the Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge.

A quick look around the refuge may fool you because it doesn’t seem spectacular until you look closer and discover the wide diversity of plant and animal life. The refuge sprawls over forty-three thousand acres next to Bastrop, Christmas, and Drum Bays. The patchwork of coastal grasses, shrubs, marshes, lakes, and ponds camouflages the abundant birds and wildlife. It’s a primary wintering ground for North American waterfowl and a major stopover point for migratory songbirds and shorebirds.

A three-mile gravel road leads you into the refuge to the information center. The road cuts through hackberry trees, baccharis shrubs, and tall coastal grasses. Look for crested caracaras perched on the fence posts. They resemble bald eagles with their white heads, tails, and wing tips, all of which give them the enduring folk name “Mexican Eagle.”

At the information center, you’ll find restrooms and a kiosk with maps of the refuge, a self-guided touring pamphlet, and other information. Be sure to sign in at the guest register. Entrance is free.

Adjacent to the kiosk is a short boardwalk that bridges a cattail marsh and takes you to a hiking trail. (The Friends of the Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge provided the boardwalk and many other facilities.) The hiking trail at the end of the boardwalk leads for a half mile to an observation platform over Big Slough, a wide, slow-moving stream that meanders through the refuge.

A seven-mile auto tour loop begins at the information center. Your self-guided touring pamphlet will lead you along the road to numbered signs, each sporting a handsome duck silhouette. Enjoy the birds on the tour loop, but also watch for mammals. In early morning or late afternoon, you’re likely to see raccoons, deer, opossums, armadillos, and even a coyote. Feral hogs are common but not welcome because they do tremendous damage to the ecosystem.

Reprinted from Backroads of Texas with permission of Voyageur Press. Text and photography by Gary Clark and Kathy Adams Clark. Available from your favorite bookstore and online.

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