Day Tripping

The road less traveled: Taking refuge at Galveston Island State Park — Dutch pirates, slave traders & liquor smugglers included

The road less traveled: Taking refuge at Galveston Island State Park — Dutch pirates, slave traders & liquor smugglers included

Joel, Galveston Island State Park, September 2012
The Galveston Island State Park supports a quintessential upper Gulf Coast barrier island ecosystem, one that's shaped by changing winds, tides and waves, and functions as a transition between life in the ocean, life in fresh water and life on land. Photo by Joel Luks
Joel, Galveston Island State Park, September 2012
Facing the gulf are most of the 66 campsites ($15 to $25 per night in addition to a $5 daily entrance fee) and an immaculate beach that together offer a family-friendly place to take in the sights. Photo by Joel Luks
Joel, Galveston Island State Park, September 2012
Some trails are covered in seashells,  Photo by Joel Luks
Joel, Galveston Island State Park, September 2012
The trails are flanked by upland tall grass and lower saltgrass, both plants that used to bloom all throughout the bay. Photo by Joel Luks
Joel, Galveston Island State Park, September 2012
Crabbing is allowed and encouraged. Fiddler crabs are everywhere. Photo by Joel Luks
Joel, Galveston Island State Park, September 2012
Where pollution and erosion had eliminated many micro-ecosystems, the building of a web of terraces and sand-filled tubes reclaimed seagrasses and marshes. Photo by Joel Luks
Joel, Galveston Island State Park, September 2012
For those that are looking for a more wet adventure, nine miles of paddling trails zigzag about more bayous, lakes and coves. Photo by Joel Luks
Joel, Galveston Island State Park, September 2012
The commingling of wetlands, grassland prairies, fresh water lagoons, saltwater bayous, sandy beaches, dunes and reefs can be observed from the four-miles of primitive trails, boardwalks and wood observation decks. Photo by Joel Luks
Joel, Galveston Island State Park, September 2012
Long foot bridges  Photo by Joel Luks
Joel, Galveston Island State Park, September 2012
A walk that begins at the Clapper Rail Trail  Photo by Joel Luks
Joel, Galveston Island State Park, September 2012
and follows across Butterowe Bayou, onto Heron's Walk Trail and returns on Egret Loop reveals much of what's undiscovered in the more touristic zones.  Photo by Joel Luks
Joel, Galveston Island State Park, September 2012
Green pathways morph into sandy walkways. . .  Photo by Joel Luks
Joel, Galveston Island State Park, September 2012
. . . bursting with wildflowers and succulents. Photo by Joel Luks
Joel, Galveston Island State Park, September 2012
Some hardy plant species can survive on both fresh and saline waters. Photo by Joel Luks
Joel, Galveston Island State Park, September 2012
Camouflaged within the foliage I spotted white pelicans, a crested caracara, seagulls and a roseate spoonbill. Photo by Joel Luks
Joel, Galveston Island State Park, September 2012
The refuge supports a quintessential upper Gulf Coast barrier island ecosystem, one that's shaped by changing winds, tides and waves, and functions as a transition between life in the ocean, life in fresh water and life on land. Photo by Joel Luks
Joel, Galveston Island State Park, September 2012
The 2,000-acre nature sanctuary suggests a glimpse of the complex biodiversity, including 500 species of birds, that tell the story of Galveston literally and metaphorically. Photo by Joel Luks
Joel, Galveston Island State Park, September 2012
Joel, Galveston Island State Park, September 2012
Joel, Galveston Island State Park, September 2012
Joel, Galveston Island State Park, September 2012
Joel, Galveston Island State Park, September 2012
Joel, Galveston Island State Park, September 2012
Joel, Galveston Island State Park, September 2012
Joel, Galveston Island State Park, September 2012
Joel, Galveston Island State Park, September 2012
Joel, Galveston Island State Park, September 2012
Joel, Galveston Island State Park, September 2012
Joel, Galveston Island State Park, September 2012
Joel, Galveston Island State Park, September 2012
Joel, Galveston Island State Park, September 2012
Joel, Galveston Island State Park, September 2012
Joel, Galveston Island State Park, September 2012
Joel, Galveston Island State Park, September 2012

It's no mystery that the west side of Galveston Island remains somewhat uncharted by many visitors. Blame that on the Gulf Freeway and how conveniently it lures drivers down Broadway Avenue, the main thoroughfare, toward fabulous historic architecture en route to The Strand, Seawall Boulevard and East Beach — and Mosquito Cafe, one of my personal favorite local food spots. 

But if you pay attention as you speed up and down the causeway, there's an exit at 61st Street that leads the way to the less-traveled West End.

Beyond Pleasure Pier and past many of the hotels, restaurants and even some ritzy residential communities where stilt construction reigns king, Galveston Island State Park is a short jaunt away where a nature zealot may not think beauty awaits to be discovered. Surely we go to the gulf for the beaches, Mardi Gras, Dickens on the Strand, to hop on a cruise, for family time at Moody Gardens, to enjoy shows at The Grand 1894 Opera House, a party at the Tremont House or a weekend getaway at The San Luis Resort.

Yet learning about the area's flora, fauna and fluid topography isn't top of mind — though it should be.

The park's entrance signpost is relatively easy to miss and passed over for other activities. Approximately 10 miles further west from 61st Street and Seawall Boulevard — which veers onto FM 3005 — this 2,000-acre nature sanctuary suggests a glimpse of the complex biodiversity, including 500 species of birds, that literally and metaphorically tell the story of Galveston. 

The refuge supports a quintessential upper Gulf Coast barrier island ecosystem, one that's shaped by changing winds, tides and waves, and functions as a transition between life in the ocean, life in fresh water and life on land.

 The beach's eastern tract is where it's thought that Spanish explorer Cabeza De Vaca, the first European to alight in Texas in 1528, debarked.

The commingling of wetlands, grassland prairies, fresh water lagoons, saltwater bayous, sandy beaches, dunes and reefs is home to a mixed bag of aviaries, butterflies, bullfrogs, fish, fiddler crabs, snakes and alligators that can be observed from the four-miles of primitive trails, boardwalks and wood observation decks. 

Facing the gulf are most of the 66 campsites ($15 to $25 per night in addition to a $5 daily entrance fee) and an immaculate beach that together offer a family-friendly place to take in the sights, with the option to use one of the picnic tables and grills setup along a grassy meadow for a water's edge cookout.

The history is fascinating.

The beach's eastern tract is where it's thought that Spanish explorer Cabeza De Vaca, the first European to alight in Texas in 1528, debarked. It's also where 17th-century Dutch pirates had much fun attaching lanterns to burros in hopes of throwing sailors off course. It's where slave traders did business and where ships from Cuba, Jamaica and the Bahamas supplied in-landers with liquor during the Prohibition. 

The bay side of the park is more tranquil — at least it was on this Labor Day early Monday morning.

The trails are flanked by upland tall grass and lower saltgrass, both plants that used to bloom all throughout the bay. That changed with the introduction of invasive species like the Chinese Tallow Tree, whose berries have a chemical poison that kills any other plant that attempts to co-habitate the same soil.

 For those that are looking for a more wet adventure, nine miles of paddling trails zigzag about more bayous, lakes and coves.

Where pollution and erosion had eliminated many micro-ecosystems, the building of a web of terraces and sand-filled tubes reclaimed seagrasses and marshes. The 15-year initiative has reintroduced environments where many marine animals start their lives.

A walk that begins at the Clapper Rail Trail and follows across Butterowe Bayou, onto Heron's Walk Trail and returns on Egret Loop reveals much of what's undiscovered in the more touristic zones. Green pathways morph into sandy walkways bursting with wildflowers and succulents, even some hardy plant species that can survive on both fresh and saline waters.

Camouflaged within the foliage, I spotted white pelicans, a crested caracara, seagulls and a roseate spoonbill. Not that I can identify them. A helpful ranger was around to school me on all things fowl, just like the staff does every Tuesday and Thursday at 9 a.m. during guided nature walks.

For those that are looking for a more wet adventure, nine miles of paddling trails zigzag about more bayous, lakes and coves.

I hit the trails when I am yearning for a breather from the brisk pace of urban 21st-century living. The phone stays out of sight (mostly), and it's replaced by a few bananas, dried fruit, bottles of water, a double-dosage of strong mosquito repellant and a few bucks in my pocket — just in case. 

Though the Galveston Island State Park feels and smells removed from the hustle and bustle of Houston, electrical lines and McMansions not so far from the horizon — and some within an arm's length — don't allow a nature lover to fully detach from the awareness of manmade conveniences. 

But at least that's a lesson that both man and nature can co-exist.