TEXAS TROPICAL TRAILS & Beaches

Charted through the state's southernmost wedge, the Texas Tropical Trail meanders through a leisurely land whose accents are keyed to rustling palm fronds, the scent of orange blossoms, gentle surf splashing on sunny beaches, bougainvillea's glowing in magenta splendor, and the liquid notes of Spanish guitars.


Trail highways bisect empire sized ranches, whose brushy landscapes gave birth of the American cowboy. They lead to idyllic resorts by the shimmering Gulf of Mexico, through fertile farmlands whose growing season exceeds 11 months, and past new citrus groves replanted after the December 1989 freeze. The route samples a blending of cultures where the charm of Old Mexico is just a bridge away. The whole region was once the bed of a shallow prehistoric sea. As the land gradually rose and dried, prevailing onshore winds carried to the seabed's sand, silt, and organic material to build loamy soils that are the area's fundamental geological characteristic. Far beneath the surface are remains of lush plant and animal life that coalesced into rich pools of oil and natural gas.


Throughout the route, Trail travelers will see evidence of those hidden resources---nodding pump jacks drawing oil from hundreds of feet below the surface, silvery tanks to store the raw crude, the complex towers, pipes, and vats of refineries where crude oil is converted to gasoline, jet fuel, and lubricants, and perhaps an occasional tall, busy "jackknife" drilling rig probing the depths for more of the energy so vital to modern America. Over all, the region's benign climate sets the pace of life and livelihood today---a bounty of agriculture, midwinter golf in shirtsleeve weather, and patio parties beneath tropical sunsets. We will devote this section to driving routes. Before setting out we suggest that you obtain a free copy of the Texas State Travel Guide, which provides additional details about points of interest in many of the cities and towns along the route. An Official Highway Travel Map will also be useful. Both may be obtained by snail mail from the Texas Department of Transportation by merely calling 1-800-452-9292.


CORPUS CHRISTI


General.. The population is 258,067 and the Alt. is 35. Nueces County


Corpus Christi bills itself "The Sparkling City by the Sea." Its many visitors agree, finding abundant seaside leisure opportunities and the sparkle of Texas' largest coastal city. While the city is of relatively recent vintage, its historical roots go back to 1519, when Spanish maritime explorer Aonso Alvarez de Pineda is believed to have discovered Corpus Christi Bay. Today, the city is a deep-water port, industrial center, agricultural hub, and one of Texas' most popular seaside playgrounds.


On the bayfront at the heart of downtown, hundreds of pleasure craft in the city's marina set the mood of holiday fun. Sight-seeing and charter fishing boats are based there. There is fishing from municipal piers and jetties, ship watching at the entrance to the busy Port of Corpus Christi, and swimming along miles of public beaches. The beach slopes are gradual; even children can enjoy the gentle surf. Like all Texas beaches, these are free--just stop your car, kick off your shoes, and wade in!


Refer to Corpus Christi's listing in the state travel guide for a summary of the city's abundant attractions. And for firsthand information about lodging, dining, and a calendar full of festival events, visit one of the Corpus Christi tourist information centers; at I-37 on the west edge of the city; at 9405 South Padre Island Drive; in the Corpus Christi International Airport; or at the Convention and Visitors Bureau at 1201 N. Shoreline Boulevard. A good way to know the Gulf of Mexico and Padre Island is to visit the Texas State Aquarium across from the Bayfront Arts Complex on North Beach. Water taxis ferry visitors across the bay to the aquarium. The city also offers access to Padres island national Seashore, (1) one of the Trail's premier attractions. The national seashore provides a developed beach area on the Gulf of Mexico with public pavilion, snack bar, beach rentals, and an extensive primitive beach camping area. Miles and miles of the seashore are pristine, natural and undisturbed---sandy beaches jeweled with bright shells, dunes laced by beach morning glory, busy fiddler crabs scuttling inches from the frothy surf.


Treasure from Spanish galleons has been found on Padre Island, but such historical resources are protected by both state and federal laws. Otherwise, beachcombers may collect a great variety of seashells, "sea beans" from the Caribbean, gnarled driftwood in fantastic shapes, and perhaps a rare, beautiful glass float (usually purple) from fishermen's nets in Portugal or the Orient. On the island, visitors will see ever-present sea gulls (always looking for a food handout), plus white or brown pelicans, snowy egrets, great blue herons, terns and migratory bird species that vary according to the season. Surf fishing can produce redfish, sea trout, black drum, mackerel, and ocean perch. Access to this northern end of Padre Island is via John F. Kennedy Causeway. Those who continue on the Tropical Trail will again approach Padre Island at its other end, 110 miles south.

On the Trail route of Corpus Christi, Chapman Ranch is interesting from a historical perspective. In the early years of this century, it operated much like a complete, self-contained plantation of the Old South, or a mill town of the East. As one of the world's first entirely mechanized ranches, Chapman Ranch had some 200 tractors in use by 1920. At the huge ranch headquarters, workers could shop for groceries, relax at a soda fountain, buy clothes or hardware, get a haircut, mail letters, fill up with gasoline, or even buy a new car from the ranch auto dealer. Parts of the commercial complex still remain.


Between Chapman Ranch and Bishop, the Trail spans both croplands and pasturelands. Frequent cotton gins are reminders that cotton, if no longer absolute king, is still a major cash crop.


RAYMONDVILLE


General.. the population is 10,082 and the Alt. is 40. Willacy County


Raymondville's sobriquet---"Gateway to the Lower Rio Grande Valley"--is an appropriate one. Suddenly the scenery is eminently tropical. Citrus groves and tall palms line the highway; fruit stands exhibit opulent mounds of green, orange, and gold. After long highway miles aiming toward the tropics, travelers at Raymondville know they have "arrived".


Known as "the Valley" for short, four Texas counties make up the region, which is about 50 miles deep and some 100 miles wide. Geographically, it is the most distinctive area of Texas. Raymondville hosts family vacationers during spring and summer, hunters in fall, and thousands of "Winter Texans"---refugees from northern climates who annually flock to the Texas tropics. The city's Tourist Center, 427 South Seventh Street, offers year-round information about lodging, food, and recreational opportunities. Inquire about the Rios family, boot makers who still craft boots by hand. Their boots are worn by Texas Rangers, cowboys, and royalty. Over the years, word of mouth and a hand-lettered sign on US 77 have been all the advertising the family has needed for hundreds of devoted customers.


For those whose eyes light up at the thought of fishing, there is a side-trip option from Raymondville to Port Mansfield (3) (off the Trail), which is rated by sportswriters a one of the nation's foremost fishing spots. The village resources are focused on sport fishing, with abundant facilities and services.


Sights between Raymondville and Harlingen introduce the huge, diversified agricultural aspects of the Valley---cotton fields and citrus groves, livestock pastures and vegetable farms. Modern cultivation and irrigation have transformed the former thorny wilderness into an oasis. Note several low spots, mostly at right angles to the highway, along the way. They are ancient channels of the Rio Grande, now dried and silted nearly full. The river has changed course many times across these alluvial flatlands.


HARLINGEN


General.. The population is 51,863 and the Alt is 36. Cameron County.


Harlingen is named for a city in the Netherlands, a peculiar comparison to a land whose canals become frozen thoroughfares for ice skaters each winter. Dutch visitors would find this Harlingen astonishing; balmy subtropical temperature; nearly every kind of harvest in progress---peas, carrots, lettuce, spinach, cabbage, and sugarcane.


Harlingen stages an annual contest and award for the first bale of cotton from the year's growing season--usually during the first week of June. By way of comparison with these subtropics, the first bale of cotton up in the Texas Panhandle is usually harvested about September 1. The city was the longtime home of the Confederate Air Force. The new home of the aging warbirds, in 1991, is Midland.


For visitors, Harlingen's attractions are varied and abundant---the Rio Grande Valley Museum, the original Iwo Jima Memorial sculpture, (4) parks, golf courses, and nearby Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, (5) which shelters thousands of migratory waterfowl, shore birds, and native wildlife. Refer to the state travel guide for a summary of these attractions. For further visitor details, visit the Harlingen Chamber of Commerce, 311 East Tyler Street, or the Harlingen Tourist Center at 201 E. Madison.


Harlingen is also the site of a Texas Travel Information Center, operated by the State Department of Highways and Public Transportation. Professional travel counselors can provide an abundance of free literature, maps, and driving directions to visitor sites throughout the Valley. Audiovisual programs show travel highlights you will want to watch for. And the bureaus gardens, patios, and grounds showcase a superb collection of tropical flora. The state facility is open seven days a week, except Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, and New Year's, at the intersection of US 77 and US 83 at the west edge of town.

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