Beach camping on South Padre Island (NOT to be confused with camping in one of the several campgrounds and resorts located ON South Padre Island) is free/fee camping (depending on time of year) available and unrestricted on the gulf side of the island, from Beach Access #5 and Beach Access #6, to any point north. There are about 24 miles of beach from Beach Access #6 to the northern terminus of the island at the Port Mansfield Channel (aka East Cut or North Jetties). This is a popular fishing destination. Depending on the recent weather and the beach condition, usually the first 3-5 miles of the beach are accessible by 2 wheel drive, trailers, campers, etc. North of that, the sand is less packed and generally requires 4x4 to access. In the days after hurricane Harvey I was actually able to drive all 24 miles in 2 wheel drive because the storm surge had leveled and packed down the beach, but that is extremely rare. Count on needing 4x4 if planning to camp north of the first few miles. Why go that far? During the on-season especially, and many weekends in the off-season, there are many people at the beach also camping, barbecueing, etc, and for the camper that enjoys a more secluded and wild experience, going just a few miles north gets you away from the crowds, and you can find your own stretch of beach to set up and enjoy nature.
Do not confuse South Padre Island with the Padre Island National Seashore - South Beach. Padre Island National Seashore is only accessible from Corpus Cristi, and has no direct access from South Padre Island because of the Port Mansfield Channel.
In addition to the normal stuff, always take a shovel and extra water. I have started taking traction boards, I have never had reason to use them myself, but every time I go I end up helping someone who is stuck, and since I have started carrying traction boards I rarely have to use my recovery strap.
It’s not hard to keep from getting stuck though - air down your tires, don’t stop moving when you start to bog down, know the limits of your vehicle, and try to stay on packed sand. DO NOT drive up on the dunes. This is illegal, even if you see others doing it. Also be aware of and watch for sea turtles and their nests, and report any you see and the closest mile marker.
Don’t forget to air back up to normal tire pressure once you’re back on the road or at the first service station in town just south.
Bugs come out in force for a short period as the sun sets if the breeze dies down in the summer, but this usually only lasts for about 30-45 minutes until the night breeze picks up from the gulf and sends them back into hiding. Depending on the time of year, it can get VERY windy at the island, especially there at the north end, so check conditions before you go.
Wildlife I have seen camping out there: Dolphins, Seabirds, Crabs (especially fun to find at night with a flashlight), Nilgai (an Asian Antelope that now lives wild in south Texas), Sting Rays, and Sea Turtles. I have seen the tracks of Coyotes, Jack Rabbits, Snakes, mice, and Lizards. There have also been sightings of Foxes, Deer, and very rarely, Bobcat. It’s very safe, but as mentioned above, keep your pets with you. This is common sense when camping anyway.
Campfires and bonfires are allowed, but you must pack in and out your own wood. Make sure to dig a hole, be aware of the wind, and most importantly, make sure the coals are completely put out with water and any logs are removed from the hole before completely covering the area back up when you’re done. Hot coals buried under sand remain hot for hours, and can significantly burn someone that steps on the spot later. Additionally logs left under the surface are a hazard to other vehicles.
When the fee booth is open, it is $12 entry, and they give you a trash bag. If you bring back the trash bag with trash and receipt before 7pm, they refund you $2. This is irrelevant if staying overnight, since they don’t redeem for prior days. Military and Veterans are $6 to enter with ID. In the off season the fee booth is closed and access is free.
There are (outdoor beach style) showers and restrooms at Beach Access #5, at the newly built E.K. Atwood Park, and a large dumpster at both exits. No hookups or dump sites though, until you get back to the city of South Padre Island.
If you drive all the way north to the Channel, there is a trail that turns left and crosses the dunes, following the channel most of the way west across the island before entering restricted Laguna Atascosa NWA land (vehicle traffic is barred, and fines are heavy) and the track disappears beyond that in tidal flats. This area is more specifically what is referred to as the east cut, and while there is an awesome hidden camping site that is second to none, access is tricky, and it is VERY remote. These tidal flats have been the end of many trips, and are known as the 4x4 graveyard. They appear dry on the surface, and have thick watery silt and mud underneath. Once you’re stuck, water begins to fill in from the surrounding ground and it’s extremely difficult to self recover. Cell signal from a few miles north of the access is spotty or non-existent as well. Tow trucks do service even this far north, but the bill is usually $600-$1000+. Not worth it. If you’re going to go, be sure to be traveling in a group of more than one 4x4 high clearance vehicle, and the skills and equipment to self-recover. Stay on the path, and don’t trust how dry the ground make look off the path (except for the area immediately next to the Jetties, where you will want to camp).
That’s a book, but hopefully it’s enough to get started. Have fun and embrace the wild of it (take a portable toilet) and if you’re like me, you’ll become addicted and go back every chance you get for the opportunity to wake up to the sound of the waves, seabirds, and feeling of sand in your toes.
Keep in mind normal primitive camping rules, pack in and pack out everything, and leave the beach looking nicer than when you arrived, and we will continue to have this resource for years to come.