The view from Isla Blanca Park across a ship channel presents a long lens picture similar to that of Cape Canaveral in Florida.
In South Texas, it’s SpaceX off in the distance at Boca Chica Beach. It’s still close enough that with a smartphone camera you can zoom in and get a clear view of a silver rocket being built for liftoff in the months ahead.
“I tell people that you get a front row seat at Isla Blanca,” said Joe Vega, the director of Cameron County’s coastal beach parks.
The SpaceX view across the Port of Brownsville ship channel isn’t the only thing attracting visitors to the county’s network of beach parks. The immediate access to beach life fronting the Gulf of Mexico has always attracted big numbers of visitors. This has been especially true in 2021 as tens of thousands of beach enthusiasts – with the majority being Rio Grande Valley residents – have streamed to the beach parks after a 2020 where public health concerns kept them constrained.
Vega said there has been a surge of visitors this year over last as the beaches of South Padre Island have enticed visitors looking to return to normal lives and the relaxation of sun and surf.
“I feel like it was a good summer,” Vega said. “People were anxious to get out and about. A lot of people that would normally go off to places like Fiesta Texas stayed closer to home because we have a safe environment here that’s outdoors and where you can distance.”
Improving Isla Blanca
The crown jewel of the county’s coastal parks is Isla Blanca.
Area voters in recent years via ballot initiatives approved public financing to improve Isla Blanca. It shows in the facilities. Isla Blanca has an amphitheater, large picnic pavilions, a boat ramp and jetties that have long been a fishing hotspot. There’s also a 600-space RV park and cabanas that offer temporary housing for longer beach stays.
“It has a lot to offer,” Vega said of Isla Blanca, which is located on the southern end of SPI.
On the opposite of the Island is another mainstay. Andy Bowie Park features a large pavilion, RV sites and the sort of beach access that has long attracted visitors to the north end. Andy Bowie also has about a mile of open beach access to the Gulf, Vega said.
Then there’s what the park system refers to as beach access areas that go in numerical order of 3, 4, 5 and 6, and are mostly on the north end of SPI. These areas have fewer amenities and are popular for vehicular access to beaches along with good spots to camp out on the surf.
Manning all the county parks and access areas are 34 lifeguards that are led by Chief Arturo Hurtado. It’s a formidable task taken on by Hurtado and his young lifeguards who are mostly high school and college students who either have been or are on school swim teams. The lifeguards fan out across the network of county beach parks, working to keep thousands of visitors out of harm’s way.
“They do a remarkable job,” Vega said of the lifeguards. “They do a lot of educational work in keeping visitors in safe areas.”
An added highlight in 2021 was the beach sand nourishment the county parks system was able to do at Isla Blanca. Working with the city of South Padre Island, along with state and federal agencies, the county laid down 90,000 cubic yards of sand at Isla Blanca.
The beach area at the park was thus widened by 200 feet. It was the first such project at a county park since 2012, Vega said.
“Now we have a wider beach,” he said. “It also protects your infrastructure and builds up from storms.”