Growing up within spitting distance of the Gulf Freeway had its ups and downs. Access to the city's major roadways meant constant traffic and fresh smog from “Stinkadena,” but these were the positives and negatives most people focused on because they were always concerned with getting into town. The rest of us looked in the opposite direction, longing for summer weekends when the southbound lane would turn into a parking lot.
As soon as March's warm spring weather hits, Interstate 45 due south becomes an escape route of sorts from the city. Houstonians ditch the seasonal tourists after the Baybrook and NASA Parkway exits and beeline for the beaches. All things being equal, the island's always already swarming with tourists by the time your toes touch the sand, but there's always an escape. If East Beach is crowded many try their luck at West Beach, but here's one better: Galveston Island State Park.
In 1969, the Stewart family and the State Parks Bond Program established the park on 1,950 acres of land. The original intent was to preserve the bayou ecology on the north side of the island, which was protected by an intricate array of sand dunes along the West Beach. With a little ingenuity and some basic infrastructure in place, the park opened in 1970 with day and overnight facilities for guest use.
So imagine driving down the San Luis Pass, seeing Galveston's beaches to your left and its bayous to your right. Most of this divided ecology has long since been stripped away by development and the Gulf's seasonal wear and tear, but not so in the state park. Even after Tropical Storm Frances destroyed most of the dunes in 1998, conservation projects have replaced their bayou protections with recycled sand, dirt and detritus. But you won't notice any of this. Instead, you and your company will be too busy arguing about which side of the island you want to camp on.
The bayou side of the park faces inland, robbing you of your much-desired views of the beach and the waves beyond. However, it houses a vast array of hiking and biking trails, calm inlets for boating and fishing, and a beautiful ecology all its own. Plus, the campsites are cheaper than the more popular beach side ones. What's more is it's quiet. Surrounded by boisterous Spring Breakers, irritable locals and water, you'd think a calm, serene atmosphere would be unattainable here. Turns out, you'd be wrong.
The same applies for the beach side of the park, whose camp sites and publicly accessible beaches attract far more foot traffic than the lonely bayous ever do. Despite the disparity in numbers, Galveston Island State Park remains one of the state's best-kept secrets. You can enjoy a day at beach away from the riotous crowds of East Beach, stay overnight and watch the dueling lights of the stars and the oil rigs, or witness sunrise the morning after.
Only an hour's drive from the heart of Houston (admittedly a bit more with traffic), it's no wonder Houstonians flock to the park while the mall-bound tourists pour into the island's destination beaches. I grew up a bit further down the freeway, so my drive was never as long, but I never really put any thought into it. I was always focused on making it through traffic, heading west on the San Luis Pass and pitching my tent.
Like the beaches, the park's busy season falls between spring and fall. It's probably not too crowded now, but this is likely because of the cold. At least you won't need your car's air conditioning.