The Bolivar Peninsula, Texas

Story by H.J. Ted Gresham
Photography by George Hosek

“Live in the Sunshine, swim the sea, drink the wild air…” (Ralph Waldo Emmerson)

No matter what kind of settling and building goes up on Galveston Island, a short three miles north across the channel the land is wild and rugged.

Many tens of thousands of tourists ritualistically ride the ferry from Galveston over to Bolivar peninsula and then dutifully make a u-turn and get back on the boat. They don’t know what they’re missing!

Bolivar is as wild and free as Galveston is tame and settled. Not even the presence of a few exclusive resorts interfere with the unpolished, unsophisticated strip of Texas called the Bolivar Peninsula.

Most visitors get to Bolivar on The Ferry. Since 1930, the state of Texas has been transporting travelers between the island and the peninsula. The three mile trip takes from just less than an hour to several, depending on the traffic. Large boats carry from sixty something to over eighty cars, depending on the boat. The thing to do, though, is not turn around but keep going, especially for those who came to see the sea. The Bolivar Peninsula is all about the sea.


The only other access to Bolivar Peninsula is Texas 124 from Interstate 10 at Winnie down to High Island, the eastern end of Bolivar. Texas 87 goes from there to the ferry and points south through and beyond Galveston.

Highway 87 used to run all the way from Port Arthur but Hurricane Allen in 1980 wrecked it and the route was permanently closed from High Island north.

The route is still passable only by four-wheel-drive and often only along the beach where remnants of the highway are obstructions to be driven around.

Travelers from Galveston can’t miss the most prominent landmark on the peninsula, the Bolivar Light House. Once a vital guide to shipping, the light house now stands forlorn and rusted alongside the highway. Built in 1860 of brick and clad in iron, the old structure not only guided countless ships to safe harbor but has itself been a lifesaver during hurricanes.

Dozens of people took refuge in the lighthouse during the killer storm of 1900 and another nearly as bad in 1915. Generations of Bolivar residents owe their lives to the old tower. Its brilliant kerosene beacon shown across the bay for nearly a century, finally extinguished in 1933. The land and the lighthouse were bought in 1947. Today it is undergoing slow, careful restoration by Michael Maxwell whose grandparents bought it in 1947.

There are miles and miles of beaches along Bolivar Peninsula.

Beaches stretch up the coast from Fort Travis into Louisiana almost unbroken except for the occasional wash or cuts like Rollover Pass. The call of the ocean and roar of surf is loud here.

Texas beaches are all open. Driving on them is permissible. Camping, swimming, relaxing beneath clear skies are, of course, perennial favorites.

A $10 per year fee for beach parking, contact 409-934-8140, Galveston County.

Wildlife is extremely abundant. It’s what makes Bolivar so special.

The peninsula has some excellent fishing, good areas to go crabbing, and world-renown bird sanctuaries. Members of the Houston Audubon Society have recorded 344 species of birds on Bolivar. The entire length of the peninsula from High Island to Horseshoe Marsh, owned by Houston Audubon Society, near the lighthouse and ferry landing has been called a birding paradise.
On the south side along the beaches coastal birds soar high and scurry along the foaming surf. A few hundred feet across the peninsula there’s salt marshes and lagoons. The land is mostly low-lying fields and meadows.

Abundant habitat means an abundance of birds. Gulls, pelicans and frigate birds sweep over Galveston bay, plunging into the water around ships, boats and the ever present ferry, feeding on fish an invertebrates. Local species of water fowl and land birds live along the beach, in the marshes, and the coastal prairie of the peninsula.

Spring and fall migratory birds make their appearance. Boy Scout Woods and Smith Oaks sanctuaries at High Island, owned by the Houston Audubon Society, are excellent places to catch migratory fowl. There’s an admission charge for the High Island facilities. Wheelchair accessible facilities include bathrooms, a photo blind, and picnic tables.

Whether on a day trip from Houston, a week-long coastal exploration or simply looking for a place of escape for a few days, Bolivar is the place. Head down I45 and exit 61. Make the right.
At the seawall, turn left. The slow drive down Seawall Boulevard offers the chance to gawk at tourists, listen to the surf through open windows, and decide where to grab a bite to eat. Keep going to Second. Make the left and follow the signs to the ferry.

Set the brake, kill the engine, climb to the ferry observation deck. Catch glimpses of seagulls and leaping dolphins. Too soon the horn will blast, announcing arrival. Drive off the ferry ready for adventure. Pause at the light house, take a picture. Go on down to the curve. Turn right. Decide where else to go and what to do while walking across the meadow at Fort Travis.

If it’s not too late a run down 87, up 127 to I20 is a nice little drive in the early evening. The interstate makes return to Houston a quick affair. Of course for those coming from the other direction, Orange or Beaumont, ending up in Port Bolivar is just as good. Catch the sunset on Galveston Bay while riding the ferry across to Galveston.

Surf and sand, birds and wildlife, a bit of history, a lot of leisure, very little high-speed modern culture.

That’s Bolivar Peninsula. Bring along shorts and t-shirts, sunscreen, something for “skeeters” (some folks swear by Bounce fabric softener, others say vanilla extract).

Don’t forget binoculars, fishing poles, lawn chairs. Pick up a roll of string, some chicken parts and a crab net (for crabbing near the Jetties).

Stay a day, a week, or the summer. Along with rolls (or disk-fulls) of photos, some good seafood, a little sunburn around the edges, possibly a tan, there’s no telling what else one may find on Bolivar. Just don’t look for it. Go there and wait for it to come to you.

Fishing Bolivar, Texas

H.J. Ted Gresham is a writer and entrepreneur who lives in Lufkin, Texas.  He's written numerous articles and has two books available online at www.lulu.com/tedgresham.  Ted is an avid traveler and proud Texan who spends much of his time exploring new places around the state.

George Hosek is a professional assignment photographer from Houston. He's had his photographs published in many publications including, Texas Highways and Texas Parks & Wildlife.






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