Rockport sits in the perfect location for exploring a wide variety of places with an easy day trip. You can make a run to Corpus Christi for a day in the big city before returning to the quiet, peaceful community of Rockport. You also have a number of islands and wild places to explore that are easily reached on casual or full day trips. The opportunities are abundant without requiring extensive planning.
The Aransas National Wildlife Refuge is one easy day trip that offers major opportunities. If you enjoy exploring wild places while watching wildlife, the refuge is the place to visit. Roughly 114,000 acres of protected habitat creates a rich environment filled with resident and migratory wildlife.
Start at the Visitor Center
You can walk right past the visitor center and still have a great trip but making the quick stop is worth a few minutes of your time. The volunteers and staff rangers know the refuge intimately and they can supply maps and information about the current conditions and wildlife species. They will even lend out binoculars and field guides for the day. Kids can claim an adventure backpack as well.
If you coordinate your trip with the events calendar and you can join ranger led hikes and special programs. Events for adults and kids are not uncommon at the refuge. Educational programs bring in experts to discuss specific species, habitats, and the ecosystem as a whole. The educational programs are a great way to learn about the refuge.
Hit the Trails
One of the best ways to experience the refuge is on foot. The refuge is loaded with trails that navigate a variety of habitats. The Rail Trail around one-third of a mile and is a favorite for alligator sightings. It is not uncommon to see the alligators basking in the sun from several safe lookout positions. It also has great bird watching along the route.
The Heron Flats trail hits 1.5 miles of incredible wildlife viewing for a diverse range of species including birds and butterflies. The length is perfect for an hour or two of walking with frequent stops to birdwatch and use your field guide. If you want to check off multiple species on a single trip, the Heron Flats Trail is one of your better choices.
The Song Bird Loop is a very short trail option that offers the opportunity to sit in wild oak habitat that attracts migratory songbirds. The Oak Sanctuary is a similar length that also is loaded with songbirds. If you want a longer song bird hike, the 0.7 mile Big Tree Trail is a another great walk. Songbirds are drawn to live oak habitat and all of these trails are lively with migrating species.
Overlooks and Observations
Another great way to view the wildlife is through the overlooks and observation sites. Bring along a pair of binoculars to really gain a close view at these sites. The 40’ observation tower was built to provide a clear view of whooping cranes. Show up anytime between mid-October and March and make sure you climb the tower to look for cranes and a number of other birds and wildlife species.
The Jones Lake Overlook is another popular viewing point with a more specific take on waterfowl that occupy the wetlands.
While whooping cranes are the big highlight at the refuge, you will also find songbirds, alligators, whitetail deer and waterfowl. Hawks, hummingbirds, butterflies and insects are all present in abundance.
You can view from the trails, lookouts or even take a boat tour to find a vantage point. The wildlife is the major draw here but just the open space and large area of protected habitat makes the refuge well worth the visit.
Hunting and Fishing
Many visitors overlook the opportunity to hunt and fish at the refuge but the area is open to both activities. The fishing pier is open year-round and you can catch sea trout and redfish right off the pier. Launch a kayak and you can really cover some ground in and around the refuge.
Hunters also have some incredible public land opportunities. No lease systems and the fact that the refuge is federal property means that anyone has the opportunity to access the area. This makes the hunt popular however and you must apply and draw through a lottery process. Several rifle and archery seasons are available for the application.
Hunters can chase feral hogs and whitetail deer. The hunting is more traditional in nature than many hunts and you cannot setup permanent stands or structures. You can however use temporary blinds and setup trail cameras prior to your hunt. The camera option really helps with scouting.
The hunts are allowed on 33,000 acres of area, leaving you with a ton of ground to explore. Many whitetail hunts on private leases are limited to only a few acres. The ability to walk and explore the area makes for an exciting hunt in an area that can hold some very large public land whitetail bucks. Throw in the feral hogs and your odds of harvesting at least one animal with a rifle or bow depending on your lottery draw.
Take a Bike Ride
The refuge is not known for biking trails but actually has a few really great rides. You can begin at the visitor center and ride to the observation tower. Take along some binoculars and watch the cranes before returning if desired. The round trip ride is just over 8-miles. You can also ride the paved auto tour loop and turn the entire ride into a 15.5 mile trip with stops to view wildlife. You can only ride the paved routes and the other hiking trails are closed to bike traffic. Bring plenty of water on the long rides as the heat can dehydrate you quickly. The terrain is flat however and bicyclists will not experience any major inclines or declines.