Things to Do in the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas, Including Winter Texan Activities
The Rio Grande Valley (RGV) is located in the southernmost tip of South Texas and offers an abundance of things to do, for both vacationers and the area’s many Winter Texans. South Padre Island and the area’s reputation as a renowned birding destination are top draws, but there are many other places to explore. Here’s a list of some of our overall favorites, as well as some popular Winter Texan festivals and destinations.
Beaches, Wetlands and Lakes
This popular resort area, just 34 miles long and a half-mile wide, is known for its white sand beaches, warm waters, friendly atmosphere and beautiful sunsets. There is so much to do and see, where you can plan your day trips to the beach.
Across from South Padre Island lies Boca Chica Beach, where the fresh water of the Rio Grande River spills in to the Gulf of Mexico. An ideal place to get away from everything, this secluded coastal environment, just east of Browsnville, is part of the 90,000-acre Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge and allows wildlife to travel unimpeded from the Gulf Coast to the Rio Grande. There are excellent birding and beachcombing opportunities. You can sit atop the tall white dunes and watch migratory birds frequent trees on the “lomas” or elevated islands. The area is home a wide variety of animals including the Kemp’s ridley sea turtle, the aplomado falcon and piping plover, all protected under the federal Endangered Species Act. Note that while this is technically a state park, there are no park facilities, so pack everything you need in… and out.
Located in Monte Alto, Texas and open seven days a week, 8:00 AM to sunset, the park is surrounded by the man-made Delta Lake which was formed as a reservoir to supply northern mid-Valley farms with irrigation. The park has been recognized for its natural beauty and the quality of its park services. You can find a pavilion and large picnic area with barbeque grills and picnic tables, as well as a softball field and playground equipment. The park is popular with birders and you can almost always find fishermen wetting a line along its banks. The entry fee is just $2 per vehicle.
Low rolling hills and the rustic beauty of western Starr County surrounds this huge 115,600-acre reservoir on the Rio Grande River. Falcon Dam was built for conservation, irrigation and recreational purposes, dedicated in October 1953, with Falcon State Park opening to the public in 1965. Behind the dam is the beautiful 60-mile-long Falcon Lake, popular with fishermen, bird watchers and nature lovers. The international boundary between the United States and Mexico meanders through the middle of the lake.
Falcon Park features a three-mile self-guided nature trail as well as swimming, fishing, boating and camping opportunities. Note that while there is a boat ramp, the level of the lake fluctuates, so it’s best to call the park ahead of time if you plan to utilize the boat launch. The park is open daily, from 6 AM to 10 PM with a modest entry free for those 12 and over.
Bird Watching, Nature Centers and Wildlife Sanctuaries
With more than 340 species of birds documented within the park’s boundaries, the Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park is a world-class destination for bird watching. Located in Mission, Texas, the park is a World Birding Center Site complete with a visitor center and gift shop, a wheelchair accessible two-story Hawk Observation Tower, enclosed bird blinds and a birding wall. The park also features eight miles of trails dotted with feeding stations and water features that attract birds and enable visitors to encounter wildlife as they explore. While visiting Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, you can participate in a variety of guided nature tours, free with the price of admission. These tours offer visitors the opportunity to learn about birds, butterflies, dragonflies, creatures of the night and other wildlife.
The park’s admission fee is just $5 for adults, and children are free. Binocular and bicycle rentals are available for a small fee. The park is open daily from 8 AM until 10 PM.
Dedicated to preserving nature through education, conservation and research, the Gladys Porter Zoo, located in Brownsville, Texas, is a 26-acre facility filled with lush plants and more than 1,500 animals. The zoo is known for its success in breeding endangered species. Visitors can see everything from giraffes and kookaburras to pythons and sea lions in their trek through the facility, which is organized by zoogeographic area. The Russell Aquatic Ecology Center, located within the zoo, features exhibits about the plants and animals living in the aquatic habitats of South Texas.
The zoo also features interactive experiences, where visitors can touch, interact with and feed animals while supervised by a member of the zoo’s staff. Birding enthusiasts will be thrilled by the number of wild birds that flock to the zoo, which also serves as a sanctuary for birds.
The zoo is open every day from 9 AM until 5 PM, with extended hours during the summer months. Admission costs $10 for adults, $7 for children, and $8.50 for seniors. Children under the age of 2 are free.
Established in 1946 and located on the southernmost tip of Texas, the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge is a unique habitat for a variety of flora and fauna. Encompassing more than 97,000 acres, the landscape of the refuge is made up of coastal prairie, thorn forest, sand and clay dunes, tidal flats, wetlands, and beaches. Both freshwater and saltwater can be found within the refuge. This unique climate enables 417 species of birds, 45 mammals, 44 types of reptiles, 130 butterfly species and 450 plant species to call the refuge home. The unique climate also makes the area an ideal stopover location wintering and migrating birds, and a popular shorebird and waterbird breeding area.
The refuge is open seven days a week from sunrise to sunset, and it only costs $3 per vehicle to enter the park. You’ll find plenty to do during your visit, with trails to hike and explore, an auto-tour route to navigate, wildlife watching and photography opportunities, and events and activities available.
Nearly 40,000 acres of wildlife await you at the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge, which is open every day from sunrise to sunset. The park features miles of trails and observation decks, and is one of the most biologically diverse national wildlife refuges in the system. This refuge is unique in that it has an additional 6,000 acres open for hunting. Qualified, licensed hunters may participate and help to manage exotic, invasive species that destroy important habitats within the refuge.
Located in McAllen, Texas, this 20-acre urban plant and animal sanctuary is a peaceful oasis amidst the hustle and bustle of the city. Affiliated with the World Birding Center, it is a terrific place to view birds and other wildlife native to South Texas. There are various walks, trails, and gardens to explore within Quinta Mazatlan, along with guided tours, special events, and educational programs for adults. Admission costs only $3 for adults and $2 for seniors and children. The park is open Tuesday through Saturday, from 8 AM until 5 PM. On Thursdays, the park stays open until dark.
A visit to South Texas is not complete without a visit to this 557-acre sanctuary located on the southern side of Brownsville. Here you’ll find many plants and birds that do not live elsewhere in the United States. The sanctuary features nature trails with wildlife viewing areas, an observation deck overlooking the Rio Grande, guided tours, and periodic presentations and workshops. The Historic Rabb Plantation House is also located within the sanctuary, which is open every day from 7 AM until 5PM. Admission is $5 for adults and $3 for children.
Open 7 days a week from 8 AM to 4 PM, this 2,088-acre refuge is considered to be the jewel of the National Wildlife Refuge system. With more than 12 miles of wildlife watching and nature trails, a nature tram that provides tours through the park, a canopy walk and tree tower, and the opportunity for phenomenal wildlife photography, the refuge has a lot to offer! With 400 bird species, 450 types of plants and approximately half of all North American butterfly species residing in the refuge, there’s a good chance you’ll see a creature you’ve never seen before during your visit!
The Valley Nature Center is the oldest nature center in the Rio Grande Valley and is a 6-acre park filled with many of the area’s native plants and animals. Located in Weslaco, Texas, the park offers visitors the opportunity to participate in self-guided tours along walking trails, through butterfly gardens and cactus gardens, and past small ponds and a diverse variety of native plants. Guests can expect to see birds, butterflies, rabbits, amphibians, and tortoises as they explore. The Valley Nature Center also features a wetland area, bird feeding stations, and a boardwalk.
There are hundreds of things to do in Port Isabel, but fishing is a popular activity for many visitors and locals. Here you can find a variety of fishing guides and charters to choose from. Port Isabel is also home to the longest fishing pier in Texas, Pirate’s Landing, which extends out into the Queen Isabella Causeway that leads to South Padre Island. Forgot your fishing gear at home? No problem! Fishing poles and tackle are available to rent!
Named one of the top 10 sport fishing destinations in the world by Sport Fishing Magazine in 2014, Port Mansfield is a small, quiet town that fishermen flock to! Just outside the Port Mansfield harbor is the Laguna Madre, where reds, trout and flounder swim in abundance. You can embark on a chartered fishing trip, fish on your own in a small boat, wade in and cast your line, or try your luck from the shore. Travel through the Port Mansfield channel to the Gulf of Mexico and you’ll find red snapper, tarpon, sailfish, marlin, kingfish, mackerel, ling, pompano and other big fish just waiting to be caught!
Historical Sites and Museums
The Historic Brownsville Museum is housed within the former Southern Pacific Railroad Depot, which was built in 1928 and is included on the National Register of Historic Places. The museum, which opened in 1986, contains historically significant artifacts and photos from Brownsville’s past. Associated with the museum is the Mary Yturria Education Center, which is located just behind the depot building and is a center for educational outreach programs, cultural programs, local art exhibits and civic events. Admission is $4 for adults and $2 for children, seniors, and veterans.
Located in McAllen, Texas, this museum is affiliated with the Smithsonian and is the premier art and science museum of South Texas. Visitors can interact with hands-on science exhibits, view the museum’s impressive permanent art collection, and enjoy the various rotating exhibits featured by the museum each year. The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday and admission is $7 for adults, $5 for seniors and students, and $4 for children.
Open Tuesday through Sunday, the Museum of South Texas History in Edinburg highlights the unique culture and history of the Rio Grande Valley. With a variety of exhibits and collections, the museum showcases the legacy of the region through artifacts, multimedia, artwork, and architecture. A plethora of programs and special events take place at the museum as well.
Located on the north side of Brownsville, Texas, Palo Alto Battlefield is a beautiful, vast, undeveloped plain. This location was the site of an intense battle during the Mexican-American War in 1846 and is now maintained by the National Park Service. The historical site features a visitor center where guests can learn about the Mexican-American War, visit interactive exhibits and view artifacts. Palo Alto Battlefield also features walking trails for visitors to explore.
Winter Texan Activities
Hundreds of Winter Texans visit the Rio Grande Valley Livestock Show in Mercedes during Winter Texan Day, which offers discounted admission and parking rates to those who reside in Texas during the winter. The livestock show features a parade, rodeos, competitive livestock events, music, food, and more.
Other attractions, including the Gladys Porter Zoo and the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival, also offer special discount days for Winter Texans.
This fun, 2-day event is held annually in January in the Rio Grande Valley. Admission is free. The event includes entertainment, free health screenings, information about local businesses, restaurants, and services, and door prizes for attendees. Attending is a great way to get to know other Winter Texans and become familiar with all that the Rio Grande Valley has to offer!
This annual festival celebrating RGV’s Winter Texan population is hosted by the City of Harlingen Parks and Recreation Department and draws a substantial crowd each year. The event is free and open to the public, and features music, dancing, food, craft vendors, local businesses giving out freebies, and much more.