Padre Island is the largest barrier island off the coast of Texas and the world’s longest stretch of undeveloped barrier island. It is also one of America’s beautifully preserved nature sanctuaries. Several thousand years old, Padre Island is relatively young. It plays the crucial role of keeping coastal storms away from the other 300 islands in the area– even if this makes the less-than-2-mile wide island erode quicker than its neighbors. Nevertheless, this does not stop its colorful ecosystem from thriving.Padre Island. Photo by National Park Service.In the interest of preserving Padre’s wildlife, seventy miles of the island is designated as the Padre Island National Seashore, and it is deliberately underdeveloped and sparsely populated. A visit offers boardwalk trail views of coastal prairies, dune fields, lagoons and tidal flats. Primitive camping is available.A roseate spoonbill on Padre Island. Photo by NPS.The island is midway on a number of migratory bird routes, and many species of birds stop through at different points during the year. About 380 species of birds have been documented within the park. Much of the island is a common nesting area and measures are taken to make sure the creatures can breed undisturbed: Planes are forbidden from landing in certain areas, and flashing signs warn hikers to stay away from the pelican majority. For birdwatchers, however, there is a five-story tower overlooking common nesting areas.The island’s white-sanded beaches are nesting grounds for the endangered Kemp’s Ridley turtle. These reptiles spend most of their lives at sea, but visitors sometimes catch sight of them on local dolphin tours. For general nature enthusiasts, designated trails go through Padre’s lush scenery. In fact, 20 minutes from the inhabited region is Laguna Atascona National Park: 45,000 acres of habitat for coyotes, wildcats, alligators and 400 species of birds. Authorities on the island go out of their way to let its original inhabitants be. As a result, it is one of the only places where tropical birds are seen all year-round. The bottleneck dolphin population is also booming, making viewing tours one of the most successful businesses on the island.A Kemp’s Ridley turtle returning to the sea after laying eggs on Padre Island. Photo by NPS.These parts may be a naturalist’s dream, but they also offer a local city and resort. The Southern part of the island (the island is now dissected by a ship channel) regularly lights up with music and nightclubs. Visitors will find an array of options, from international surfing celebrations to local storytelling events. Some areas even allow fishing, and the right restaurant will cook your catch just the way you like it. There may be a steady population of 5000, but over a million people stop through every year. Whether you are looking for a clean-aired hike or a beach to retire on, Padre Island will not disappoint. It is, without question, one of the Gulf of Mexico’s true gems. Jacob Dilson was GRN’s Media and Communications Intern during summer of 2012.