Birding, Beach, Beer, and Great Food in Southeast Texas

The beach at Sea Rim State Park near Port Arthur TX (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

The beach at Sea Rim State Park near Port Arthur, Texas (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

To get to Sea Rim State Park‘s beaches, you’ll drive through a huge working oil refinery complex. Even though it’s hard to believe that there’s anything nature-related near the tangle of towers and pipes, keep driving; it’s there.

In fact, you are on historic ground.

This is where the oil from nearby Beaumont’s 1901 Spindletop gusher was first refined. There’s even an historical marker about it, right there on the road through the refinery….

Port Arthur Refinery historical marker (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Port Arthur Refinery historical marker (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

After the refinery, though, the landscape opens up to open sky, grazing cattle, and the smell of salt air. This area was walloped by Hurricane Harvey, so you’ll still see storm damage like dented tanks, a few blown-out signs, sandbags, and the occasional blue tarp on a modest house.

I even spotted two single wide mobile homes up on stilts. Not sure whether they were just put up there after the hurricane, or have always been that way, but it shows you how determined the residents are to stay in their small slice of a rural area near the ocean, no matter what the weather brings.

Sea Rim’s salt marsh and beach areas are in good shape, so I took a free guided morning walk with a small group led by local Master Naturalist Glenn. It was on the .75 mile Gambusia Nature Trail in the park, a looped elevated boardwalk with the usual warning signs about alligators that you’ll find in this part of southeast Texas.

We saw white ibis and roseate spoonbills, among other birds, although it was usually from a distance because they would go up in clouds as we approached.

Master Naturalist Glenn as clouds of white ibis take off on the Gambusia Trail Sea Rim State Park near Port Arthur TX (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Master Naturalist Glenn as clouds of white ibis take off on the Gambusia Trail in Sea Rim State Park near Port Arthur TX (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

I’m not a birder, but Glenn was a wealth of knowledge and it was fun to learn about not only the birds in the area, but also native plants and which animals had left which tracks in the marsh mud.

After a stroll on the beach for some toe-wiggling time in the sand, I was hungry for lunch, so I headed to the nearby small town of Port Neches and a lovely waterfront meal at the Neches River Wheelhouse restaurant.

Neches River Wheelhouse restaurant on the river Port Neches TX (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Neches River Wheelhouse restaurant, on the river in Port Neches TX (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

It’s an open-air place, which is surprising in this humid, hot part of Texas, but the river breezes plus some fans make it surprisingly comfortable.

Even though it poured down rain at one point, the staff just dropped a few clear plastic protective sheets down in key spots, and we all continued to enjoy our seafood or burgers.

If that doesn’t sound appealing, try the sandwiches at Amuny’s in Port Arthur, one of my favorite unique local places to eat in Texas.

There’s another nature and birding opportunity tucked away up in Beaumont’s municipal Tyrrell Park – the Cattail Marsh wetlands that is actually an innovative part of their city water filtration system.

Follow one of the trails that run all through the wetlands – watch out for gators! – or stroll out on the long boardwalk to the viewing gazebo….

Walkway out to observation gazebo Cattail Marsh nature and birding area Beaumont TX (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Walkway out to observation gazebo Cattail Marsh nature and birding area Beaumont TX (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

This area has become a booming Texas birding destination in recent years, with Cattail Marsh as one of the anchor viewing sites.

Last time I was in town I did see a gator in the marsh, but not this visit. Still, it’s relaxing to walk around and see whichever birds or wildlife want to surprise you.

Solitary bird awaits sunset at Cattail Marsh Beaumont TX (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Solitary bird awaits sunset at Cattail Marsh Beaumont TX (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

I didn’t follow the most efficient exploration path that day, but I was in no hurry, which is a too-infrequent state of mind in today’s world.

After Cattail I doubled back to Port Neches to try out a small craft beer place in their tiny downtown – the Neches Brewing Company.

It was late in the day and the street was deserted except for a pile of cars near the brewery; a good sign. I went with their Avenue Amber, but their Screen Door Jesus Belgian wheat was tempting.

Colorful bar at Neches Brewing Company craft beer downtown Port Neches TX (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Colorful bar at the Neches Brewing Company in tiny downtown Port Neches TX (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

I’m not sure what the guy who walked in and ordered a Michelob Ultra was thinking, but most others seemed to be enjoying house brews and the staff was knowledgeable and friendly.

Since they don’t serve food at the brewery, I went to another local place in the adjacent town of Groves, Texas, where there’s plenty of authentic Cajun food plus live “swamp pop, Cajun, and zydeco” music – Larry’s French Market.

Look at that seafood gumbo, made dark by its roux base….

Gumbo at Larry's French Market in Groves TX (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Gumbo at Larry’s French Market in Groves TX (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

If you want to dive even deeper into local food, the menu includes frog legs, dirty rice, fried alligator, and boudin [sausage] balls. If you want to make them yourself, the restaurant sells “Cajun Cookin'” cookbooks by restaurant co-founder Maw Maw Judice.

The live music playing as I ate was a perfect touch, and the surrounding decor was all southeast Texas. Seaport Coffee and TexJoy seasonings are iconic brands here.

Southeast Texas wall decor at Larry's French Market Groves TX (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Southeast Texas wall decor at Larry’s French Market Groves TX (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

And of course, the finishing touch with such a strong Cajun influence here … the gator dressed year-round for Mardi Gras …

Mardi Gras gator at Larry's French Market Groves TX (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Mardi Gras gator at Larry’s French Market Groves TX (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

There is a lot to see and do in this pocket of southeast Texas between Beaumont and Port Arthur. Pay a visit when you’re ready to “pass a good time.”

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