It has been 13 years since I was last in the RGV or the Rio Grande Valley. I grew up in McAllen, TX, and my memories were hanging out with friends skateboarding around town, going dancing in Reynosa, Mexico, and getting out of there as soon as I could.
I left a week after graduating high school thinking that moving to Houston would be my answer for self-exploration, opportunity, and feeling like I was cooler than those in “El Valle”.
When I would think about growing up there I did have memories of the folks that lived down there in the colder months dubbed the “Winter Texans”, but my love for nature didn’t allow me to appreciate all of the orchards, palm trees, and the bird songs like they did when I returned.
The towering palms greet you as you drive into Edinburg, and once I turned onto highway 83 my jaw dropped with how much an area could change in 13 years.
Living in the Austin area I thought I knew what sudden growth in a city was, but the neighboring cities of McAllen were almost unrecognizable.
Once I took some time to cruise around town with my sister who graciously let me crash at her place, it started to come back to me. That’s where so-and-so used to live! That’s where we used to skate! Is that a parrot?!
The excitement of being back ‘home’ was amplified by the smells and sounds that would continue on into dinner and conversation before bed.
I was excited to be back in the RGV because I knew there were many outdoor spaces to visit, including three Texas state parks I needed to mark off the list.
And because it’s such a popular birding destination I rented a lens from Austin’s Precision Camera to help get some more practice taking pictures of birds.
What is the World Birding Center?
There are three Texas state parks from Mission to Brownsville, Texas: Bentsen- Rio Grande Valley; Estero Llano Grande; Resaca de la Palma, and multiple National Wildlife Refuges including the main one on my list, Santa Ana.
Each of the state parks is also part of the World Birding Center. There are nine sites in total throughout the Rio Grande Valley including:
- South Padre Island Birding & Nature Center
- Resaca de la Palma SP
- Harlingen Arroyo Colorado
- Estero Llano Grande SP
- Old Hidalgo Pumphouse
- Edinburg Scenic Wetlands
- Quinta Mazatlan
- Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley SP
- Roma Bluffs
They represent a wonderful partnership between state parks, U.S. Fish & Wildlife, and local communities for conservation and preservation, but also for a glimpse into what the area looked like historically. And while Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge isn’t technically part of the center, it’s still a top birding destination with plenty of species coming through.
With damming of the Rio Grande, water doesn’t flow over the marshes and wetlands like it used to, so parks need to work together for developing irrigation systems and water collection methods that serve these areas to keep them flourishing.
The Valley is not Just for Birds
Besides the state parks and national wildlife sites, there are also multiple historical points of interest worth checking out.
The original border between Mexico and the United States was once the Nueces river, and when the U.S. decided it needed to continue expanding west the literal battle lines were drawn.
The area in and around Brownsville was an essential location for battles between the two countries and you can visit two historic battlefields that tell the story of these battles. There are also forts and a state historic site that marks the end of the civil war.
Palo Alto National Historic Site, Resaca de la Palma Battlefield, and Palmito Ranch Battlefield are wonderful options that give a glimpse into the battles between Mexico and the U.S., and even the last battle of the Civil War at Palmito Ranch.
This is a small sample of a bigger historical Civil War Trail in the Rio Grande Valley that takes you from Laredo to Brownsville.
Head into Brownsville and visit Texas’s Southernmost College for military barracks on a resaca now used for university buildings.
After that take a trip to the Port Isabel Lighthouse and learn how important our Texas coast was for military storage.
More than a Weekend
This is a mere sampling of places you can add to your itinerary for a long weekend in the Rio Grande Valley, so stay tuned for deeper dives into each of these locations.
Take your time to learn about Texas history, and sit for a while to wait for your new life bird. Enjoy the sights and sounds and smells that make ‘El Valle’ unique, and immerse yourself into the culture that is all around.