Published: Sept/Oct 2003

Before You Go
For more information, contact Southwest Louisiana Convention and Visitors Bureau: 1-800-456-SWLA (800-456-7952) or www.visitlakecharles.org.

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Louisiana’s outback
The Creole Nature Trail in southwest Louisiana skirts the Gulf of Mexico and leads travelers through coastal marshes, past abundant wildlife and into the heart of Creole and Cajun cultures

Holly Beach, which locals call the “Cajun Riviera,” has rustic cabin accommodations (above). /Creole Nature Trail National Scenic Byway District photos. Hikers exploring the beautiful Sabine National Wildlife Refuge (below). /Louisiana Office of Tourism photo
By Theresa Russell

While traveling along the Creole Nature Trail All American Road in southwest Louisiana, it’s apparent this is not the typical nature trail or landscape. Since 1996, this National Scenic Byway has attracted explorers who want to experience the incomparable variety of habitats that exist in this great coastal marsh.

“In Louisiana, we’ve always recognized the Creole Nature Trail as a unique American experience and a great tourist attraction,” says Kathleen Blanco, Louisiana lieutenant governor. “The All American Road designation (2002) is an indication that our crown jewel is recognized on the national level as an exciting opportunity for our visitors to look into our heart and soul, and connect with the things that have made us what we are today.”

The route–flanked by colorful signs–is simple to follow, but for those wanting a more in-depth tour of the trail, there is a recorded driving tour available for purchase through the tourism bureau’s welcome center. Because many of the trail’s secrets are under water or not immediately obvious, the tape is a good addition to the trip.

Beginning the trip

The best place to pick up the Creole Nature Trail is off Interstate 10 at Sulfur, named for its huge mines of this mineral.

Between the Calcasieu and Cameron parishes, travelers cross the Ellender Bridge over the Intracoastal Waterway. The trail comes to the rural community of Hackberry, whose residents make their livings on the marshes. In season, there is plenty of fresh seafood for sale. The Cajuns here still use the traditional pirogue, a flat-bottomed boat that maneuvers easily through the marshes.

Shortly after Hackberry, the landscape changes, becoming wetter. There is a constant battle keeping the salt water from mixing with these fresh water marshes, which support a wide variety of wildlife and plants that survive well in this particular eco-system. Notice the alligator crossing signs. In this area, these reptiles outnumber people. Be sure to watch for alligators sunning themselves on the road.

Along the sides of the road, people stop to crab. It is a simple matter of getting a fishing license, a piece of twine baited with chicken or other meat and lowering it into the water. It doesn’t take long before your line is full of crabs.

Wildlife and beaches

The Sabine National Wildlife Refuge provides a protected habitat for plants and animals. Birders will enjoy adding the many area species to their lists. To find out more about the wildlife on the refuge, stop at the headquarters and view the many exhibits, including Ti Maurice, an animatronic Cajun who tells about the diversity of life in the region. Try a 1.5-mile accessible trail and get close to the marsh. More adventurous hikers can continue on the gravel part of the trail to further explore the interior of the marsh.

The first long stretch of the Creole Nature Trail ends at Holly Beach, a gateway to the Cajun Riviera. Holly Beach is a laid-back little town with a few restaurants, a small grocery and some basic beach rental properties.

Turning right before entering town will take you along the Gulf of Mexico, 30 miles to the Texas border. Bird and butterfly enthusiasts will want to make a stop at Peveto Woods Bird and Butterfly Sanctuary, which is a chenier that is on the migratory paths. A chenier is a ridge covered with trees and grasses. This is a great place to see some of the 250 species of birds or millions of monarch butterflies that rest here on their migratory trips.

The beaches along the way are perfect for relaxing, shelling, bird watching, collecting driftwood and, of course, swimming.

Back in Holly Beach, the journey into the outback continues in an easterly direction. Take the ferry across the Calcasieu Ship Channel that connects to the Intracoastal. From the ferry, photograph the large ships that ply the waters or catch a glimpse of porpoises or pelicans. Shrimp boats dock on the waterway as well.

Nearby is the town of Cameron, where the landscape again changes. Cattle graze nearby, but you can still smell the salty Gulf breezes. Cameron is a base for the oil industry that services the rigs that dominate the coastal horizon. There are many opportunities to turn off toward the coast. Ducks, pelicans and porpoises can be spotted along the waterways. At Rutherford Beach, a remote place of quiet, there is nothing but nature to enjoy in its purest form. Loll around on the beach and enjoy the vast expanse of water, or seek out the many bird varieties that pass by this way.

Heading west to Oak Grove, the Creole Nature Trail goes north toward the town of Creole. Notice the marshland again, which has changed once again from brackish to fresh waters. Roseate spoonbills, heron and lily pads fill the ponds. The Cameron Prairie National Wildlife Refuge offers the three-mile Pintail Drive. On this drive, examine the different species–ducks, alligators, white-tail deer and migratory birds–that thrive in this ecosystem. Just beyond the Pintail Drive, the headquarters for the refuge appears. A boardwalk passes over the marshlands and offers a great view into the distance, helped by the aid of binoculars at the end of the boardwalk. Inside, another animatron, Tante Marie, explains how the Cajuns survive on the marsh. Other displays describe the ecology of the area.

Nearing the end

Heading north, the terrain changes to a more agricultural landscape. Cattle graze and crops like sugar cane, alfalfa and rice grow in fields. If you are lucky, you may spot a sandhill crane, a species that is increasingly spotted in the area.

The other northern portal to the Creole Nature Trail will lead you to Lake Charles, one of the fastest growing communities in the state and the only inland white-sand beach along the Gulf Coast. Lake Charles has casinos, a wonderful boardwalk along the lake and several museums, including a Mardi Gras museum that gives a close look at the many costumes and traditions of Mardi Gras.

Whether you seek nature, recreation or history, the Creole Nature Trail can lead you in the right direction for a memorable trip through Louisiana’s outback.

Theresa Russell is a contributor from Ohio.

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