Louisiana’s diverse ecosystems offer visitors an array of natural adventures, from bayous and marshes to forests and beaches.
By Michael Redstone
Most visitors to Louisiana gravitate toward New Orleans and its renowned music, cuisine and nightlife. But outside of the Big Easy’s urban playground, Louisiana is an outdoor enthusiast’s paradise because of its unique topography of bayous, marshes, swamps, lakes and forests.
In Title: The state’s parks and preserves are brimming with flora, including water lilies. Bill Turnbull, Creole Nature Trail photo
Above Southern Louisiana is noted for its distinctive and beautiful bayous and wetlands. Brenda Lafleur, Creole Nature Trail photo
Below: A family enjoying an observation post on the Wetland Walkway in the Sabine National Wildlife Refuge. monsoursphotography.com, Creole Nature Trail photo
These natural areas are protected by numerous national and state preserves scattered throughout the state and provide visitors a pristine setting to explore these multi-varied terrains. The protected areas can be toured by car or on foot, but also have vast expanses that are only accessible by boat. Check with one of the many local outfitters to arrange a fishing, kayaking or wildlife viewing tour of these remote wetlands.
Northern and central adventures
Near Monroe in the northeast part of the state, Black Bayou Lake National Wildlife Refuge off U.S. Highway 165 provides an ideal opportunity to experience Louisiana’s diverse ecosystems. This 4,600-acre preserve is classic Louisiana featuring not only hardwood forests and swamps, but also the large central lake populated with ghostly cypress and tupelo trees.
Follow a short nature trail to the wildlife pier, which traverses the lily pad-dotted water for close-up views of alligators, snakes and turtles, as well as a multitude of migratory and resident bird species. A boat ramp is available for anglers seeking out the lake’s largemouth bass, crappie and bluegill, and hunting is permitted in designated areas.
The twin towns of Shreveport/Bossier City provide a gateway for outdoor exploration amidst the hardwood forests in the northwest corner of the state. A wide range of outdoor activities can be found at the Bayou Bodcau Recreation Area located about 20 miles northeast of Shreveport/Bossier City. In addition to a seven-mile mountain biking trail and miles of hiking trails, this area’s 34,000 acres provide ample opportunities for fishing, hunting, canoeing, camping and wildlife viewing.
To gain some perspective on the history of Shreveport as one of the centers of Louisiana’s logging industry in the 19th and 20th centuries, try an excursion cruise on the Spirit of the Red tour boat. This hour-long tour also provides some exceptional city and wildlife views along the Red River and Cross Bayou.
A different kind of outdoor experience waits at the Forts Randolph & Buhlow State Historic Site in Pineville, just across the Red River from Alexandria in the center of the state. This state park memorializes the importance of the Red River as a strategic route for troop movements during the Civil War.
Walking trails and elevated boardwalks bring visitors along the river and into the earthen forts, which were home to more than 800 Confederate soldiers from 1864–65. The visitor center features interactive displays on the Red River campaign, as well as information on Louisiana’s role in the Civil War. While there is no camping in the park, not far away is Kisatchie National Forest, which offers a number of campgrounds throughout its more than 604,000 acres.
Finding nature in
Visitors to southern Louisiana can experience how the region’s bayous and wetlands define the way of life for its current population just as it did for the early Cajuns who settled in the area hundreds of years ago. A great way to experience the natural beauty, history and culture of this area is to tour the Creole Nature Trail, a 180-mile roadway loop through “Louisiana’s Outback” south of Lake Charles.
Featuring just about every type of terrain Louisiana has to offer–from forest, marsh and farmland to bayous and swamps–the byway brings visitors past several state and national wildlife refuges and to miles of gulf beaches. This area is also a paradise for crabbing and fishing (particularly local redfish), with numerous boat launches and recreation areas providing easy access to the bayous, lakes and marshes.
Starting May 1, the Lake Charles/Southwest Louisiana Convention and Visitors Bureau is making available to travelers a handheld unit that plays audio and video vignettes about the trail. The unit is GPS-coordinate activated, so you see and hear about the area as you travel the trail. Visitors can check them out for free from the visitors bureau at 1205 N. Lakeshore Drive in Lake Charles. The tour already is available for free for iPhones and phones using the Android operating system.
Along the Creole Nature Trail, visitors to Sabine National Wildlife Refuge can venture on foot into pristine terrain on two easy paths. The mile-long paved Blue Goose Trail leads to the edge of Lake Calcasieu, while the Wetland Walkway–part paved walkway and part winding boardwalk–offers a 1.5-mile loop through unspoiled marshland and bayous. Depending on the season, expect to make numerous bird, turtle and gator sightings.
The Creole Nature Trail also passes through the Cameron Prairie National Wildlife Refuge, where visitors can follow the Pintail Drive, a three-mile car safari through moist soil wetlands where gators can often be seen sunning themselves near great blue herons and snowy egrets. There is also a newly opened boardwalk trail for a more intimate tour of this spectacular area.
Near Houma, about 60 miles southwest from New Orleans, check out the Mandalay National Wildlife Refuge Nature Trail. This short, well-maintained path traverses forest and cypress bayou to an observation deck overlooking a freshwater swamp.
For a more in-depth trek into the waterways in this region, try one of the area’s many swamp tours. These two- to three-hour boat adventures take guests deep into the cypress-studded bayous where sightings of alligators and multiple species of waterfowl are common.
For an interesting two-hour round-trip scenic drive, head south on state Highway 56 out of Houma to the “end of the road” in Cocodrie. Along this route, solid land quickly gives way to marshland, lakes and open water as the road winds toward the Gulf of Mexico. Once in Cocodrie, visit the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium and its 65-foot-tall observation tower.
Those seeking a more adventurous alternative to the typical motel but who may not be ready to rough it in a campsite can find cabin accommodations in natural surroundings throughout Louisiana. These cabins range from basic to deluxe and often feature views of natural surroundings.
Just west of Houma in the town of Gibson is Wildlife Gardens. Rustic yet comfortable cabins are perched over natural swamps amidst 30 acres of gardens and nature trails. Guests will encounter a host of wild birds and reptiles while exploring the grounds, and the owner’s exhibits featuring alligators and a huge snapping turtle make for a great detour while on the way to the Cajun breakfast served in the main building.
Many of Louisiana’s state parks also offer cabins as an alternative to traditional camping. Near Lake Charles, Sam Houston Jones State Park features one- and two-bedroom cabins with complete kitchens. Hop on a nearby nature trail to access great fishing spots along the Calcasieu River, or simply relax in the cabin’s screened porch while enjoying forest and river views.
The accommodations at Poverty Point Reservoir State Park east of Monroe more closely resemble luxury suites than cabins and come complete with satellite television and wireless Internet. Some of these modern structures are perched atop the water allowing guests to fish from an outdoor deck or tie a boat directly to the cabin’s dock for easy access to the reservoir.
At Cypress Black Bayou Recreation Park near Shreveport, visitors can enjoy a small zoo, fishing piers, a sandy beach and a nature center all within a short walk from the park’s simple but furnished cabins.
From nearly every city in Louisiana, you’re a short drive away from outstanding outdoor adventures. Dip a paddle, drop a fishing line or strap on your hiking boots to experience the Bayou State’s bliss.
Michael Redstone is a freelance writer based in the Chicago area.