Traveler: Colonial Trail Discoveries
Crisscrossing Central Louisiana
1790 Bordelon House in Marksville
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Central Louisiana is crisscrossed by trails used by explorers long before the Louisiana Purchase, including French and Spanish armies and, centuries earlier, Native Americans. The most famous is El Camino Real, the “Royal Road” adopted by the Spanish for their travels from Old Mexico through Tejas and Luisiana, and westbound settlers blazed trails even before the Mexican War. The old roads are now being recognized for their importance by the Louisiana Colonial Trails program, which has placed distinctive markers along highways that closely match the original routes.
Whether or not a particular stretch of highway follows an original trail exactly, each one provides a vivid understanding of the terrain encountered there by travelers in historic times. Some lead to landmarks as old as the trails and original settlements, while others offer purely natural scenery as they curve gracefully through forests, along rivers and over hills.
Most of the trails and their branches are rooted in Vidalia (extensions of the Natchez Trace), and they can be enjoyed individually by “Sunday drivers,” strung together for three-day weekends or “saved” to be used as out-of-the-ordinary routes when business or pleasure sends you here or there around the state.
It’s U.S. 84 that most closely follows the primary route taken by settlers from Natchez to the Red River crossing at Grand Ecore Bluff, where El Camino Real (La. 6) continues west to Natchitoches and on to the Sabine River crossing into Texas. If you take the drive, note that Sept. 29-30 brings Vidalia’s Jim Bowie Festival, featuring a reenactment of Bowie’s famous Vidalia Sandbar Duel, and you can stock up with maps and advice at the Louisiana Welcome Center.
The drive to Red River passes such points of interest as the trophy-fishing waters of Lake Concordia, the Delta Music Hall of Fame and Jerry Lee Lewis home in Ferriday, Frogmore Plantation with its many themed tours (318) 757-2453), and fragments of mounds and ridges at the “Troyville” archaeological site in Jonesville. An 82-foot mound destroyed in the 1930s – now being re-formed at 50-percent scale with its original clay – is rising in the 500 block of U.S. 84 (4th Street), and you’ll see three marked mounds along the Ouachita River Road if you take that 10-mile detour up La. 124 to Harrisonburg.
From Jonesville, 84 leads to the Catahoula Lake Wildlife Management Area (where “Wildlife Drive” circles scenic Duck Lake), the city of Jena (home of the Choctaw tribe), the Catahoula District of Kisatchie National Forest and Winnfield with its Louisiana Politics Hall of Fame and statues of Huey and Earl Long. Kisatchie’s Winn District stretches from Winnfield to Red River (you can stop at the Gum Springs Equestrian Trails for some horsing around in the Kisatchie hills), and the Corps of Engineers Welcome Center high atop Grand Ecore Bluff tell the stories of this river and region.
The perfect replica and costumed guides of Ft. St. Jean Baptiste in Natchitoches offer a glimpse of colonial life along the trail, and, after touring the city and Cane River (a National Historical Park), the camino crosses the 12-mile divide (split by the old international boundary, a creek called Rio Hondo) between the French fort and Spain’s presidio at Los Adaes. At Robeline (“Robber’s Line,” traditional boundary of the old Louisiana-Texas “No Man’s Land” of the 1800s), detour a mile north on La. 485 to the archaeological site and nature trail at Los Adaes State Historic Site (by reservation only, (888) 677-7853) and 4 miles farther to the Adai Caddo Indian Nation Cultural Center. It’s then 8 miles west to Ft. Jesup State Historic Site, established in 1822 by future General/President Zachary Taylor to guard the border, and 24 miles through Many to Toledo Bend Reservoir (Sabine River).