Jeanne FroisIt’s enough to turn anyone into Ernest Hemingway. Louisiana, with its strange, mysterious and dangerous beauty, offers both rugged adventures for the sportsman and such mystical sights as an enchantress moon rising over the French Quarter that can make one wax poetic. The Bayou State is rife with state parks and outdoor areas that satisfy anyone with a naturalist’s streak.
Grand Isle State Park
The drive from New Orleans to Grand Isle, along twisting, beautiful Bayou Lafourche, is an adventure in and of itself. The sight of huge ships winding their way up the narrow waterway from the Gulf of Mexico toward New Orleans is quite a head-turner. Once you cross the Huey P. Long Bridge in Jefferson Parish and head down Highway 90, you’re also briefly following the route of Amtrak’s Sunset Limited westward-bound on its way to California. The route is one of right angles, heading west from Jefferson Parish into Lafourche Parish and then doubling back east. As you enter Grand Isle, it’s a bit of a surprise to find you’re back in Jefferson Parish again. The sudden sight of all that billowing Gulf of Mexico water leaves you breathless and a little overwhelmed.
The magnificent fishing pier at Grand Isle was wiped out by Hurricane Katrina, but the nature trail, thanks to Boy Scouts, state park staff and volunteers from the Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program, has completely reopened. This lovely path offers wonderful bird-watching and hiking. Walk the khaki-colored beach at Grand Isle and you’ll share the sand with tiny crabs scurrying out of lemony-green water and surf fishers in hip boots while the sky above the water seems hung with natural mobiles of seagulls and diving brown pelicans. The warm sun on your skin is tempered by cool, salty breezes. Like jewels that match a summer wardrobe, the dazzling landscape is colored in turquoise, azure, peridot green and topaz gold.
Nearly 300 species of fish swim the waters around Grand Isle. This barrier island, a beach ridge formed by the waves of the Gulf of Mexico, stands as a breakwater between the gulf and the interconnection of the inland channels that link up to the Mississippi River tributaries. The International Grand Isle Tarpon Rodeo still attracts thousands of competitive fishermen each July. The warm waters are swimmer-friendly nearly all year. Surf fishers are likely to catch speckled trout in the spring and summer and redfish during fall and winter. Dotted with lagoons, Grand Isle is paradise, Louisiana-style.
Admiral Craik Drive, Grand Isle, (985) 787-2559 or (877) 787-2559, Web search keywords: Grand Isle State Park
Bayou Segnette State Park
The wide-open and beautiful primitiveness of its setting combined with its 30-mile proximity to the exciting attractions of New Orleans make Bayou Segnette State Park the perfect retreat for adrenaline junkies. Standing almost vigil-like, moss-draped cypress trees face the waterfront of this intricate jewel of an ecosystem. Filled with both swamp and marshland plants, trees and wildlife, Bayou Segnette can be enjoyed perfectly with the family unit. Its unique placement allows both fresh- and saltwater fishing, and the waters teem with catfish, bream, perch and redfish. Some of its beauty is there for the exploring by foot, but much of it is accessible only by water. Canoes and boats may be rented. The lush vegetation, marsh flowers, glassy water and abundant wildlife provide fascinating hours of sheer observation while the colors of the sky above you change into varied Louisiana hues as day progresses. Children love the playgrounds and picnic areas, not to mention the fabulous wave pool. Not so far from recovering New Orleans, Bayou Segnette encourages the soul to expand. The park is perfect for day outings, but campsites are also available for those who really want to rough it.
7777 Westbank Expressway, Westwego, (504) 736-7140 or (888) 677-2296, Web search keywords: Bayou Segnette State Park
Creole Nature Trail
Joining the hallowed ranks of the few byways in America designated All-American Roads, the 180 miles of the Creole Nature Trail in Southwest Louisiana stand alongside similar giants such as the Pacific Coast Scenic Byway and the Blue Ridge Parkway. The Creole Nature Trail took quite a hit from Hurricane Rita, but it is coming back strong in stages that recapture its breathtaking past. Christened “Louisiana’s Outback,” the trail takes you past bayous, acres carpeted with wildflowers, an ancient chenier plain and the undulating Gulf of Mexico. Ducks, geese, quails and deer abound in the Sabine National Wildlife Refuge. The trail is like a microcosm of almost all that was created on earth. From the migratory splendor of the birds who stop here on their way either south or north to the alligators sunning themselves on roadsides to witnessing the actual curve of the earth once you reach the Gulf of Mexico, driving the Creole Nature Trail is like a visual lesson from Stephen Hawking, Charles Darwin and the Book of Genesis.
Web search keywords: Creole Nature Trail
South Toledo Bend State Park
Pleasantly situated on abbreviated bluffs that overlook the Toledo Bend Reservoir, South Toledo Bend State Park offers a cozy nest of cabins amongst the trees with interiors decorated in a style that’s Eddie Bauer chic. The focal point of the area is the calming vision of the placid blue water, which provides a tranquil surface for paddling a canoe or boat. The reservoir itself is nationally recognized for bass-fishing tournaments. But there’s plenty for nonanglers, as well, in the form of excellent hiking, cycling, bird-watching, wildlife-watching and camping, with peace, quiet and birdsong falling about you in ample amounts. The tall trees, along with the bounty of freshwater bass, catfish, bream and white perch, have made South Toledo Bend a popular nesting ground for the magnificent bald eagles that gracefully swoop and sail over your heads. The Visitor Center provides guests with an opportunity to become knowledgeable about the local plant and animal life prevalent in the park.
20 Bald Eagle Road, Anacoco, (337) 286-9075 or (888) 398-4770, Web search keywords: South Toledo Bend State Park
Hodges Gardens State Park
Located in Sabine Parish, Hodges Gardens State Park as it exists today is the product of the vision of oilman A.J. Hodges Sr. Opened in 1956, the park boasts a resplendent formal rose garden along with a collection of Japanese red maple trees. Fountains, waterfalls, scenic gardens, footbridges and walkways wind their way through this elegant, tiered setting.
The 700-plus acres of Hodges Gardens are located in the area of the historic El Camino Real de los Tejas, which was the early road (circa 1720) to Mexico. Until 1819, Sabine Parish was considered a no man’s land, peopled by murderers, thieves and cutthroats in general. Late-19th-century mining operations in the area helped provide Port Arthur, Texas, with sandstone jetties. The abandoned quarry inspired the Hodges family to plant abundant flowers on the exposed natural rock formations in a terraced effect. Hodges Gardens provides prolonged and soul-satisfying wandering through a truly magnificent setting.
1000 Hodges Loop, Florien, (318) 586-4020 or (800) 354-3523,Web search keywords: Hodges Gardens State Park
Lake Bistineau State Park
Nestled on the western shore of Lake Bistineau, this state park is the embodiment of outdoor enchantment. Lake Bistineau was formed in 1800, part of a flood caused by the gigantic logjam on the Red River that was eventually cleared by Henry Miller Shreve. The lake began to drain, but by 1935 a dam built across Loggy Bayou re-created Lake Bistineau as it is today. Today, this absolute pearl of a park provides you with mirrored surfaces of open water that reflect towering cypress and tupelo trees that seem to go on forever as you paddle through the park’s 11-mile canoe trail. Wander on the hiking or biking trails and you’ll discover one beautiful view after another. Unforgettable is the upland mixed hardwood forest that provokes a sense of mystery. Offering two boat launches, the lake provides fishermen with black crappie, largemouth bass, catfish, bluegill and redear sunfish.
Lake Bistineau is a popular picnic spot, well-equipped with grills, tables and pavilions interspersed throughout its acres. It also offers cozy cabins, a swimming beach and pool, playgrounds, a baseball field and the unforgettable fragrance of air purified by countless trees.
103 State Park Road, Doyline, (318) 745-3503 or (888) 677-2478, Web search keywords: Lake Bistineau State Park
The Great River Road Plantations
Starting outside of New Orleans, on either bank of the Mississippi, drive the River Road through Plantation Country and you’ve entered timeless enchantment combined with a satisfying dose of history. You just might find the answers to questions you never realized you had. This road trip is an explorer’s paradise, dotted with such unforgettable stops as the West Indies beauty of Destrehan Plantation, steeped in living history and plantation crafts; the peach-and-cerulean-blue wonder of San Francisco Plantation; and the sunny yellow walls of Laura, home of the slave legends that inspired Compair Lapin, or Br’er Rabbit, penned by Alcée Fortier on its grounds. And then you arrive at the magnificent gnarled hands of the oak trees at Oak Alley that reach across the grove to each other, suitably framing the columns of the magical old house quietly glowing in the distance.
When you drive the River Road through Plantation Country, ghost stories, legends, exquisite grounds, hoopskirts, tignons, Civil War artifacts, grace and beauty are yours for the taking. Oak Alley offers lodging and meal facilities for overnight guests. You may not do a lot of hiking, but you’ll walk through time.
Web search keywords: Great River Road plantations
Chemin-A-Haut State Park
Lying at the very tiptop of Louisiana in Bastrop, Chemin-A-Haut is in an area that was part of the American pioneers’ westward migration. Wheel traces from the countless wagon trains that passed here are still cut into North Louisiana soil to this day. The park area received its name from Frenchmen, who gave this high bluff overlooking Bayou Bartholomew a name meaning “high road” in their language. The 503 acres of this site were once part of a route traveled centuries ago as tribes migrated. It is a quiet area, pristine and unspoiled, that speaks casually to the attentive visitor. Children particularly seem to delight in this place and enjoy the two playgrounds, wading and swimming pools, picnic areas and rental boats that allow them to get a dazzling view of the tribal high road from Bayou Bartholomew. Cabins, both standard and deluxe, provide cozy shelter. The hard-surfaced hiking trail winds along the lofty and picturesque banks of Bayou Bartholomew.
14656 State Park Road, Bastrop, (318) 283-0812 or (888) 677-2436, Web search keywords: Chemin-A-Haut State Park
Longleaf Trail Scenic Byway
After you’ve finished strolling Front Street in Natchitoches, head south to the Longleaf Trail Scenic Byway, your own personal roadway into the Kisatchie National Forest. As you drive the 17-mile byway, filled with popular recreation spots in the Kisatchie Hills area, some of the most unique scenery known to Louisiana is about to unfold before you. This plucky little byway takes you through the exquisite beauty of the Kisatchie Ranger District, found amid the 600,000 acres of the forest. You’ll cross one of the few bubbling streams in this land of still bayous, the scenic Kisatchie Bayou that flows into the Old River. Satisfying to cowboys at heart, this bold natural setting provides views of buttes and mesas, as western a landscape as can be found in the dripping green Bayou State. The Kisatchie Hills Wilderness and its Backbone Trail are a must for backpackers and hikers. You’ll drink in the intoxicating beauty of the natural azalea trail that threads its way through the park in vivid color during the springtime. Equestrians will thrill to the bounding enjoyment of the Caroline Dormon Hiking and Equestrian Trail, all to be partaken of in the company of turkeys, deer, songbirds, wildlife, hardwood and pine forests and a rainbow abundance of wildflowers.
Kisatchie Ranger District, (318) 352-2568, Web search keywords: Longleaf Trail Scenic Byway
The New Orleans French Quarter
One day, if you crave scenic vistas and lots of hiking, experience the French Quarter al fresco. Hit the old sidewalks instead, or climb onto balconies for awe-inspiring vistas. From the fourth level of Jax Brewery, you can see the magnificent sweeping curve of the Mississippi River. Up there, you’re flanked by the Crescent City Connection and the Governor Nicholls Street Wharf while the wedding cake confectionery of the Steamboat Natchez docks majestically below you. Climb to the balcony of Muriel’s Jackson Square restaurant and you’ll be in the most perfect spot for viewing Jackson Square. No matter what direction you turn, lines of wrought-iron balconies with baskets of ferns or flowers stretch their curling way into the horizon while carriages roll along the streets beneath you and lazy jazz tunes waft on breezes that remain sultry, even in winter. The sun on the buildings at sunset reminds you of syrup pouring lazily from a bottle as the banana trees and flowers of Jackson Square spread below you in a perfect pattern of utter charm. Climb to the rooftop of the Omni Royal Orleans, and look out at the patchwork pattern of ancient tiled roofs and old gables, the steeple of St. Louis Cathedral rising over it all as its subdued little bell chimes every quarter-hour. Breathe in the smell of world-class cuisine cooking and Café du Monde’s beignets frying while café au lait is poured near the banks of the Mississippi. Bite into New Orleans as if it were a delicious fruit made to feed your soul, not to mention all five senses.
Web search keywords: French Quarter