After Hurricane Rita made landfall just a few years ago, the iconic image of Cameron, La., was a picture of the town’s lone-standing water tower rising high above the waterlogged skeleton of the drowned community. Today, the only visible debris takes the form of blossoming water hyacinth strewn across vast marshland.
A scenic byway cuts through Cameron Parish, a unique area marked by wind-whittled cheniers and rippling waterways. At nearly 2,000 square miles, it is the state’s largest parish by land mass, owning only a handful of stoplights and an average of less than four people per square mile. Calcasieu Parish, home to Lake Charles, abuts Cameron Parish to the north, and the Gulf of Mexico laps away at its southern shores.
Southwest Louisiana is home to some of the country’s best crabbing, fishing and picnicking. Additionally, it is one of the world’s top birdwatching destinations. The byway that Toby – my car – and I puttered across last week is one of only 27 All-American Roads. The commercials you see of sleek automobiles hugging the shoulders of scenic America? That was us sort of, though we’re admittedly frumpier.
One of the first things that came to mind while driving along these languid highways is that the area feels a whole lot like Laura Ingalls Wilder’s frontier meeting Kate Chopin’s bayou – an interesting mesh of plush prairie and vast expanses of marshland – an integral but overlooked part of the American fabric. Can’t imagine it? Think of a butterfly sanctuary in the heart of gator territory. Expect rice fields, estuaries, stands of pine trees, salty air and plagues of colorful critters. The coastal prairie is one of the most fertile and ecologically productive ecosystems in North America.
The Creole Nature Trail All-American Road, one of Louisiana’s lesser known but greatest assets, has been named an All-American Road alongside of iconic day trip treasures like Blue Ridge Parkway, California State Route 1 and Florida’s famous Overseas Highway. Louisiana Highways 27 and 82 pass through coastal forests and salty marshland. Each highway is divided into two sections and comprise the byway’s four legs.
Below I’ve compiled a list of each leg’s features to help inform which route to choose should you want to take a road trip.
South from Sulphur to Cameron (LA Highway 27)
Intracoastal Park is praised by crab addicts and fishermen as one of the best places to crab and fish on Creole Nature Trail. The park offers two boat launches, camping sites, picnic tables and a playground. It’s easily enjoyed by both sportsmen and families.
Holly Beach in Hackberry, La., was once known as the Cajun Riviera, a poor man’s resort town that went the way of Hurricane Rita in 2005. Today, it’s on the upswing and boasts some of the most accessible public beaches in the state. In recent years the beach has emerged as an ideal location for swimming, crabbing, surf fishing, shell collecting and seaside picnicking.
Sabine National Wildlife Refuge is an area of brackish marshland that was initially established as a habitat for migratory birds, but my favorite part of the Sabine water system can be summed up in three words: baby river otters. In addition to housing some of the cutest animals known to man, the skies are often filled with brilliantly plumaged raptors. While in the refuge, hike across the walkway. From the observation tower check out sunbathing gators, neotropic cormorants and egrets.
Calcasieu Lake is a really pleasant place for catching redfish and flounder, but the coveted catch here is the large speckled trout. This estuarine fish haunts the lake’s oyster reefs in search of shrimp and crustaceans. Because they reproduce so successfully, these fish are excellent candidates for sustainable seafood practices. Prime speckled trout fishing is in May, but the season begins in March and lasts through the fall.
West from Cameron to Sabine River (LA Highway 82 West)
Peveto Woods lies west of Holly Beach. It’s a shaded patch of seaside woodland which is home to a thriving population of butterflies and migratory birds.
Sabine Pass Lighthouse shined over the orange groves of Johnsons Bayou during the mid-1800s. When it was originally lit in 1857, it was fueled with whale-oil. The light shined nearly a century before the Coast Guard extinguished in 1952. The lighthouse has survived many hurricanes including Audrey, Rita and Ike.
East from Cameron to Rockefeller Refuge (LA Highway 82 East)
Cameron Jetties provide a good photo opportunity and the pier is a nice place to throw in a fishing line. There is also an RV park.
Cameron Ferry crosses Calcasieu Ship Channel. On your ride across, it’s not rare to see porpoises playing in the wake. The ferry fits up to 50 cars.
North from Oak Grove/Creole to Lake Charles (LA Highway 27)
There are four migration flyways in North America, which can be defined as vague routes followed by migratory birds during the late fall and early spring. Ducks, shorebirds, blackbirds, sparrows and warblers travel the Mississippi Flyway, which begins near the Arctic Ocean at the mouth of the Mackenzie River in Canada’s Northwest Territories. The flyway spans 3,000 miles over flat, timbered land before colliding with the Central Flyway over southwestern Louisiana. This is a unique phenomenon specific to this area of the country, making Pintail Drive one of the most incredible places to birdwatch in the world. During migration periods, the skies above this part of the state can expect up to a billion winged travelers heading to or from Central America. Some of these are brightly colored songbirds. During the fall and winter, this area is teeming with migratory fowl like duck and geese, but during spring and summer, there is an abundance of shorebirds and long-legged waders. Not only is it a good drive, but the areas along the dikes and levees are a beautiful place for an afternoon hike.