Into the Wild: Northlake Nature Center and Big Branch Marsh

Into the Wild: Northlake Nature Center and Big Branch Marsh

Big Branch Marsh National Wildlife Refuge

On this gorgeous fall weekend, we took advantage of the weather to revisit two of our favorite hiking trails on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain. Despite being surrounded by towns and cars and people, the Northlake Nature Center and Big Branch Marsh National Wildlife Refuge offer quiet seclusion deep within nature. (Well, they were quiet until we arrived with our two wild kiddos!)

Spotting turtles in the pond

Part of the experience of any trip we take is getting there, and the kids have come to crave their snack-filled, Scooby Doo watching car ride as the beginning of their grand adventure. Once we arrive at our first stop, their tummies are full and they have enough energy built up to run a marathon. As usual, our five-year-old darted out of the car before we even stopped the engine. He was on a hunt for lizards, something he has become a pro at catching.

It’s been more than a year since we last visited the Northlake Nature Center, located across the street from Fountainbleau State Park. While the initial entrance looked the same, as we started walking into the woods, we noticed many improvements to the boardwalk and new trails weaving in between old ones. It was shaded and cool in the forest, and although we caught sight of monstrous mosquitoes, they seemed to spare us from harm during our mid-afternoon walk.

Swamp at the Northlake Nature Center

Engraved signs shaped like rocks provided a non-intrusive education on the area’s wide variety of trees and their names. At the beaver pond, our oldest spotted the distinctive head of a red-eared slider turtle, and as we watched, several more popped up around him. From here, we took the Eagle Trail, which led us past a small cypress-tupelo swamp and through the pine forest to the edge of the Nature Center near Pelican Park (a local ball park). The path changed many times, from the initial boardwalk to a cushy pine needle pathway, then to the paved portion of a bicycle trail followed by a wide road lined with large rocks. It began to rain on us at this point, and the kids tucked away inside their strollers while we turned onto the last leg of the trail leading us back around to the beginning boardwalk. When we reached the beaver pond again, they sprinted and squealed their way back to the car, spooking any wild animals that may have been lurking in the shadows.

Big Branch Marsh


From the Nature Center, we headed toward Lacombe and the remote Big Branch Marsh National Wildlife Refuge. As it was Sunday, the Visitor’s Center was closed, but this hands-on display inside an old church is definitely worth a visit if you haven’t been before. The main hiking path in Big Branch is the Boy Scout Road boardwalk and trail, located off Transmitter Road. The boardwalk itself begins through one of the most peaceful settings in south Louisiana. A scattered pine forest opens up into a marsh decorated with lily pads and their lovely white blooms. Although only a 1/4-mile long, the boardwalk brings you to a magical place not often experienced.  Unfortunately the rain picked back up, and once again we were deterred from venturing out along the 4.5-mile Boy Scout Road leading to Bayou Lacombe. Perhaps next time, we’ll discover what lies beyond the boardwalk…

History Lesson at Port Hudson

History Lesson at Port Hudson

On previous trips to St. Francisville, we always head straight for the historic town, walking the shaded main streets and shopping at Grandmother’s Buttons before setting off to tour a nearby plantation. Although we see the sign for Port Hudson State Historic Site as we pass, we never stop, always having a slight aversion to taking toddlers to a battle site. On our most recent trip, though, we had a change of heart and decided it was finally time for us to veer off the road and check it out.

Port Hudson State Historic Site

As is most often the case, we were pleasantly surprised by our decision. A model state facility, Port Hudson was immaculately kept up, with 6 miles of wipe-open trails for exploring and a child-friendly ranger who welcomed the kids and their insanity with open arms. An informative exhibit inside the museum offered miniature models of soldiers and horses that captured the kids’ imaginations, while the sad details of the actual battle were left to those old enough to read.

Golden-silk spider

The longest siege in American military history took place at Port Hudson, where for 48 days 6,800 Confederate soldiers held off 30,000 Union troops. There were thousands of casualties before the Confederates finally surrendered after hearing that Vicksburg had surrendered. The site is also important as being the first battle in which African American troops from Louisiana were allowed to participate in the battle, fighting for the Union army against the Confederates. Port Hudson later became a recruiting center for African-American troops.

After brushing up on our history and watching the ranger let the kids try on a canteen and practice moving a small cannon, we began our journey on the trails outside. It first led us through an open field to original cannons used in the Civil War battle here. Then, looping around, it immersed us into a shady forest with giant spiders weaving webs right over our heads and small bluffs offering elevation changes not often seen in Louisiana.

Fort Babcock

At Fort Desperate, an elevated boardwalk led us over the earthen hills built by the soldiers, and signs spoke of sharpshooters watching Union soldiers as they dug trenches to get closer to their enemy. We then crossed Foster Creek and found Fort Babcock, another series of earthen hills left behind to nature and the tiny frogs and lizards jumping and scurrying about through the fallen leaves. While the kids tested their bug-catching skills, we tried to imagine thousands of young soldiers hiding here in these woods 150 years ago.

Train car on display in town

The day was still early when we left Port Hudson, so we headed toward St. Francisville to pick up a bite to eat at Magnolia Cafe. On a whim, we decided to drive to the edge of town to view the Mississippi River and were surprised to find the road leading nearly straight up to the water’s edge. From here, we turned back and stopped off to investigate an old train car left behind from the West Feliciana Railroad. The kids climbed over every inch of it before we herded them back into the car to find out if the road was open to Cat Island.

Drive to Cat Island National Wildlife Refuge

As we crossed the low-lying bridge over a local river, we were excited to realize that the road was not flooded as it had been on previous visits. A family jumped across rocks in the scenic river while we headed out into the country, past several sightings of grazing deer to the dirt road that leads to Cat Island National Wildlife Refuge. A lack of signage and our own poor guessing at directions helped us “get lost in Louisiana” yet again before we finally found our way to the destination. Inside the refuge, we parked at the trailhead for the old cypress trees and walked the short distance to the viewing platform for the National Champion Bald Cypress – an enormous, ancient tree dominating the old growth forest around it. We took our time admiring this grandfather of trees, which spends half of every year swimming in the floodwaters of the Mississippi River. It’s a sight to see and the perfect ending to our day of adventure.

National Champion Bald Cypress
Cooling off in Bogue Chitto State Park

Cooling off in Bogue Chitto State Park

Bogue Chitto River

On an unbelievably hot Louisiana summer day, we set out to cool our toes in the waters on the Bogue Chitto River. The state park by the same name is one of Louisiana’s newest state parks, located near Franklinton.

Loblolly pine tree

The drive there on LA-25 north takes you past some impressive nurseries. However, once you veer off the main road, the landscape felt foreign to us – as if we were suddenly in another state. It appeared to be land that had been clear cut and then let alone to grow back wild, but all the vegetation was still short enough to give the impression of a wide open space. It’s hard to describe, but I had the same feeling as when we drove through the lava fields in Oregon – a bit disoriented.

But then we reached the entrance to the state park, and everything changed again. We drove inside to find a lush, fragrant pine forest, with bluffs and elevation changes similar to Tunica Hills near St. Francisville. Of course, by the time we reached our destination, it was lunch, so we headed straight for the picnic tables. A covered table lent some relief from the glaring sun, and while we shoved bites of sandwiches in the kids’ mouths, they chased grasshoppers and dragonflies with giddy abandonment.

Boardwalk trail within the gorge

We vowed to hold out as long as possible before the kids’ drenched themselves in the water, so we started with the hiking trail along the bluff’s ledge. The shaded path was a good 10 degrees cooler than the picnic area and led to stairs that descended deep within the gorge to a lower boardwalk trail. The area down below is known as Fricke’s Cave, although it bears no resemblance to a real cave. It’s unique features led National Geographic to do a story on the area years ago. A collection of Native American arrow heads found in Fricke’s Cave is displayed in the Visitor’s Center.

Fricke’s Cave

From here we tried another trail around one of the park’s 11 fishing lakes, where we learned a little about nature from the labeled trees. We also discovered a handful of fossils–tiny imprints of long-ago plants and creatures–in the river rocks scattered about. Not to forget, this was also our first sighting of a velvet ant, which I later learned is not really an ant at all but rather a type of wasp. Who knew?!

Bogue Chitto River

By this point, the kids had begged long enough for the water, so we hopped in the car and drove down to the river’s access point. The main parking area was full, so we backtracked to the picnic area and set out from there–following the path through the woods, across the open beach that glared like the Sahara, and finally running full speed into the picturesque river. Several people were milling about on inner tubes, slowly floating downstream while basking–or should I say baking–in the sun. (In case you’re wondering, there is an outfitter in the park that rents the inner tubes.) We stayed long enough for the fish to start nibbling at our toes, and then trecked our way back across the desert for our final destination–the jewel of a water playground.

Not only was there a giant tube slide that dumped the children right into a a long tub of water, but there were streams of water shooting out of the ground and falling out of the sky. While the kids thoroughly drenched themselves, I bought snoballs at the nearby stand as a special treat on our hot summer adventure.
 

A park native
Tickfaw State Park and Lake Maurepas’ Northshore

Tickfaw State Park and Lake Maurepas’ Northshore

Bridge over the Tickfaw River

On a whim, we recently decided to take a little drive and check out Tickfaw State Park in Springfield, not far from Ponchatoula and Hammond. It was a scenic journey, north on I-55 through that swampy strip of land sectioning off Lake Maurepas from Lake Pontchartrain. Near Ponchatoula, we headed west into the country, first past some surprisingly large, elegant homes that slowly tapered down to more rustic, rural houses. We passed a few notable spots along the way, including a sign about an old Spanish fort and Springfield’s role in the West Florida Revolution.

Cypress/tupelo swamp behind the Nature Center

Once we arrived at Tickfaw State Park, we headed straight to the Nature Center, which the website says houses an 800-gallon aquarium filled with fish from the Tickfaw River. Unfortunately, a posted sign said the Center was closed on Sundays and Mondays, which I assume is the sad result of state park budget cuts. After a quick round of pouting, we perked ourselves up with a picnic lunch and then set off to discover the boardwalk trail leading out from behind the building.

The route began in a quiet cypress and tupelo swamp, where cypress knees extended high above the murky water and skinks were prolific on the boardwalk’s railings. After a short walk, we emerged on dry land in a more traditional forest of hardwood trees. The kids carefully selected walking sticks from the broken branches scattered about, and then we made our way back to the Nature Center where we peaked in the back window and saw the aquarium.

Five-lined skink with blue tail

Farther back in the park, another trail led us along a boardwalk to a bridge over the Tickfaw River. I thought those striped, blue-tailed skinks had been abundant before, but here they seemed to have taken over the place. Our five-year-old could hardly walk two feet before crouching down to sneak up on the next one. The river was muddy and lazy, winding through a serene stand of trees. We ventured along its banks, spotting countless frogs and water turtles and watching for signs of fish before backtracking to the elevated trail.

Our last stop was the playground, a destination our youngest begs for daily and one we always have to save until the end–or else we’ll never make it anyplace else! So while the kids climbed and slid their way up and over the equipment, we rested on the nearby benches. I was nearly certain the splash park would be next up on the list, but a sudden shower had us instead running for the shelter of the car.

Old Hardhide in Ponchatoula

To kill time, we drove the streets back toward the entrance, veering off here and there to see what we had missed along the way. This is how we found ourselves at a small pond, walking the circular trail around its perimeter and watching with wide-eyed wonder as the resident alligator swam along beside us.

With alligators on the mind, we had to stop on our way out in Ponchatoula, where Old Hardhide lives in his cage in the middle of downtown. He was relaxing on the side of his pond, silently snoozing while we snapped photos of the kids squatting only a foot away on the opposite side of his chainlink fence. Next door, the old town depot from 1894 beckoned us inside with the promise of arts, crafts and antiques. The kids talked us into buying them toy alligator head grabbers in return for them smiling for a photo in front of the old locomotive across the street.

Middendorf’s Restaurant

For the day’s finale, we pulled off the interstate in Manchac for some of Middendorf’s famous thin-fried fish. We ate our fill and followed it up with homemade ice cream before taking our leftover bread outdoors to feed the seagulls. While we stood there on the small pier with birds circling our heads, a train barreled past, flying across its narrow bridge over Lake Maurepas. By now, the kids had discovered the giant sand pit behind the restaurant and set up shop next to the palm trees, building tiny villages with toy trucks and buckets. I’ll only say it was “difficult” to persuade them to leave. Yet, as the sun set over the tiny fishing village, reflecting off the water and highlighting the floating lily pads, we all smiled at the beauty of this place that was so perfectly Louisiana.

Manchac
Vacation Time: North to the Smokies and DC

Vacation Time: North to the Smokies and DC

Grayson Highlands State Park in Virginia

Scrambling to get in a vacation before the first day of Kindergarten, we escaped the summer heat and pointed our car north, spending two weeks frolicking in the cold streams of North Carolina’s Smoky Mountains and the air conditioned museums of Washington, DC. If I captured a day-by-day journal of our travels, I’m afraid this blog would turn into a book, so instead I’ll share some of the highlights and memorable adventures.

Our Cabin

Alarka Creek Cabin 2

When the listing on our Alarka Creek Cabin said Bryson City as the location, I pictured a small cabin on a creek just on the outskirts of the town’s main street. However, when the directions arrived via email, we found ourselves driving deep into the woods 15 minutes from the nearest cell phone and Internet connections. I must admit, at first it took a little adjusting. But after a day or so of being completely unplugged, we began to relish in our daily duties of exploring the creek running through our backyard, collecting fireflies in the nearby field and passing away the evening playing board games. The giant black snake eating his dinner off our back porch was an added bonus for the kids as was the family of frogs living underneath the garden water hose.   

Waterfall at Deep Creek in Great Smoky Mountain NP

The Views
As we stood on the Blue Ridge Parkway gazing at the fog hovering between the blue-shaded rows of mountains before us, we remembered what draws us back year after year. Perhaps those who live in these parts are accustomed to the daily beauty of the Smoky Mountains, but to a family growing up on the Gulf Coast’s flat horizon, it’s a rare and awe-inspiring site. It’s a place that spurs the imagination, where a walk through an old homestead creates amazement at the hardiness of early settlers and quick moving fog prompts a five-year-old’s questions as to where the smoke machine is located. Throw in a few magical waterfalls at Deep Creek, hikes through Joyce Kilmer’s old growth forest and displays of mad kayaking skills at the Nantahala Outdoor Center, and you have the prime setting for a place where dreams are brought to life.

Salamanders

One of the many salamanders we found


After last year’s disappointment at not discovering a single salamander, a staffer at our favorite nature center in Highlands, NC, let us in on the secret. These shyest of creatures are found “under” the rocks, not on top. So low and behold, our five-year-old led us on daily excursions into icy cold streams to lift every accessible rock present. We were rewarded with countless salamanders, some black, some blue with spots and some so fast their color was a blur. Our best searching spots were at the end of the path leading out from Mingus Mill, in the pool at the base of Indian Creek Falls at Deep Creek, at the Highlands Botanical Garden and on the moist, loop trail behind the Peaks of Otter Visitor Center.

The City

Great Falls as seen from Maryland


We don’t often take our kids to big cities, for obvious reasons starting with their tendency to wander off on a whim. Yet, after previously living in DC, we felt comfortable shuffling them around the metro to some of our favorite haunts. To ease them into the transition from wilderness to concrete, we started off at Great Falls, where the Potomac River drops 77 feet in less than a mile. The walk along the C&O Canal reminded us of our wish to bike the entire 184.5 miles and started the wheels spinning on how old the kids would need to be before we could embark on this trip.

U.S. Capitol

Next, we were off to visit our old friend Abe, who despite recovering from a recent vandalism attempt, still sat as impressive as ever. On the opposite end, we walked the Capitol steps on our way to the Botanic Gardens, one of our all-time favorite places. Of course, there was the dinosaur exhibit at the Natural History Museum (twice!), the Carousel ride on the National Mall and a tour at my husband’s previous employment – The Phillips Collection (one of the best art museums NOT on the Mall).

Unexpected Finds
No matter how well you explore an area, there are always unexpected surprises that pop up in every trip. This time we ventured off the highway to Virginia’s Grayson Highlands State Park, where wild ponies run free and a hike through the forest leads to a rock outcrop with outstanding views of the state’s two highest mountains.  On the road there, we nearly missed the state’s Marion Fish Hatchery and made a quick u-turn to stop by. It was our lucky day, as a bear had ripped the feeder off the wall the night before, so instead of buying a handful of fish food for a quarter, we were rewarded with a whole bucket of food to feed every fish in the hatchery. The kids squealed as the fish splashed and jumped at the food, and our oldest found a new best friend in the manager who gave us a personal tour of the facility.

Monticello’s Gardens

Our other surprise was in Charlottesville, Va., where we stopped off for another look at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. Years ago when we visited here, you could drive straight to the house, park beside the bookstore/gift shop and snap a few photos without even buying a tour ticket. Today, the UNESCO World Heritage Site greets visitors with an expansive entrance, complete with a movie, children’s Discovery Room, cafe and gift shop. The home itself is hidden from view, accessed by a shuttle ride up the hill. Despite our surprise, we paid the $24/person fee and embarked on a journey through his home and extensive gardens. If you’ve never been, it’s still well worth the visit to learn about this fascinating president.

Walled garden at the University of Virginia

Below his mountain, on the campus of the University of Virginia, we picnicked on the main lawn and then set off to investigate the walled gardens of the Academical Village. It was a private, magical place, where individual gates led from one small manicured garden to the next. Here, in the middle of campus, tiny bunnies raced across the grass to hide in thick bushes, and we found ourselves not able to stop exploring until we had found each and every garden.

A Few Parting Photos
Mountain Farm Museum at Oconaluftee Visitor Center at Smoky Mountains NP
One of our scenic hiking trails
And one of the beautiful creeks in the Smokies
Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello
Can you spot the salamander?
A tranquil pool at Great Falls

Dinosaurs at the Natural History Museum
Abraham Lincoln Memorial

Feeding ducks by the reflecting pool and Washington Monument

Feeding the fish at the Fish Hatchery

Enjoying the view at Grayson Highlands

End of the Road in Plaquemines

End of the Road in Plaquemines

End of the road in Plaquemines Parish

It’s not easy to get lost in Plaquemines Parish. There’s one main road that runs down the left side of the Mississippi River and one down the right. Once you get on it, you simply drive straight ahead until you reach the end. We chose Highway 23 on the left side and spent the day exploring our rural neighbor.

Looking for bugs in the Woodlands Conservancy

It was late morning before we headed out, jumping on the Crescent City Connection to cross the Mississippi and then exiting nearly immediately at General De Gaulle Dr. The road leads away from the city and high onto a bridge over the Intracoastal Canal, curving back down to drop us in the middle of pasture land. Just a short jaunt from here is Woodlands Conservancy, home to 13 miles of hiking and equestrian trails winding through forests and canals.

Although the 6-mile Bottomland Trail was intriguing with its promise of 10 World War II Ammunition Magazines, we glanced at our 2 and 4-year-old kids and chose the easier 1.1-mile Upland Trail for our own sanity. The recently wet trail, which began by snaking out alongside a canal, was now hardened mud perfectly capturing the footprints of the deer that walked the path before us. Charles, dressed in his entomologist outfit, examined the footprints with his magnifying glass in between chasing the crickets and large mosquitos in hopes of capturing one for his bug catcher.

Becnel’s Farmers Market

Soon, the trail veered away from the water and entered the forest, where thousands of yellow flowers blanketed the ground.  Being little gentlemen, they picked flowers for their mommy while dad photographed them foraging in a mass of yellow. Every so often, the trail passed a large swamp maple dropping dark red leaves to the ground or a giant cypress standing watch over the smaller trees surrounding it. It was a pleasant, leisurely walk through nature that looped back to the beginning and ended near a pavilion perfect for a post-hike snack.

The food only made our stomachs grumble more, so back in the car and now on Highway 23, we made our next stop Becnel’s Farmers Market. Here, we re-energized on tamales, boudin and alligator sausage, while the kids enjoyed hot dogs from the small food vendor next door. Before continuing on, we browsed the many citrus trees for sale and admired the Blue Angel plane elevated in the air across the street at the Naval Air Station.

Woodland Plantation

As we drove south, the land around us thinned, leaving an uneasy feeling of vulnerability. Modest homes intermingled with sprawling refineries in this landscape dominated by fishing and oil. In the midst of this rural community lies the lovely, red-roofed Woodland Plantation, famous for its image gracing the label of Southern Comfort bottles since 1934. We parked by the main house and knocked on the front door, which swung open at our touch. Now a bed and breakfast, the plantation is open for browsing and viewing by anyone who chances by, and we explored each of the cozy rooms filled with antique furniture.

Next door, the old St. Patrick’s Church was moved to this location and now served as Spirits Hall, where six-course dinners are served up to anyone making reservations. The hostess told us how most of the guests were fishermen who stayed overnight before going out on one of the fishing charters arranged by the plantation staff. At the end of the day, the chef cleans and cooks their catch and serves it up in a delicious meal.

The property, including the plantation, received nine feet of water from last year’s Hurricane Isaac, yet you never would have known it. In addition to the main house and church turned dining hall, the beautifully landscaped acreage contained a newly renovated overseer’s house, an old slave cabin currently under repair and the ruins of the sugarcane mill. We strolled the property, at ease to make ourselves at home, while the kids giggled and squealed at the affectionate attention of the home’s cats.

Fort Jackson

We had a difficult time persuading them to leave the cats behind so we could continue down the road to Fort Jackson. Built between 1822 and 1832, the fort played a role in the Civil War and stands in a prominent spot overlooking the Mississippi River. Information is hard to come by online regarding the fort’s status, and although last year’s 150th Civil War Anniversary website states that the sight is open daily, we found the gates locked and signs posted saying no public entrance.

We made the most of our time there, though, and walked around the outer wall of the fort, which at times afforded glimpses into the fort’s interior. A monument on the bank of the river denoted the spot where the first Mardi Gras took place in 1699 and another showed a picture of the explorer LaSalle underneath a cross soaring up into the sky. As we walked, something–“perhaps the loch ness monster,” Charles informed us–seemed to follow us in the moat below, leaping into the air every so often to show its large black head.

Plaque denoting Bayou Mardi Gras with MS River in background

As the sun lowered, the air chilled and we hurried to reach our final destination – the end of the road. It wasn’t hard to find the flat Tidewater Road only inches higher than the water lapping at its sides. Cypress trees graced both sides of the road, and countless birds perched in their ghostly limbs, making this a prime spot for birding enthusiasts. We even spotted a flash of hot pink and jumped at finding the elusive roseate spoonbill standing silently in the water.

At the end, the road simply disappeared and a sign welcomed us to the “southernmost point in Louisiana,” where another refinery reminded us of the big business dominating Louisiana’s coast. Yet, as unnatural as it looked in that cypress swamp, its presence didn’t deter the thousands of birds sitting along every pipe and building there.

It was dark as we drove back to the city along the same road and encountered a mass of lights floating above the houses to our right. We were shocked to realize it was a cruise ship making its way south along the Mississippi, a city in itself, seemingly hovering in the air beyond the hard-working residents of this parish.

Two worlds at the end of the road: cypress trees…

 

 And a refinery – both covered in birds