End of the Road: Jefferson Parish’s Town of Jean Lafitte

End of the Road: Jefferson Parish’s Town of Jean Lafitte

We’ve been on a kick lately traveling to the end of all the roads in Louisiana–first in Plaquemines, then St. Bernard and now Jefferson via the Town of Jean Lafitte. It’s altogether quite a different drive than the other two, most notably because we didn’t seem to pass any refineries along the way–or at least any we could see.

Hope Haven

The adventure began when we exited the Westbank Expressway in Marrero and turned on to Barataria Boulevard. Almost immediately, we were met with some of the most striking architecture in Jefferson Parish. Built in the 1920s and 30s, Hope Haven’s Spanish Colonial Revival-style buildings stand out amid this otherwise typical suburban area. From my Internet searches, it appears the impressive buildings house a school and a case management and family support center run by Catholic Charities, but they are grand enough to rival the Spanish missions found in Texas and California.

The water-filled, historic Town of Jean Lafitte

Continuing south, we made a left on Leo Kerner Parkway and entered a long stretch of uninhabited highway. Both this route and Barataria Blvd. lead to Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve, one of our favorite spots to explore the swamps and a place I’ve written a lot about in the past. This weekend, however, we had a new destination, passing by the park’s entrance and ascending the high bridge over the Intracoastal Waterway. As the road descends, a pirate ship rocking on the high seas announces you’ve entered the historic town of Jean Lafitte.

We followed scenic Jean Lafitte Boulevard along Bayou Barataria, noting that the majority of the elevated houses here seem to be permanent homes to the town’s residents rather than secondary fishing camps. Our first stop was the new Lafitte’s Barataria Museum and Wetland Trace, which celebrated its grand opening on Saturday. A large tent out front indicated the celebration, and the kids were shouting “balloons!” before we left the car. While they ransacked the kids’ table, gathering up stickers, coloring books, pirate bandanas and tattoos, Paul and I eyed the free tastings of alligator-stuffed mushrooms and crab cakes. In hopes of relaxing and enjoying the live Cajun music, we set up our folding chairs in front of Bruce Daigrepont and his band, yet the kids had sat long enough in the car and were not remotely interested in relaxation.

Lafitte’s Barataria Museum

So we herded them into the museum, where a half hour movie introduced us to the town’s history and that of its residents. Beautiful aerial shots showed the village surrounded by its lifeblood of water, swamp and marsh, and one resident drove the message home by saying he never knew there was solid land until he was taken to the French Quarter when he was 14. The town itself takes its name from the notorious pirate Jean Lafitte, who used the mysterious swamps to hide his smuggling operations. Today’s residents aren’t quite as scandalous, yet those we met were perhaps just as entertaining and lively.

The museum, although small, is packed with intriguing items from the area, from an entire display of the animals found here to a gun used by one of Lafitte’s pirates during the Battle of New Orleans. Although 2-year-old August buried his face when confronted with the talking alligator, the other children present got a kick out the reptile. Unfortunately, two among us didn’t have the patience for the oral history presentations, so we skipped that section to instead head out back to the Wetland Trace.

Alligator along the Wetland Trace

Nearly a mile long, this boardwalk trail through the swamp caught our 5-year-old’s attention like nothing else that day. We spent an hour and half stalking snakes and lizards, pointing out alligators to others passing by and trying to determine what and where all that clicking noise was (our best guesses were baby birds in the rookery or click beetles taunting us from the trees). Although the lines were too long for us to join the swamp tour leaving the docks off the back of the boardwalk, the entire mission was still a success as we saw five snakes of varying sizes and colors, countless water turtles and one very close alligator. Plus, now we have something more to go back for next time.

Boat ready for a new paint job

Back in the car, Charles begged to continue down the road as he wasn’t ready to go home yet, so we kept driving to see what else we could find. On our way to the museum, we had passed an old plantation, still standing but fighting a losing battle with the elements and weeds threatening to suck it back into the earth. Now, on our left, an old boat was lifted on barrels, preparing for an overhaul from its owner.

At the museum, we had learned that Lafitte is home to 11 cemeteries. Fleming Cemetery, notable for its white-washed tombs on top of an Indian mound, is privately owned and inaccessible to the public, yet can be seen from the water and is a highlight of area boat tours. Another, Lafitte Cemetery, is said to be the burial grounds of Pirate Jean Lafitte himself. This was our last photo op before the main road branched off into smaller outlets and essentially ended at a busy boat ramp bustling with fishermen.

Legend says this is the burial grounds of Pirate Jean Lafitte

 

Fall at the Swamp

Fall at the Swamp

 

Although we’ve explored the trails at Jean Lafitte National Park’s Barataria Preserve dozens of times, every trip brings new discoveries. Sunday was the perfect day to visit, with mildly cool weather accented by rust-colored cypress trees and red maples (our version of fall colors).

Palmetto Trail

With one sleeping babe and one rearing to go, we headed first for the Palmetto Trail, where quiet, long stretches of boardwalk suited everyone’s needs. The dark waters were peeking through lush, wild vegetation, pooling in small ponds under the shade of giant leaves. August napped to the rhythmic beat of the stroller wheels on wooden boards, while Charles filled his bug catcher with dried leaves and sticks, preparing a habitat for whatever unsuspecting bug he was sure to find.

For the most part, the trail was ours alone to embrace, the silence only broken a handful of times by mostly visitors with foreign accents. Aside from a few “pokey caterpillars” and elusive, croaking frogs, this initial hike was serene and uneventful–a grade A for us adults, but making our 4-year-old a little antsy at the unthinkable prospect of going home with an empty bug catcher.

Reflections in Bayou Coquille

As we emerged from the giant palmettos and crossed the next parking lot, we once again entered the mysterious world of Louisiana’s swamps. Bayou Coquille was unusually clear of overgrowth and looked perfect for canoeing, and as the afternoon went on, the sky above the cypress trees became a fantastic blue.

We stopped several times to examine the spiders busily spinning their webs and looked forward to seeing the alligator we heard was lurking up ahead. As we stepped aside to allow some faster tourists to pass, Charles squealed with delight at spotting a giant, black lubber grasshopper waiting for him in the path. He impressed the passersby by fearlessly plucking the grasshopper from the ground and gently placing him in the prepared habitat.

Marsh Overlook

It was enough to make this “the greatest day ever,” one that only got better when we finally spotted the 10-foot alligator lurking in the Lower Kenta Canal. He was well-hidden in this hyacinth-clogged canal, which looked so little like water that the kids thought they could walk right out on it.

Our leisurely stroll ended at the expansive marsh overlook. After a few relaxing moments of taking in the views, we strapped the kids in their strollers and starting sprinting back towards the Visitor’s Center. We had half an hour to cover the two miles back before the parking lot gates were closed at 5 p.m. Thankfully, the ranger was still waiting for us when we came huffing and puffing back to our car.

Parting views from the park

 

Barataria Buccaneers’ Day

Barataria Buccaneers’ Day

Our latest trip took us back to one of our earliest adventure locations – Jean Lafitte National Park. It was Barataria Buccaneers’ Day at the Barataria Preserve in Marrero, and Charles was on a mission to become a Junior Ranger/Privateer.

Sweetgum seeds in the forest

We came prepared this time, carrying a dinosaur lunchbox of sandwiches and snacks, and chose the Visitor’s Center as our hiking launch site. One-year-old August was snoring in his stroller before we reached the glass doors leading to the information center. I sat outside with him while Paul chased our three-year-old on a 90-second tour of the wildlife display. When they emerged, Charles proudly announced he had touched every animal in the building before darting off down the trail.

We walked at a brisk pace, following close behind those short legs running at top speed. He had reserves of energy, and the Palmetto Trail’s flat boardwalks through lush greenery were the perfect place to wear him down. I saw several lizards flee his approach, and the only thing that stopped him in his tracks was a noise in the underbrush beside us. While we searched for a snake, I coaxed him into his stroller with the promise of graham crackers.

The Palmetto Trail ends at the parking lot for the Bayou Coquille Trail, and it was here that the park service had set up a kids’ tent complete with coloring pages, a scavenger hunt and pirate eye patches. Now down to one good eye, Charles concentrated hard on coloring the National Park Service badge his favorite color blue to earn his Junior Ranger badge.

An alligator watches us closely from her hiding spot.

Meanwhile, we continued our walk, amazed at the lack of water in the area. The normally high-water Bayou Coquille and Lower Kenta Canal were both choked over with plants, giving the appearance of land where water once stood. We had even lost hope in seeing an alligator until we reached the Pipeline Canal, where a high bridge offered a bird’s eye view of full-grown female gator.

At the trail’s end, a ranger sat at the boat launch offering free canoe rides. Paul and Charles suited up in their life jackets and paddled away in the canoe, while August giggled wildly and threw himself into the remaining life jackets. After the excitement was over, we found a quiet spot to sit and have our picnic lunch before heading back the way we had come.

A canoe tour of Pipeline Canal

Our one stop on the return trip was to hand in Charles’ coloring page, where the ranger made him raise his right hand (well, he thought it was his right!) and swore him in as a Junior Ranger. He proudly wore his badge, which gave him permission to boss around mommy and daddy all throughout the last leg of our four-mile hike.

A Short Drive into the Swamp

A Short Drive into the Swamp

Stifled from days of cold weather (40 degrees is frigid for New Orleans!), we took advantage of a warm spell and ventured out of the city to Jean Lafitte National Park.

The park proved to be an ideal location to take two small children. We started off in the visitor’s center, where my nearly three-year-old was fascinated by the life-like, stuffed animals–especially the owl peering down at him from the tree and the armadillo trying to hide out of view.

Outside on the trails, he ran freely down long lengths of boardwalks, prodded along by the hope of seeing an alligator or snake. Even though the alligators were hibernating, there were still signs of life throughout the area, including a baby raccoon foraging in the underbrush. Meanwhile, our baby had the best sleep in days, wrapped up snugly in his Moby Wrap, enjoying the swaying motion of my walk.

 

Cypress trees covered in moss.

While my husband snapped away with the camera, I found that the stress of the work week slid away with each step we took farther into the swamp. Winter is my favorite time to visit Jean Lafitte. The relatively small crowds give you complete ownership of the area, and the crisp air frightens away the multitudes of bugs that try to carry you off in the summer. The cypress trees, laden with moss, are particularly haunting against the blue sky, while the waist-high palmettos entrance you with their gentle swaying in the breeze.

Cypress knees

There are several trails at the National Park, some on land through swampland and forest and others on water, beckoning exploration with a canoe. One of my favorites is the Bayou Coquille trail, which begins in a hardwood forest and descends through palmettos and bald cypress trees to a freshwater marsh. Here, you can continue on to the Marsh Overlook trail, which offers some of the best views of wildlife in warmer weather and gives a glimpse into the logging taking place here in the 1800s.

Because Jean Lafitte is so easily accessible from New Orleans, I never feel the need to explore every inch of the park in one visit. If I miss something today, I can always find it next time. Thus, after a nice hike along the Palmetto Trail, we climbed back in the car and headed a short distance to where Lafitte Parkway dead ends in the town of Jean Lafitte.

Shrimp boats in Jean Lafitte

A fishing village outside of the protective levee system, Jean Lafitte always surprises me with its beautiful homes high up on piers. Not your typical fishing camps, this town hosts year-round residents who make their livings off of the Gulf waters that crisscross the land through their backyards.

The town’s namesake, the notorious pirate Jean Lafitte, ran a smuggling outfit based in Barataria Bay to the south. A privateer in the early 19th century, Lafitte gained fame–and a pardon–after his efforts to help General Andrew Jackson win the Battle of New Orleans during the War of 1812.

Cemetery in Jean Lafitte

Jean Lafitte (the town) hides many secrets just steps away from the main road, like the whitewashed cemetery overlooking serene Bayou Barataria. Today we discovered another quiet walk at the end of City Park Drive behind the newly built Multi-Purpose Center. The exercise helped us feel better about the gumbo and fried fish we had just eaten at Boutte’s restaurant, where an empty upstairs dining room sheltered the other patrons from our lively children. We were the only ones out there on the trail that day, a fact I was thankful for when my potty-training toddler discovered the wonderment of peeing on a tree.

As we drove away that afternoon, a brown pelican unfurled its massive wings and took flight, skimming the bayou’s waters underneath. It was an image we all carried with us as we drove up the ramp to the Westbank Expressway and saw the city’s skyline on the other side of the Mississippi River.