Into the Wild: Northlake Nature Center and Big Branch Marsh

Into the Wild: Northlake Nature Center and Big Branch Marsh

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
Morgan City to Avery Island

Morgan City to Avery Island

On one of the last cool weekends before summer, we jumped in the car to visit Avery Island, home to Tabasco as well as the beautiful oasis, Jungle Gardens. On previous trips, we always took I-10 from New Orleans to Breaux Bridge and then headed south. This time, however, we made our way along the southern route, traveling Highway 90 through Morgan City, Patterson and Franklin before reaching our destination.

Atchafalaya River as seen from Morgan City

The drive brought us through scenic vistas of classic Louisiana swamps. While the kids watched “Ice Age” in the back of the car, we immersed ourselves in the abundant cypress trees basking in the dark waters prolific in this part of the state. Our first destination was Morgan City, sporting a slogan “Right in the Middle of Everywhere” and famous for its annual Shrimp and Petroleum Festival (the name says it all). On a map, Morgan City makes up half of an island surrounded by countless lakes, rivers, bayous and various other bodies of water twisting and turning around the floating land.

Southwest Reef Lighthouse

We headed straight for the historic downtown toward Front Street and the towering floodwall protecting the city from the Atchafalaya River. The road led us to an opening in the floodwall, and we parked at the edge of the river beside a handful of people fishing. The kids were elated to finally stretch their legs and set off at a sprint along the dock. We raced behind, taking in the muddy river and the boats tied up at its side. Before long, we ascended the stairs to the floodwall and looked down at the city below. Traffic was light on this Saturday morning, yet shops appeared to be opening in the historic buildings.

The floodwall gave us a great view of the river, and the three bridges spanning across it–one for trains and the other two for cars. One of them, the Long-Allen Bridge, boasted a pier resting on one of the deepest foundations in the world (176 feet below low water stage) when it was built in 1933. Across the river, a bright red lighthouse stared back at us. Known as Southwest Reef, the lighthouse was built in 1858 and relocated in 1987 from the Atchafalaya Bay to a park in Berwick.

Wedell-Williams Aviation and Cypress Sawmill Museum

After our walk, we drove the streets admiring the buildings, churches and parks. It was a brief stay, though, as we had several other destinations for the day including the Louisiana State Museum in Patterson. The Wedell-Williams Aviation and Cypress Sawmill Museum showcases two very different occupations that were both integral to this small town.

On one side of the museum, brightly colored airplanes are scattered about both the floor and ceiling. In 1928, pilot Jimmie Wedell and oilman and timber baron Harry Williams joined forces to design aircrafts in Patterson that were faster than the competition. At the announcement of the movie, we all grabbed a seat and waited for the multiple screens to lower across the room. The kids were wide-eyed as planes raced from screen to screen and simulated wind blew in our faces. Wedell and Williams were daredevils of their time who used their fearless talents to revolutionize the aviation industry.

The fascinating crawfish home in front of the museum

Across the lobby, the cypress sawmill museum tells the industry’s story through pictures, giant logs and, if possible, even larger saws. Louisiana played a critical role in the country’s logging industry, and at one time, Patterson was home to the largest sawmill in the world. It was both amazing and eye-opening, and exactly the right size for the attention spans of our kiddos. We had just wrapped up our tour when they scooted out the front door to investigate the crawfish homes on the front lawn, oblivious to the jet mounted just above their heads.

Franklin’s Historic District

Down the road in Franklin, we took a whirlwind tour of the downtown, which boasts over 400 historic structures. I have to say I have never seen so many historic signs all standing in one place. We immensely enjoyed the scenic main street, filled with shops and picturesque light poles. Spanning out on either side were pristine white mansions, shrouded in a canopy of moss-covered live oaks. One block away, the much-talked-about Bayou Teche flows past the homes, adding to the laid back, Southern feel already emanating from the town.

Tabasco Factory at Avery Island

It was nearly 3 o’clock by the time we arrived at Avery Island, paying our dollar toll to cross the bridge to enter Tabasco territory. Home to the McIlhenny hot sauce empire, Avery Island sits on one of five salt domes found in this part of Louisiana. They say that the salt here is “as deep as Mount Everest is tall,” a mind boggling thought. The factory was closed the day we visited, but we were still able to tour the facility that strongly smelled of the spicy sauce. The kids were thrilled when the tour guide gave them samples of miniature Tabasco bottles, which have now taken a spot of fame in their own collections at home.

Snowy Egrets at Jungle Gardens

Aside from Tabasco, Avery Island is home to the wild and beautiful Jungle Gardens. A driving tour through the 170-acre gardens brought us past alligator-filled ponds, an 800-year-old Buddha and countless live oaks, azaleas, camellias and bamboo. Thankfully, the unseasonably cool weather kept the mosquitoes at bay so we could enjoy exploring every inch of the property. It was also the perfect time of year for the nesting snowy egrets, which came in droves to the elevated platforms known as “Bird City.”

Bayou Teche National Wildlife Refuge

All in all, it was probably one of our most successful adventures already, but we added one final stop to complete the tour. On the return drive, we veered off south of Centerville to enter the Bayou Teche National Wildlife Refuge, established in part to protect Louisiana’s black bear population. While we weren’t looking for bears, we were intrigued by the Garden City boardwalk trail, which we never would have found without this map. We parked by the levee and walked the short distance to an even shorter boardwalk through the swamp. The water underneath was eerily still, clogged with vegetation in this thriving forest; yet the trees overhead were alive with songbirds, each twilling a different tune and flitting about from branch to branch in a blur of colors. We paused a moment to admire them all before climbing back in the car for the return trip home.

Live oaks at Avery Island’s Jungle Gardens

 

Big Branch Marsh National Wildlife Refuge

Big Branch Marsh National Wildlife Refuge

Bundled in puffy jackets and hoods, we fought the weekend’s blustery weather and – in between Mardi Gras parades – carved out some time to discover another of Southeast Louisiana’s (SELA) eight National Wildlife Refuges. Encompassing nearly 19,000 acres of Lake Pontchartrain’s north shore, Big Branch Marsh NWR is another one of those remote gems, completely hidden within plain site of 1.2 million people.

Because of its close proximity to Big Branch Marsh, we began our journey at the Visitor Center for all eight of the SELA refuges. Just north of where Highways 434 and 190 intersect in Lacombe, this impressive complex was far beyond our expectations. A former Redemptorist seminary, the vast property retains the feel of a religious retreat with contemplative trails winding through sasanquas and camellias past a grotto, Bayou Lacombe and a cemetery for Redemptorist priests.

SELA Refuges Visitor’s Center

Stepping inside the Visitor’s Center, we instantly realized this cross-shaped building with vaulted ceilings was the former chapel. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had done an amazing job turning the space into a natural science museum, complete with displays highlighting the eight refuges, preserved animals, a video and an interactive cabin. The kids gawked at the black bear and alligator before scaling the ramp to the intriguing shack. Inside, a dark room hid various Louisiana wildlife. I handed Charles an available flashlight and watched with delight as he discovered owls, snakes, turtles, deer and a bobcat. Every time his light landed on one of the lifelike eyes, it triggered the hoots and growls of the featured animal.

One of the many camellias along the Camellia Trail

Outside, we followed the grotto and camellia trails past hundreds of blooming camellias, losing count as to the number of varieties of pinks, reds, whites, striped and polk-a-dot flowers. As Paul paused to read the names of the priests buried in the cemetery, the kids and I traveled the final camellia lane where we discovered the find of the century – at least to a three-year-old. A two-foot snakeskin completely intact appeared to be slithering across the path. It now holds a place on his dresser next to his cicada shells and caterpillar cocoon that hopefully will soon become a monarch butterfly.

The pine forest of Big Branch Marsh NWR

The sun was well on its way in its descent into the horizon, so we hurried back along Highway 190 to the Big Branch Marsh boardwalk and nature trail. A half-mile, self-guided tour immersed us into pine flatwoods that opened up to a lilly pad covered freshwater marsh. The wind was brutal in the open area, at one point launching an empty stroller into the water, but the serene views of saw grass and birds were well worth our endeavors. However, at the end of the boardwalk, we followed the limestone trail back to our car rather than continue along the 4-mile roundtrip Boy Scout Road Tour.

The Secrets of New Orleans East: Bayou Sauvage & Historic Forts

The Secrets of New Orleans East: Bayou Sauvage & Historic Forts

Beyond a line of Vietnamese stores and restaurants, Chef Menteur Highway journeys to the far edges of New Orleans, deep into the nation’s largest urban National Wildlife Refuge. Just a short distance from our house, Bayou Sauvage NWR is a flashback to what much of this area used to look like – or perhaps more of what the natural landscape has become.
Fort Pike on The Rigolets Pass

 

Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge

As we took our time unfolding strollers and loading in kids and snacks, a rush of cars filed into the previously empty parking lot. Almost on cue, doors flew open and members of the Slidell Hiking Club emerged. While they milled around the display of posters describing the refuge, we scooted down the boardwalk out of sight.

There was no water standing under the wooden walkway, and 3-year-old Charles seemed thoroughly confused as to why we couldn’t walk on the ground. We distracted him from his interrogation with a challenge to race. The end of the 2/3 mile trail came sooner than expected, and we unbuckled August and let him stretch his legs while we took in the expansive landscape in front of us.

The entire route had been enveloped with short vegetation and an occasional live oak. Here, at the end, though, short cypress knees and stubby tree trunks were all that remained from the saltwater damaged and logged forest. The landscape was strangely barren at first glance, but when we looked deeper, there were signs of life everywhere. Far in the distance, an island of live oak trees towered over the flat land, marking the spot where Tchefuncte Indians once built ancient shell middens.

Abandoned Fort Macomb

As the Slidell hikers approached, we finished off the loop and continued out Chef Menteur toward Fort Pike State Historic Site, pausing first to snap a few pictures of the abandoned 19th century Fort Macomb along the shores of Chef Menteur Pass. Overgrown and crumbling into the waters surrounding it, Fort Macomb appeared to be the forgotten stepchild of the two forts designed to protect Lake Pontchartrain. On the other hand, Fort Pike, which once guarded The Rigolets (French for “Little Ditch”) pass to the lake, was staffed and open for viewing – and for shooting movies apparently. When we arrived this past weekend, the fort was still recovering from serving as the background for “G.I. Joe 2.”

Great Horned Owl

While August and I paid the modest $4 entry fee, Paul and Charles began investigating the feathers and other bird parts littering the ground around a large oak tree. One quick glance up, and they were astonished to see a two-foot-tall great horned owl glaring down at them. He’s a permanent fixture in the tree, and as we learned from the park guide, his mate spends her days under the nearby bridge. They meet up at night to hunt and eat.

Across the moat, we entered the cool, brick arches of Fort Pike. Completed in 1828, the fort served in various capacities in the Seminole Wars, the Mexican War and the Civil War. Although aged from time and the elements, the fort was largely intact, complete with the interior citadel stronghold. Rooms are marked to denote their original purpose, such as a bakery, general store and officers’ quarters, and strategically placed cannons look out over the waters beyond. I pushed the stroller up the rooftop ramp, and we carefully made our way around the top of the fortress, watching the pelicans gracefully fly past. I easily imagined myself transported back in time to live here on this serene site, and then I shuddered to realize the soldiers and their bustling activity that would have been happening all around me.

Inside Fort Pike