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…

Charming Madisonville

Charming Madisonville

The tiny town of Madisonville perched its stilted houses and businesses along the banks of the Tchefuncte River, which flows south and widens as it enters Lake Pontchartrain. Countless days of rain had prompted us to visit this historic maritime community, whose past has been interwoven with water since the earliest days of settlement around 1800.

Lake Pontchartrain Basin Maritime Museum

We escaped the day’s remaining drizzle inside the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Maritime Museum, where a 3 p.m. arrival gave us an hour before closing to tour the exhibits. The kids were a whirlwind, as usual, absorbing every creature, boat and picture at lightning speed. My four-year-old had found three alligators, a squirrel and a bobcat before the rest of us even made it past the visitor’s desk.

A dimly lit wooden walkway set the scene for a ride on an early steamboat, and upon entering the boat, we emerged into a theater showing the history of the Tchefuncte River. From model boats and lighthouses to a replica Civil War submarine and river pilot boat, every inch of the museum was chock full of interesting artifacts and details about the state’s long and unique reliance on water.

Tchefuncte Lighthouse

Also under the Maritime Museum’s management is the elegant, black and white Tchefuncte Lighthouse. Although accessible only by boat, a bumpy drive to the end of the road placed us in perfect viewing distance. Originally built in 1837, the lighthouse was nearly a casualty of the Civil War but was rebuilt shortly after and still flashes its light today.

From the bottommost tip of the road, we traveled north to the opposite end of town, snapping photos of the tranquil river and historic courthouse (now a museum) and branch library. The riverfront restaurants were hopping with the exiting church crowd, and we picked up some quick seafood-to-go at Morton’s. 

Otis House at Fairview-Riverside State Park

Next up was Fairview-Riverside State Park, where we ate in a covered picnic pavilion while gazing at the lovely 19th century Otis House (open for tours Wednesday through Sunday). We walked the perimeter of the house toward the ponds and river behind it. The rain-soaked ground squelched beneath out feet as tiny frogs jumped ahead of our every step. Needless to say, the bug catcher was put to good use, and we had a fantastic time chasing the amphibians until a snake slithered across my path.

That was our cue to move on, and we drove past the campsites to the boardwalk swamp and river trails. Our arrival was greeted by those strangely large “Devil’s Horses” (palm-sized, black grasshoppers) sitting motionless in the grass, on the trees and along the boardwalk. A game ensued of my two-year-old spotting the critters, pointing one tiny finger at them and yelling his brother’s name until his older sibling made his rounds and fearlessly plopped them in the bug catcher.

As we left with our car full of critters, we stopped for a final glimpse of the setting sun casting a reddish glow on the cypress trees lining the water.

Sunset over the Tchefuncte River at Fairview-Riverside State Park

 

Zebras and Lizards at the Global Wildlife Center and Bogue Chitto State Park

Zebras and Lizards at the Global Wildlife Center and Bogue Chitto State Park

Beyond Lake Pontchartrain and Covington, out past sprawling plant nurseries, lies the Global Wildlife Center in Folsom. We made the trek to the far reaches of the Northshore to see the more than 4,000 exotic animals that reside here at this 900-acre wildlife preserve.

Wagon tour of the Center

As we drove alongside the property, our anticipation grew as we saw the animals frolicking in the fields before us. When our car turned in the main gate and crossed over the cattle guard, Charles thrust my iphone back into my hands to focus his full attention out the window. Dozens of wild animals walked slowly by, creatures we’d never seen before – not even in storybooks.

We approached the Visitor’s Center, thinking we’d buy tickets for the 1 p.m. tour and eat our PB&J sandwiches by the koi pond while we waited. It turned out the noon tour leaves at a quarter after, though, so we dragged the kids out of the gift shop and boarded the last in a string of covered wagons. Thinking we were on a train, Charles bounced about shouting “All Aboard!” while August clung to me in fear of all the new people around him.

As the “train” lurched forward, though, and we entered the animals’ realm, they both were overcome with pure and utter joy. Armed with our bucket of feed, we were shoveling cups of food into the animals’ mouths, while August was literally squealing with delight. If I hadn’t held him back, I’m almost positive the child would have jumped right in the middle of those four-legged grazers.

Bactrian Camel

The numbers were astonishing, and the varieties of colors and types purely amazing. From the African kudus with their spiraled antlers and the two-humped bactrian camels to the ostrich-like rheas and the frisky pere david deer, we fed, pet and giggled at them all. While the giraffes were standoffish, the zebras were overjoyed with us and begged for our attention. The gentle llamas ate feed right out of my hand, while other animals ran away with the cups they were supposed to be eating out of.

A strong wind blew throughout the thrilling ride, and by the last ten minutes of the hour and a half tour, the boys were (for once in their lives) exhausted. That in itself is a rare feat to accomplish. We topped the trip off by feeding the giant koi and catfish living in the picnic area’s pond while scarfing down our sandwiches.

Bogue Chitto River

It was a successful day, and we drove away with full intentions to head back home in triumph. But Charles gave his best puppy-dog look, and with his newly purchased elephant in hand, pleaded for us to continue the adventure. Paul and I are both suckers for that, and after a quick glance at the map, decided to swing past the state’s newest state park – Bogue Chitto. We drove the park’s loop, taking in the scenic views of the gorge and the Bogue Chitto River while letting the car’s movements lull August through an afternoon nap.

As we turned the last curve to exit the park, the toddler awakened and we used the opportunity to hike the gorge trail that had been beckoning to us since we first saw it. A path of leaves and pine needles led the way through the woods to stairs leading deep within the gorge. At the bottom, a boardwalk snaked around through a much wetter landscape, and lizards fled our every step. With lightning speed, Charles actually caught one and vowed to never let it go. Fortunately, the animal was resourceful and squirmed his way free. As the tears came rushing down, we decided the outing was over, and headed home to recoup and plan for the next adventure.

Stairway into the state park’s gorge

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.

Knighted at Ren Fest

Knighted at Ren Fest

Every November on the outskirts of Hammond, men, women and children dust off their swords and corsets and step back in time to the village of Albright. They become the centerpiece of the Louisiana Renaissance Festival, affectionately known as Ren Fest, and they open their doors wide to the public.

Our wagon awaits…

Our family of four accepted the invitation and set off for our hour-long drive from New Orleans. The adventure began the second we emerged from the car. A horse-drawn wagon pulled up at our feet and offered us a ride to the front entrance. Charles was on board with lightning speed and waited with as much patience as a three-year-old can muster while others climbed inside.

Our chauffeur dropped us at the castle gates, and the dust stirred beneath us as we made our way along the dirt road. The village has grown over its 12 years, and many permanent houses and shops now create a surprisingly real town settled around a tranquil lake. I glanced in a costume rental shop, where tourists were trading their street clothes for period clothing. While costumes and fake accents are optional in Albright, many of the visitors seem to embrace the role playing.

A village shop

The kids were fascinated by the entire place. I’ve never seen them both so quiet and wide-eyed in their whole lives. We strolled a quarter of the path around the lake, browsing through candle-making, jewelry and toy shops before stopping to watch a sword-fighting, comedy show. Paul and I cracked up at the slightly bawdy comedians who enjoyed heckling each other and the audience. Meanwhile, Charles was captivated by the clanging of their steel swords, while August collected pine cones on the ground next to us.

Next up, we forewent the giant turkey legs in favor of Mediterranean food and made a picnic under some pine trees by the lake. We caught a portion of a belly dancing show during lunch before trying out some hoola-hoops and juggling stix.

Queen Elizabeth I knights Charles

The more we walked, the more we saw–from dungeons to jousting, living history demonstrations to a magic show. Charles suckered us into buying him a wooden pirate sword–with a blue handle, of course–and he has been torturing his little brother with it ever since. He also developed a slight crush on Queen Elizabeth I and was shaking with anticipation when he found out she was going to “knight” him. After she touched his shoulders and top of his head with her sword and then belted a loud “hip hip huzzah,” he left with the full belief that he was now King.

Our journey back in time ended on that note, and we eased ourselves back into reality by stopping for coffee in downtown Hammond. By the time we hit the interstate, both kids had passed out in the back seat and amazingly were out for the night.

Two Northshore Parks: Fontainebleau and Northlake Nature Center

Two Northshore Parks: Fontainebleau and Northlake Nature Center

Boys will be boys. That’s the one thing I have discovered to be overwhelmingly true about our three-year-old son, whose favorite color is blue, is obsessed with dinosaurs and thinks the greatest achievement in life is to find every bug that exists on this planet. Put a net in his right hand and a broken telescope in his left, and an adventure is already in the making. Take him to a state park with alligators, snakes and turtles, and his weekend dreams have come true.

Cabins at Fontainebleau State Park

 

Marsh trail at Fontainebleau

Hugging Lake Pontchartrain’s northern shoreline, Fontainebleau State Park is ideal for its close proximity to New Orleans and the prospect of a breeze blowing off the lake. We arrived early, paid our $1 per person fee and drove a quick loop to get the park’s layout. The visitor’s center and sugar mill ruins immediately caught our attention, but after driving across the longest bridge in the world to get here, we needed a long path to stretch our legs.

Parking by the water park and watching a group head off toward the beach, we crossed the open field to the hiking trail. It was well-maintained, providing an easy push for our strollers. A family on bikes cycled past and then we were alone in the forest. Some of the largest dragonflies I’d ever seen were out in full force, seemingly guiding our way to the water ahead.

We had entered the nearly 5-mile trail on its last leg, and it wasn’t long before the trees opened up to a surprisingly tranquil marsh. A long boardwalk stretched out over the water, and the only sounds were jumping fish and the occasional splash of a bird diving for lunch. At the end of the pier, we relaxed on a bench for several minutes, enjoying the peaceful setting until Paul spotted an alligator eyeing us from the dark water below.

Fontainebleau State Park Visitor’s Center

It was the heat, rather than the wildlife, that forced us to return the way we had come and take a break in the air conditioning while driving out to see the park’s cabin rentals. Perched on stilts over the water, the large cabins were secluded from the rest of the park and offered uninhibited views of Lake Pontchartrain. The ranger at the visitor center said they sometimes book a year in advance for peak seasons. We picked up a brochure and then explored the center, with its exposed beams, life-sized black bear and 600-year-old dugout canoe. The building offered a brief history of the area and fit in nicely with the sugar mill ruins crumbling outside its back doors.

Not far away in Old Mandeville, we grabbed lunch at The Broken Egg, the birth place of the breakfast and lunch chain called Another Broken Egg. In between playing dinosaurs, the kids managed to find time to devour a stack of pancakes while Paul and I opted for the lunch menu. Afterward, we took a quick look at the lake before heading back for round two of hiking.

Northlake Nature Center

The Northlake Nature Center lies across the street from Fontainebleau and offers a bit more of a rustic hiking experience. The strollers jolted over the tree roots as we made our way through the trail. A beaver pond was overrun by the same giant dragonflies we’d seen earlier, and Charles was ecstatic as he chased them down with his bug net. We scared away at least two snakes on our journey and became masters at scaling falling trees blocking the way ahead.

By the end of the day, we left with two sufficiently exhausted kids and a day’s worth of exercise in a natural setting. Of course, we also came away with countless bug bites…

Budding entomologist