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
Cooling off in Bogue Chitto State Park

Cooling off in Bogue Chitto State Park

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
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

 

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

 

St. Bernard: From Old Arabi to Shell Beach

St. Bernard: From Old Arabi to Shell Beach

Nearly two years ago, we drove the San Bernardo Scenic Byway through St. Bernard Parish, headed for the Chalmette Battlefield and the Los Islenos Fiesta. This weekend we returned to hit a few spots we had missed on our initial journey, starting with Old Arabi and finishing in Shell Beach where another Louisiana roadway abruptly ends at a large body of water.

Old courthouse and jail in Arabi

As soon as you cross into St. Bernard Parish, you reach the Old Arabi Historic District. A quick drive up and down the roads leads past a number of historic sites, such as the “Andy Griffith-style” jail built in 1911. The beautifully designed Maumus Center, St. Bernard’s first high school that later served as a community center, was gutted and undergoing a massive overhaul that would undoubtedly return this building to its previous splendor.

LeBeau Plantation

One of the most fascinating landmarks in Old Arabi is LeBeau Plantation, an 1854 mansion boarded up and presiding over a large open field. The very sight of it conjures up ideas of ghost stories and tales untold. Down the street, however, the Greek Revival Cavaroc House appears in pristine condition at the end of a row of majestic palm trees. The two homes can’t be more different, though. While one stands in near ruin yet proudly displayed for photographs, the other is a bright gem next to the industrialized Domino Sugar Refinery yet tightly guarded against any would-be sightseers. In fact, try to take a picture of this mansion, and you’ll be tracked down, instructed to delete all your photos and have your license plate number recorded. I’m talking hyper-security.

So we carried on, following the scenic byway past the Chalmette National Historic Park and National Cemetery and under a lane of live oaks known as the Dockville Oaks. When the main road split and headed east, we turned right and continued alongside the Mississippi River to St. Bernard State Park. Letting the kids run out some energy, we started with a short nature trail linking the picnic area to the swimming pool, a top attraction during the hot summer months. Luckily, they were in the mood to run because one pause and the mosquitoes attacked. We escaped quickly and found safety in the open picnic area, where we ate our PB&J sandwiches next to a very curious lizard. Halfway through the gourmet meal, the kids spotted the playground and went off to climb, jump and make sand castles–in between sneaking around poles to “spy” on the girls celebrating a birthday party.

The Old Courthouse near the Los Islenos Fiesta

It was a nice break before climbing back in the car and backtracking our way to the byway again. We soon approached the Old Courthouse, an impressive building for any city, but even more so being located in the largely rural section of the parish. Just past the courthouse, a long line of people and the flickering lights of carnival rides alerted us that we had once again visited during the Los Islenos Fiesta. We were tempted to stop but chose to continue on to our destination of Shell Beach, the tiny fishing community we had not reached previously because the road was closed. Alas, a few minutes later and we discovered that the road was still closed two years later. This time, however, we were not so easily thwarted, and instead turned the car around and returned west until we found a crossover to Highway 46, a parallel route to the byway.

Katrina Memorial

The highway bypassed the small towns and provided a quicker route to Florissant Highway, the far-reaching road to Shell Beach and Hopedale. Ruins of homes, vehicles and bare, dead trees stood as hurricane casualties, leaving the eerie impression that we were approaching nothing more than an abandoned village. And then the scenery changed and a waterway stacked with colorful boats led to a thriving, vibrant community. Pelicans guided the last few miles of our drive until we parked in front a memorial dedicated to those who died during Hurricane Katrina. A large cross bearing the face of Jesus was rooted in the waters before us, and a plaque listed the names of the St. Bernard residents who passed.

Climbing out of the car, I mistakenly thought ash was falling from the sky around me. It only took a moment to realize it was a flurry of biting gnats. A family, with every inch of their bodies covered with clothing, was fishing and crabbing here, and the birds sat patiently awaiting their next catch. In the distance, the remains of a large fort was oddly out of place floating above a sea of marsh grass. While I swatted the bugs, the kids seemed oblivious, instead chasing birds and collecting oyster shells before we gave up and retreated to the car.

 

Crabber protected from the gnats

Our final stop was Sebastopol Plantation, a place we had fond memories of from our previous visit. We passed through the gate thinking we would soon see owner Alberta Lewis, who would gladly let the boys marvel at the chicken coop. Instead, we found her son, who broke the news that his mother had passed away. However, he was just as eager to let us roam the property. Since our last visit, and before Alberta had died, she had acquired a set of turkeys to add to her collection of chickens, roosters and peacocks. Much larger than I expected, the male turkey strutted and shimmied all around us, preparing for a showdown with our four-year-old, who was only slightly taller than the bird. It was the perfect ending to our day’s adventures and left us with much to talk about later.

Sebastopol’s turkey