Five Outdoor Creole Nature Trail Activities
Stretching over 180 miles , the Creole Nature Trail All-American Road covers bayous, marshland and shores along the Gulf of Mexico. There are birds aplenty as well as amphibians and reptiles. The Creole Nature Trail was one of the first to be designated a National Scenic Byway and in 2002 became an All-American Road on the strength of its natural attractions. It would take 8 to 10 hours just to drive the route without stops, but this isn't a road rally, and there are places you'll want to visit along the way to observe the abundant wildlife. With only one day available, I could cover only a portion of the trail, experiencing some of the free as well as fee-based attractions.
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Cameron Prairie National Wildlife RefugeCameron Prairie National Wildlife Refuge is at the heart of the section I visited. It shelters 9,621 acres of marsh, coastal prairie, and old rice fields.
It's also a major site for migratory birds, so you'll certainly see plenty of birds and alligators while driving the road. But there are also designated stops that will make it easy to get closer to nature. According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service: Late fall through early spring is the best time to visit the refuge in search of large numbers of waterfowl. Spring is best for neo-tropical migrants and summer is great to view species where Louisiana is the northern part of their range.
Cameron Prairie National Wildlife Refuge Visitors CenterThis is an excellent stop in the Refuge. There's a human-made pond surrounding the building and a covered observation pier with a viewing scope providing excellent places to watch nature.
Pintail Wildlife DrivePart of the Cameron Prairie National Wildlife Refuge, Pintail Wildlife Drive allows excellent opportunities for alligator sightings, birding, and photography. Although there is no stopping on this 3-mile two-lane loop you can slow down to admire the birds who make the refuge their home. There's also a half-mile accessible boardwalk that takes you through the marsh for viewing the wildlife.
Rutherford BeachLocated along the Gulf Coast, there are dolphins that swim by, and that easily makes it worth a stop. If rare gulls are your thing, Rutherford Beach has hosted many of the rare gulls recorded in the state. You can also do shelling along the shore.
For another more personal view of the area, there are private tours of the Louisiana's Outback.
Airboats & AlligatorsLocated in the town of Grand Chenier Ben Welch operates this winning combination -- take an airboat ride, learn about alligators, and the challenges faced by the folks who live here.
As you drive up you'll notice the scattered houses are built on stilts. When Hurricane Rita blew through, the waters flooded the land and destroyed businesses for many folks in the area. Many moved away and never returned. Those that stayed had to adapt, raising their houses above a land that could easily flood again and sometimes starting over completely.
The Welch's cattle business was one of the casualties. Today Ben takes visitors on airboat rides along the tidal marshes introducing visitors to the marshes and their importance to the eco system. Ben doesn't raise cattle anymore, but he does raise alligators, and the other part of the tour takes place at the pond behind his house where some of the released alligators have made their home. In the space under his raised home, which has become an outdoor space literally roofed by his house, Welch provides fascinating information and a bit of trivia about alligators. One of the highlights is the opportunity to hold Clyde, a tiny alligator and learn about this reptiles up close.
To make a reservation, please call 337-274-2395.
Grosse Savanne EcotoursIf Airboats and Alligators is a down-home informal introduction to life in the Outback, Grosse Savanne Ecotours takes you deep into the primaeval marsh. This tour is actually only one part of the enterprise. There's a luxury lodge for hunters, and a cattle ranch all sharing the 50,000 acres of wetlands, and prairies owned by Sweet Lake Land and Oil Company. The Eco-tours are part of the company's efforts to restore a portion of the land to its original condition. In the process they have created one of the most perfect birdwatching opportunities imaginable -- the area seems to be one giant rookery. The scenes are visually spectacular providing the feeling you've time-traveled back to some early primaeval environment.
The Grosse Savanne Eco-Tours generally have a maximum of 4 persons per guide. You'll glide through lily pads, almost silently come up to nesting birds, observe alligators. It is a magical experience.
Area LodgingLake Charles is the best place to make your headquarters for your exploration the Cameron Prairie National Wildlife Refuge and area attractions. I was hosted by L'Auberge Casino Resort. Despite having a huge casino at its heart, this turned out to be quite a family friendly place. The few entrances into the casino are guarded to make sure minors do not enter, and outside the casinos are several excellent and diverse restaurants. The Resort offers heated outdoor pools, one just for adults with a swimup bar, a slow moving lazy river, a spa, and even a crescent of a beach along the river.
Of course, there's a full range of hotels and places to eat and explore. Learn more at VisitLakeCharles.org.
If You GoThis outback isn't hard to reach or travel. With easy-ons from I-10 you can explore the Creole Nature Trail and meet its people, and its wildlife. Learn more about all there is to see and do along the Creole Nature Trail as well as download the free app guides to help you identify shells and birds at CreoleNatureTrail.org A free GPS Ranger(R) audio-video of the Creole Nature Trail is available at the Lake Charles Visitors Bureau.
Remember this is rural country and keep your car filled with gas. There's real nature here, which often means plenty of bugs. Keep bug spray and sun screen handy. And drinking water as well.
Neala Schwartzberg McCarten
Unless otherwise indicated, all photos by the author