Beaches to Gators to Music on the Creole Nature Trail

Visitor info on Louisiana's Creole Nature Trail (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Gator-enhanced visitor info on southwest Louisiana’s Creole Nature Trail (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

If you look at the southwestern section of Louisiana on a map, there does not appear to be much there worth visiting. Best to blast on through it via Interstate 10, right?

Sure, if you want to miss an All-American Road and one of the first designated routes in the U.S. National Scenic Byway program….the Creole Nature Trail.

Map of southwest Louisiana with the Creole Nature Trail scenic byway section

Map of southwest Louisiana with the area that contains the Creole Nature Trail scenic byway

It is designed as a driving tour, but there are plenty of places to get out and walk around, which is great for leg-stretching but also if you have kids with you who don’t do well cooped up in a car.

I drove the western portion of the Trail and did it a bit backwards (so what else is new!) because rather than start from up on Interstate 10 and drive down the loop to the coast and back up to I-10, I came over the state border from Port Arthur, Texas along the coast, on the Trail’s Western Spur.

Highway sign for Louisiana's Creole Nature Trail (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Highway sign for Louisiana’s Creole Nature Trail (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

I wish I’d had time to stop at Peveto Woods Bird and Butterfly Sanctuary which is located on the Western Spur section; it’s along a major migratory flight path for songbirds in spring and fall, plus Monarch and other butterflies that flutter through this coastal wooded spot called a chenier.

The flat Louisiana 82 two-lane road works its way past a few small houses and beach stops as you head east. I was surprised to see cattle grazing in big open fields; simply didn’t have “ranching” in my mind as one of the region’s activities.

The beaches are okay, but not the quality you’ll find further down the Gulf coast in Mississippi, Alabama or the Florida Panhandle. Still, I haven’t been near the ocean in awhile and it was nice to wiggle my toes in the warm water at Holly Beach.

The Creole Nature Trail app I was using (there are Android and iOS versions) recommended shelling on these beaches, but I think you’ll have better luck with that in the Florida Panhandle, or a real Mecca for shelling like Sanibel, Florida.

Holly Beach in southwest Louisiana on the Creole Nature Trail (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Holly Beach in southwest Louisiana on the Creole Nature Trail (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

This is part of the “Cajun Riviera” of modest beach houses, trailers, and small rural communities that was smashed to bits by Hurricane Rita in September 2005, and before that Hurricane Audrey in 1957. The extensive rebuilding continues today.

I saw a new library in one town, and the beach houses up on stilts all look pretty new. They are set well back from the beach.

House on Holly Beach Louisiana Creole Nature Trail (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

House in Holly Beach on Louisiana’s Creole Nature Trail (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Once I’d soaked in a little sun and sea air at Holly Beach – in summertime, beware the clouds of dragonflies – I headed northbound on the Nature Trail’s Louisiana 27 road towards Sulphur, Louisiana.

Places to stop and walk into the ecosystem include the 1.5 mile handicap-accessible Wetland Walkway boardwalk, and the Blue Goose Trail and observation deck, both contained in the Sabine National Wildlife Refuge, which is one of three wildlife refuges on the Nature Trail. There are other spots to stop for crabbing in May through September, like Hog Island Gully and Blue Crab. I saw several people with scoop nets and ice chests, patiently waiting for a crab to grab their bait.

Driving north as I did, the Refuge surrounds you and extends to the Texas border to the west, and enormous Calcasieu (KAL-kuh-shew) Lake is to your right looking east.

A gator safety note as you walk through the marshes and close to waterways, from one of the visitor guides:

“As a safety precaution, leave your pet in your vehicle. Alligators eat dogs.”

My helpful Trail app told me that alligators outnumber people 10 to 1 in Cameron Parish, which is mostly wildlife refuges and the Lake (a parish in Louisiana is somewhat equivalent to a U.S. county.)

Midway up the western part of the trail is the small town of Hackberry, which sits on the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway that extends along the U.S. coast from Florida to Texas. The town stays busy with commercial fishing, crabbing, and shrimping. I noticed a lot of Confederate flags waving, in case you wondered where some of the townsfolk stand on that issue.

Continuing north to finish up in Sulphur, LA on Interstate 10, you’ll pass plenty of rice fields driving through Calcasieu Parish, which is the one north of Cameron Parish. I learned that enterprising farmers often get dual use out of their fields – rice production and then flooding them to raise crawfish. Those flooded fields are a handy stop for migratory birds as well.

I finished my Trail drive at the new Adventure Point visitors center in Sulphur, but if you’re going to drive the Trail I’d recommend starting here for a terrific overview of the flora, fauna, cooking, and culture that you’ll find along the Trail and in southwestern Louisiana.

Exhibits inside Creole Nature Trail Adventure Point in Sulphur, Louisiana (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Walk along the mini road to see interactive exhibits inside the Creole Nature Trail Adventure Point visitors center in Sulphur, Louisiana (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

It’s free, doesn’t take long to walk through, and it’s cleverly interactive.

The kids I saw were having a ball playing with exhibits, and I had a good time, too.

Crabbing how-to station at Creole Nature Trail Adventure Point (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Crabbing how-to station at Creole Nature Trail Adventure Point. The “crabs” have magnets so they’ll attach to the chicken “bait,” then you pick them up with the scoop net and drop them into the “ice chest” which has an opening to send the crabs back into their marsh spot so you can try again. (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

I did not expect to see a Cajun cooking section at Adventure Point, but it makes total sense given the importance of cuisine in Louisiana.

There were local spices to see, a “boiling” pot of crawfish, and a box with recipe cards – take a few!

Local Louisiana cooking spices and sauces at Creole Nature Trail Adventure Point (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Local Louisiana cooking spices and sauces at Creole Nature Trail Adventure Point (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

At the “Scents of Place” display, you reach in the openings to squeeze bottles that send up distinctive Cajun cooking scents.

Hum the tune to Jambalaya (On the Bayou) to get in the mood….”jambalaya and a crawfish pie and a filé gumbo….”

Scent station to learn Louisiana cooking smells at Creole Nature Trail Adventure Point (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Scent station to learn Louisiana cooking smells at Creole Nature Trail Adventure Point (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

A real winner was the interactive music section that explains the difference between Cajun and Zydeco music.

You put your hands on certain places on the traditional instruments, and you then hear them in the soundtrack playing overhead. My personal favorite was the washboard.

Young visitor with Louisiana musical instruments at Creole Nature Trail Adventure Point (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Start ’em young with Louisiana musical instruments at Creole Nature Trail Adventure Point (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

The Adventure Point staff is very knowledgeable about the region, so ask lots of questions!

I look forward to returning to this part of Louisiana and driving the eastern part of the Creole Nature Trail. If you’re still blasting through Sulphur and Lake Charles on I-10, thinking there’s “nothing to see,” build in time to drive the Trail loop. I promise you’ll enjoy yourself.

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