By Andy Crawford
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Bike the Tammany Trace.

Explore Louisiana's outdoors from the bayou to the Gulf coast.

My earliest memories include soaking crickets and earthworms around moss-draped cypress trees, snatching chunky Lake Verret bream into the boat as my parents hooted encouragement. I later graduated to squirrel and rabbit hunting, chasing bass, whacking monster trout, battling shallow-water reds and sitting for countless hours waiting for deer to appear. While I’ve been fortunate enough to pursue my love of all things outdoors across the South, Louisiana has been the central focus of this lifetime passion. Spending time with my children prowling the pristine Biloxi Marshes east of New Orleans and relaxing during a family weekend at one of the state parks are just a couple of my most cherished experiences.

Gardens, Gators and Wildlife

My mother’s yard in St. Gabriel, south of Baton Rouge, looks like a nursery exploded, with roses, azaleas, salvias and other flowering plants in beds slicing the two-acre tract of land into small pieces. So when I learned the American Rose Center Gardens is located just outside Shreveport, I couldn’t wait to see if it lived up to my mother’s standards. A profusion of scents greeted me as I walked past 20,000 individual roses in 200 varieties. The Rose Center is the perfect place to slow down and smell the roses.

Just down the road in Greenwood, I step out of the car at Gator and Friends Alligator Park and Exotic Zoo expecting a small petting zoo. What I find is a park that’s wall-to-wall with critters, including more than 200 alligators and zebras, camels, llamas and several species of deer. Feeding wallabies is a highlight for me, as they hop over for some chow and allow the closest contact I’ve ever had with a marsupial.

Bass and Beaches

Like most bass-fishing fanatics, I dream of landing a double-digit whopper. That’s what draws me to Toledo Bend every winter and spring, when days on the water are comfortable and the bass are hungry. The lake is swarming with largemouths, and it annually produces at least a dozen fish weighing more than 10 pounds.

The spring spawn presents the best opportunity, but lunkers can be had any time of the year. Shallow bushes are a good bet during the winter, while big bass move deeper to main-lake points and creek channels during the summer. For more great bass fishing, cast a line in the nearby Red River and its oxbow lakes, sometime host to the Bassmaster Classic. 

About 250 miles south is Holly Beach, one of the only road-accessible Gulf-side beaches in the state. I think it’s the perfect place to watch the sun set to the sound of rolling waves.

Natural Heritage on Display

One of my favorite family vacations was several years back at Lake Bistineau State Park. My wife, Yvette, and I helped our children catch a few fish from the bank, and we watched twittering birds and ever-busy squirrels along shaded nature trails before returning to our waterfront cabin for evenings of board games and bonding.

Just 30 minutes southwest of New Orleans, Bayou Segnette State Park has three bodies of water for recreational activities – Lake Salvador, Lake Cataouatche and a wave pool. I’ve often used the park as a gateway to miles of marshes and swamps, filling ice chests with bass, redfish, trout and catfish. It’s also a fun place for a relaxing paddle along the cypress-lined bayous or a walk along the one-mile nature trail. Nearby Lake Pontchartrain is a favorite of sailors, jet skiers, water skiers and fishermen.

Lake Bruin State Park’s 3,000-acre lake up in St. Joseph lures swimmers and boaters. In the spring, I love fishing for crappie and bluegill from three large piers. When the fish aren’t biting, picnic areas and a playground keep me and my kids happily occupied.

During hunting season, the 62,000-acre Dewey Wills Wildlife Management Area around Pineville is a draw for those in search of deer, turkey and waterfowl, among other game. You can fish, hike the nature trail and look for birds any month of the year. 

The Atchafalaya Basin, located to the south, is one of my most-frequented haunts. I regularly feed my family with bass, bream and white perch from Bayou Pigeon and Grand Lake, but just as often I simply enjoy the quiet of this almost 600,000-acre wilderness. Canoeing or merely idling a boat gives me ample opportunities to watch alligators, herons, kingfishers and other wildlife in a natural, pristine setting.

For a unique swamp experience, I like to visit White Kitchen Preserve in Slidell. Within the Pearl River Basin, one of the Southeast’s last remaining overflow swamp systems, the preserve boasts a boardwalk over the marsh, and swamp boat tours provide a different perspective. Birds that reside and migrate here include red-bellied woodpeckers, herons and barred owls. A bald eagle’s nest has been in the preserve for more than 80 years.

Those of you who are serious birders might also opt for the Cypress Island Preserve’s rookery 30 miles southwest of New Iberia or Sam Houston Jones State Park, just north of Lake Charles, where nearly 200 species of birds can be seen within a 30-mile radius of the park.

To the southeast of New Iberia lies Terrebonne Parish, where vast stretches of cypress swamps give way to marshes. There are many wildlife-viewing tours in the area, but Ron “Black” Guidry of A Cajun Man’s Swamp Cruise puts on a real show.

To provide an up-close experience, Black performs feedings that draw alligators boatside as he discusses the ecosystem of coastal Louisiana. However, it’s when he steers Cajun Man, a fully covered deck boat, under the cypress trees and cuts the motors that the real act begins. Black pulls out a guitar and an accordion and sings a selection of old standards and Cajun music that echoes through the woods. It’s amazing to listen as he seamlessly switches between English and Cajun French.

Whenever I head down to Grand Isle, it’s time to fish. One of my favorite ports of call is Bridge Side Marina. Caminada Pass and Barataria Bay are just a few minutes away by boat, and both offer anglers ample opportunities to wrestle with redfish, black drum, speckled trout, flounder and even sharks.

On Foot

If you want to get some exercise while acquainting yourself with beautiful towns and nature, you can’t do better than biking or walking along the Tammany Trace. A rails-to-trails project, it’s a paved path that begins in Slidell and winds 31 miles to the east and north through alternating stands of mossy live oaks and tall pines.

While pedaling past homes built in the 1800s and crossing winding, cypress-lined bayous, I start to imagine what life was like here more than a century ago. Fontainebleau State Park’s sugar mill ruins, right along the trail, help make the picture even clearer. Small shops farther along the trail invite visitors like me to take a rest and grab a bite. There’s no shortage of local cuisine along the route, such as oyster po-boys at KY's Olde Towne Bicycle Shop in Slidell.

Tunica Hills, near St. Francisville, isn’t typical Louisiana. I’m amazed by the ruggedness of the terrain each time I walk through Tunica Hills Wildlife Management Area. There are no straight lines here, except up and down. Walking means following the path of least resistance, but the scenery and wildlife make the effort worthwhile.

Other options in the area include watching exotic wildlife at BREC’s Baton Rouge Zoo and Tiki Tubing, which offers quiet floats down the lazy Amite River. These are only a few of the outdoor activities that keep me in love with my state. My memories are full of time afield, and photos and trophies adorning the walls of my house and office remind me of just why I still call Louisiana home.