If you drive down I-10 through south-central Louisiana, you’ll notice big brightly painted brown highway signs for the Atchafalaya National Heritage Area. The American-Indian word Atchafalaya (Think of a sneeze: uh-CHA-fuh-LIE-uh) means “long river,” after the Atchafalaya River, and the national heritage area includes 14 parishes that surround or are near it. This includes the Atchafalaya Basin, known as a favorite spot among locals and visitors alike for swamp excursions, crawfishing and Louisiana’s famous Cajun French culture.
But what you may not know is that the Atchafalaya National Heritage Area is home to a diverse population of European, African, Caribbean and Native-American descent. It is among the most culturally rich and ecologically varied regions in the U.S. and offers myriad outdoor recreation opportunities such as paddling, biking, birding, camping, hunting and fishing. It’s also a mecca for landscape and wildlife photography thanks to its bottomland hardwood forests, bayous, backwater lakes and swamps filled with Spanish-moss-covered baldcypress trees. Each bend in the river tells a story, making the Atchafalaya National Heritage Area an ever-changing landscape and earning it the nickname America's Foreign Country. And if you’re anything like me, that intriguing moniker makes you want to explore every square inch of it!
October, designated annually as Atchafalaya Month in Louisiana, is the perfect time to visit the Atchafalaya National Heritage Area. The weather is cooler and Louisiana’s official state tree, the baldcypress, turns rustic shades of brown and orange (or what I like to call “swamp chic”). The days are also shorter, so you don’t have to get up too early or stay out too late to catch majestic Louisiana sunsets and sunrises. And the pesky mosquitoes that are a burden to outdoor activities in the summer become scarce with the lower temperatures. Attending festivals during the fall is a great way to immerse yourself in the local culture. Savor warm gumbo or étoufée, dance the two-step and learn the secrets to our local joie de vivre.
You could easily spend a lifetime exploring this mysterious land and trying to understand the eclectic cultural mix of its people, but for visitors on a time crunch, here are five events in October that will provide a taste of all there is to discover in the Atchafalaya National Heritage Area:
- Tour du Teche, Oct. 3 – 5 in Porte Barre: a 135-mile canoe/kayak/pirogue race on Bayou Teche
- Sugar Fest, Oct. 5 in Port Allen: an annual celebration of sugar’s important history in West Baton Rouge Parish
- Festivals Acadiens et Créoles, Oct. 10 – 12 in Lafayette: a celebration of Louisiana’s Cajun and Creole cultures
- The Solomon Northup Story, Oct. 18 in Marksville: a symposium about the true Louisiana story that inspired the movie 12 Years a Slave
- Pumpkin Raddle Paddling Parade, Oct. 29 in Baton Rouge: an evening community paddle with lighted pumpkins placed on participants’ kayaks, canoes and paddle boards
Click here for more information about these and other events taking place throughout the Atchafalaya National Heritage Area.