Bayou Bartholomew Paddling Trail
Already a designated Scenic and Natural Waterway, the richly endowed Bayou Bartholomew springs from the Arkansas River floodplain hundreds of miles upstream in the middle of Arkansas near Little Rock and flows southward and parallel to the Mississippi River in a bewildering pathway of angular river bends.
It is thought to be the longest bayou in North America (365 miles). In addition, it is the longest un-dammed waterway on the Lower Mississippi River. This fact alone will be of great interest to any paddler because paddlers know that un-dammed rivers are the wildest and most scenic and they also know that they won’t have to paddle the boring flat sections of impounded waters nor have to make a grueling portage to get from one side of a dam to the other during their journey. Although normally a gently flowing stream suitable to all levels of paddlers, beware of rain storms or high water which could produce dangerous swiftwater conditions.
Like most flowing waters of any size in the area, “Da By” (as it’s referred to locally) once provided transportation for the steamboats of the region who plied its waters to reach remote plantations and outposts. However, unlike most other waters of the South, the “By” somehow escaped the zealous river engineering of the last century and was never dredged nor channelized nor dammed. As a result, it is a thriving paradise of bankside cypress forests and wildlife. It is the richest fish habitat of any bayou (more than 100 species). It contains more than 50 species of mussels, some not found anywhere else.
Bayou Bartholomew is a classic mixed cypress/hardwood bayou which reaches its most beautiful articulation at the confluence of Chemin-a-Haut, a forest of giant Louisiana bald cypress you can paddle through and explore.
Bastrop, Oak Grove, Monroe, Hamburg, AR
Trail length depends on route length, river speed and your own paddling ambitions. In general any paddler can sustain 3 mph with strong paddling, 2 mph with casual paddling, and maybe 1 mph with gentle paddling. Add to that river speed and you can calculate approximately how long your journey will take.
Note: As with all southern rivers, water levels can vary on Bayou Bartholomew and will have significant impact on water speed, safety and usability. Pay attention to descriptions throughout and decide when it is best to paddle based on your ability and the water level.
Easy to Moderate to Advanced: Skill level depends on water level, which can fluctuate as much as 30 feet in between drought conditions and flood events. Any route on Bayou Bartholomew could be classified as “easy,” but beware fast rising waters following heavy rainfall. Inspect river conditions carefully before putting in. If the water is muddy and moving fast, you’d better be prepared for turbulence, snags, strainers and sections of river that require quick decisions and a lot of fast water maneuvering. Heavy rain from thunderstorms out of view a hundred miles away in central Arkansas could lead to flash flood conditions here in northern Louisiana. If you camp anywhere along the By, place your tent well above the water line and tie down your vessels.
All previous warnings aside, this is usually flatwater paddling on a gently flowing stream. Pick the length according to your strength as a paddler. At all levels paddling on the By might require some maneuvering through snags and fallen trees blocking channels. Rare portages might be necessary to get around blockages. Expect muddy banks and possibly slippery landings.
For this section of the Bayou Bartholomew, you can get an approximate idea of the water level using the United States Geographical Survey (USGS) River Gage at “NW of Jones” or the “Beekman Gage” on RiverGages.com. The Beekman gage will best indicate current river levels. But consult NW of Jones for possible fast rises coming in from Arkansas.
River levels (Using Beekman): Low water (too shallow) don’t go below 2 on the Beekman gage (when some dragging through shallows and mud flats might be necessary). It’s ideal at 4-7 on the Beekman gage. Above 12 on the Beekman gage the current will most likely be swift and extra caution is advised. During the hot dry months of the summer and fall, regional farmers pump water out of Bayou Bartholomew for irrigation, which sometimes might affect local water levels.
River levels (Using NW of Jones): Low water (too shallow) Don’t go below -.5 on the NW of Jones gage (when some dragging through shallows and mud flats might be necessary). It’s ideal at 2-5 on the NW of Jones gage. Above 10 on the NW of Jones gage the current will most likely be swift and extra caution is advised. During the hot dry months of the summer and fall, regional farmers pump water out of Bayou Bartholomew for irrigation, which sometimes might affect local water levels.
Internet URLs for Gages:
Historical Water Levels:
Looking at river gage data from the past 10 years, the Bartholomew (and hence the Lower Chemin-au-Haut) normally flows somewhere between 1-3 on the “Beekman Gage” with infrequent spikes due to rainfall, snowmelt and other runoff. This is a good level to explore these beautiful waterways which flow with the cleanest and clearest water out of any rivers or bayous in the area.
Old Berlin Bridge to Hwy. 425 Bridge (7.8 miles):
Access is located underneath Old Berlin Bridge on the south side of bridge (left bank descending). You can park your vehicle underneath the bridge if water isn’t too high -- but beware possible rising waters! It’s probably not a safe place to leave a vehicle overnight. Arrange shuttle if possible and park your vehicle at State Park.
There is a primitive put-in underneath bridge. Start off downstream in a narrow channel (maybe 25 yards wide). If the water is low, you might need to avoid an old section of the original Old Berlin Bridge which has fallen into the water and rises up out of the sandy bottom. Look for the rims of wagon wheels and other artifacts of the bygone days. Float past several farm pumps and then leave all sign of mankind behind as you descend into a bankside wilderness lined by stretches of stately cypress trees alternating with stretches of overhanging privet (oaks, sweet gums and river birches above).On a hot summer day there is no shortage of places to sneak into the shade and enjoy some respite from the blazing southern sun.
The channel here is followed by parallel back channels on both sides through which the water flows during periods of high water. In high water you can enter these forested places but beware being swept into trees by swift water. During low water park your vessel along one of the many sandy banks and stroll through these backwater places; all undergrowth is cleared away and kept to a minimum by the high water. You can walk along the base of big cypress trees and through families of surrounding cypress knees with views deeper into the dark woods beyond and back into the bright opening of the river through these knees, some of which stand as tall as you. Keep your eyes open for the tracks of the animals, the birds and the mollusks. That’s right, mussleshells make wandering tracks as they move through the shallow water; they thrive in and filter feed the muddy/sandy bottoms. Various frogs and toads will jump out of your way as butterflies flitter about and horseflies buzz the perimeter. You can, of course, stay in your canoe and keep paddling by these places and enjoy the view from the canoe, but you will miss close-ups of the healthy bankside communities.
As you approach Chemin-a-Haut at mile 2 you will see some bigger cypress trees. Bank right about 100 yards above the confluence is one giant that has a hollow belly so big ten people could stand inside.
If you have an extra hour (or more) and want to visit one of the most beautiful cypress swamps anywhere in the south, take a right into the Chemin-a-Haut. This side trip is well worth the extra effort, even if it requires portaging over the mouth of the bayou during low water. If you don’t have the time and want to continue on downstream, do so.
During low water you will paddle over shallow sandy shoals where the river spreads out and creates underwater dunes. Navigating the shallows requires a little attentiveness to where the water flows, and reading the river. There is no hazard or difficulty running aground here. The bottom is a fine soft sandy layering, but stable, and easy to walk on if you need to stand up and drag your vessel a distance. If you come to a halt, simply stand up and walk along until the water gets deep enough to paddle again.
These shallow stretches are followed by long pools of deeper water where you can paddle again with ease and enjoy the columns of cypress trees and fantastic convolutions of their roots and cypress knees. If you have a camera you will quickly fill up camera memory; there are so many beautiful scenes you will want to record!
Along the way, you will pass by many possible sandy landings where you can easily pull up your vessel and stretch your legs or have a riverside picnic. Please practice Leave No Trace principals and remove all your trash, and be sure to go far from the water’s edge if you need to go to the bathroom.
Downstream of the mouth of Chemin-a-Haut, the river runs southward for a mile and then makes an abrupt hairpin turn, almost doubling back upon itself to exit in a northwesterly direction. From there it’s another mile until the next bend where the bayou now flows along at the base of the state park. There is a possible primitive take-out at mile 37.6 at the old mouth of Chemin-a-Haut (where a small lake has been created within the park right bank descending by two earthen dams at either end), but access is difficult and it’s a muddy place.
As you paddle through the beautiful state park, continue around the 180-degree bend; under the tall riverbanks on your right the Caddo ridges break off into the erosive action of the bayou. The woods are deep here and there are no nearby roads. The riverbank becomes noticeably taller in this section, and this is another good place to locate a sandbar to picnic or make a landing to get out and stretch your legs. This entire section is relatively quiet and free of trash due to the lack of bankside automobile traffic, but as you approach Highway 425 vehicular noises become louder and louder. At mile 34.4 the bayou rounds one last bend and your take-out bridge will be seen downstream. Until there is a ramp built, your easiest access point is bank left on the downstream side of the bridge.
From Highway 425, vehicle access is off the southbound lane and the south side of the Highway 425 Bridge. If you have four- wheel drive, you can possibly drive over the grassy bank for ease of packing, but if you don't (or if its been raining) you'd be best advised to stay on the highway easement and portage your vessels and gear to your vehicle. This is part of the adventure for any paddler!
GPS Waypoints Old Berlin Bridge to 425 Bridge
LBD = Left Bank Descending
RBD = Right Bank Descending
Using the decimal system on all GPS readings
Old Berlin Bridge
Mouth of Chemin-a-Haut (RBD)
Chemin-a-Haut State Park (RBD)
possible take-out in state park
Chemin-a-Haut State Park (RBD)
Closest river location to park headquarters
Highway 425 Bridge
Chemin-a-Haut Bayou Lower approximately 1.4 miles roundtrip:
As of writing time there is no other way to access this bayou without crossing private property, which is never recommended without permission. But maybe that’s a good thing. If it was easy, everyone would be doing it, right? Since you have to paddle so far to get there down another bayou that rarely sees paddlers, most likely you will be alone when you visit. And maybe this is how it should be.
If after reading this narrative of the trip, you decide to go, simply add this trip onto the Bartholomew Trail and you will not have to access private land. Keep reading and see how this can be done.
Lower Chemin-a-Haut might be one of the most magical places you ever paddle anywhere. And yet “you can’t get there” and there are rumors of a reservoir which would destroy it forever. Hopefully this beautiful hidden wonder will be saved and plans will be abandoned to dam it.
Lower Chemin-a-Haut is a small lagoon of tannin dark water but densely packed with giant cypress rising out of the water in fantastic other-worldly shapes. It could be the highlight of some National Park, and yet you can’t get there except via the 7.8-mile paddle down Bayou Bartholomew from the Old Berlin Bridge to 425 Bridge (described above), although you could make a round-trip by parking at the New Berlin Bridge, paddling to the Chemin-au-Haut and then paddling back upstream to the same Bridge. This could be challenging depending on water level.
The Chemin-au-Haut is a spiritual place full of incredible natural beauty that will leave you feeling closer to heaven and supreme creativity of the highest order. It would be sacrilegious if there were too many people there. You won’t see any trash. Indeed you won’t see any signs of human civilization at all once you get past the neck of shallows connecting it to Bayou Bartholomew.
To access Lower Chemin-a-Haut Bayou from Bayou Bartholomew cross a shallow inlet lined with big cypress and crowds of cypress knees. At 2.0 on the Beekman Gage you will have to drag your vessel across some of the shoals here, below 1.0 it will become a portage. Above 2.0 you can probably work your way in without having to abandon ship.
The waters deepen immediately past this short shallows and the creek opens up into a delightful lagoon of dark still waters which offer sparkling reflections of the overhanging bankside trees, shrubbery, through which numerous giant cypress can be seen emerging and monolithically reaching to the sky. The cypresses are so big they look like gnarly cliffs rising out a fjord. It’s hard to get a perspective of just how big they are until you paddle close, or if you see someone else paddle by their base. They fill the sky when you get close. Trees this big are at least 1,000 old. Approach and respect them with reverence. They saw the native peoples of the last millennium flourish and disappear. They saw Hernando de Soto, La Salle, the rise of the French Empire and the sale of the Louisiana Purchase. They lived through the birth of the American West, the Civil War and the Industrial Age. If not logged or submerged they will outlive us all; the champion bald cypress of North America is 3,000 years old!
The giant cypress in the Chemin-a-Haut are so big and have so much character that some of them have gained names accordingly.
First you will paddle past “The Jester,” a twin-trunked giant; the two trunks cross each other like pointed crowns of a jester’s hat. Shortly thereafter is the “Blowdown,” a giant cypress that fell over in a previous storm. You will have to find passage through the “Blowdown.” Depending on water level, inspect the choices and pick your best route. The Blowdown is so big it would require an industrial crane to remove, maybe something like one of Colonel Henry Miller Shreve’s snagboats, and so it will remain a landmark until it rots away. Being a giant cypress this process might last a few hundred years!
You might notice huge stumps closer to water level -- the remainders of other giants that were pushed over in tornadoes or front line winds. As you wind your way through the maze of trees, stumps and knees, you will see the biggest cypress of all filling the middle of the bayou. This is “The Castle,” which is unmistakable because there is a hollow within this tree so cavernous you can actually nose you canoe or kayak into it and become engulfed in its belly of wood. From the distance the sides of the “Castle” flow outwards in the classic bell shape like a woman in a wide dress. Of old cypress trees, this tree is particularly wide, at least 20 feet in diameter.
Continuing on adjacent to “the Castle” you will paddle by the “Leaning Sisters,” a small grove of tightly situated medium-sized cypress trees in the water; four of them are leaning over at a severe angle. Shortly thereafter is the largest stump yet, “Old Stumpy,” a reminder of other giant cypress trees from centuries past. The deep pool begins to shallow and narrow as the Chemin-au-Haut bends to the east. At “Knee Forest” you will have to pick your way around a broad swath of very tall cypress knees packed around the base of several big trees whose presence have built a bed of soil, needles and cypress cones packed around the knee forest and filled in with river mud from previous rises.
Beyond Knee Forest the Chemin-au-Haut bends eastward into “The Tunnel,” where it narrows into a thin shallow channel shadowed with overhanging privet and a few younger cypress. (Younger being a relative term here, these cypresses are hundreds of years old compared to the thousands of years of their downstream neighbors). At normal water levels (1-3 on the Beekman Gage) you will find it too difficult to continue somewhere before or in “the Tunnel.” When you’ve had enough of bottoming-out and becoming high centered on hidden roots and submerged stumps, turn your vessel around and return downstream to the Bartholomew. As you paddle back you will be able to enjoy once again all of the marvelous trees and magical pools of water in this wondrous place called the Chemin-au-Haut.
GPS Waypoints Chemin-a-Haut Bayou Lower
Using the decimal system on all GPS readings
Mouth of Chemin-a-Haut
Landing at old farm logging road
“The Jester” (giant cypress tree)
“Blowdown” (trunk of giant cypress tree)
“The Castle” (giant cypress tree)
“Leaning Sisters” (four medium cypress trees)
“Old Stumpy” (stump of giant cypress tree)
“Knee Forest” (cypress knees)
“The Tunnel” (overhanging privet)
Acknowledgements: John Ruskey, Quapaw Canoe Company, Clarksdale, MS, trail developer
Paddlers: Mike Burns, Kimberly Landry, Joe Cooper Rolfe, Tab Wilkerson II, Amber Wilkerson, Dora Ann Hatch
Dora Ann Hatch, LSU AgCenter Agritourism Coordinator and coordinator of the Ecotourism Project for Northeast Louisiana.