On the Move

Trips far and near - without breaking the bank

Day hikes in the bayous and swamps of suburban New Orleans

For the first time in my adult life, I'm lucky enough to live within easy driving distance of a National Park - and not just any National Park, but one that has six separate sites, sprawling over southeast Louisiana. We've visited the three sites that are located in or around New Orleans, and in this post, I'm going to be highlighting the one we've visited many times over: Barataria Preserve.

Simply put: it's magical. The swamp itself feels like a living, breathing thing. All of its hidden parts seem so exotic and mysterious. We've hiked all but one of the trails and we've hiked them in every season. We've seen bald eagles perched high up in cypress trees and we've had an owl swoop down right over our heads. We've seen deer and raccoon and nutria. And we've seen frogs and turtles and alligators.

Yes, alligators. Being from the northeast, an alligator still seems as novel as having a dinosaur from Jurassic Park step out of the screen. I've seen alligators in the canal behind our house, so it's not like sightings are rare, but it's really a thrill to see them up close and in their true habitat. In July / August, they are especially active and we've had one cross the path right in front of us.

The last time we visited, we took advantage of the Junior Ranger program. After wandering around the visitor's center, we took the scavenger hunt list out to the nearest trail. The kids marked the items off one by one and I enjoyed the utter stillness and quiet. After about thirty minutes, Blue wandered back to me.

"Did you find everything on the list?" I asked him.

"Almost." He said. "The only thing I'm missing is a..." and at that moment, something caught his eye and he looked down. There, slithering between his feet was the last item on his list: a snake! He hesitated for two seconds and then dove for it. Needless to say, he was a rock star in the eyes of the other brothers.

If it's your first time at the Barataria Preserve, here's what you need to know:

-Bayou Coquille and the Palmetto Trail are the two first hikes that I'd recommend (in that order). They are each .9 miles (one way, then you have to walk back). Bayou Coquille is a mixture of boardwalk and natural ground and the Palmetto trail is almost entirely boardwalk, letting you hover over the shallow water that stretches as far as the eye can see in every direction. If you want an extra educational kick to your experience, you can phone in to a guided walking trail on the Bayou Coquille trail. Info is at the trailhead.

-The trails to the north of Barataria Boulevard are slightly less swampy and more woodsy. Perhaps as a result, we've found them to be less populated that the other trails. If you want a more isolated experience, that would be the option for you.

-Hiking in the summer? You'll be inundated by mosquitoes. You just will. Wear long sleeves and long pants and consider a mosquito net over a hat. Seriously. They are that annoying and its not worth begin tormented while you're trying to enjoy a nice hike.

-Don't bug the alligators. We've learned from experience that they will take a snap if provoked.

-My son is by no means a snake expert, but he religiously follows a YouTuber who is (Brave Wilderness shoutout!), which gave him the confidence to identify the snake as non-poisonous before he made that awesome catch. Even so, on our way out, I bought a laminated snake guide from the visitor's center on our way out so that the next time we hike, we'll be able to identify whatever we happen upon with certainty.

-There is no admission fee for Jean Lafitte National Park, but if there was, we would be able to get in free by virtue of having a fourth-grader in our household. Find out about the the program and how it inspired us to start collecting National Park experiences here.

Is there a National Park near you? I'd love to get in on the must-see-sites that you've enjoyed so comment and convince me to come back!

Missed the previous installment of this series?

Collecting National Parks: Natchez Trace Parkway Day 1

Collecting National Parks: Natchez Trace Parkway Day 2

Collecting National Parks: Natchez Trace Parkway Day 3

Collecting National Parks: Natchez Trace Parkway Day 4

Collecting National Parks: Natchez Trace Parkway Day 5

We didn't have to go far for the first adventure of the day. We camped at the Meriwether Lewis site which has plenty of hiking trails. We did one (a steep hike down a hollow and then back out again. There were lots of no-see'ums (I don't know the scientifically-correct name for this insect, but it's what my dad always called those annoying bugs that swarm your face but are too small to actually swat away), and the boys moaned about it the whole way and couldn't wait to get up to the car. Not every hike is a bed of roses...

Near the entrance to the site is the grave of Meriwether Lewis (of Lewis and Clark) who unfortunately committed suicide at an inn that used to stand near the site. The visitor center had a lovely interpretive center that told about his life and at the gift shop, we splurged and bought a CD of songs all about the Lewis and Clark expedition, along with its companion book. The songs are so catchy and we listened to it over and over for the rest of the day.

Destination: Northern Terminus in Nashville, TN (mi 444)
Planned stops: Phosphate Mine, Fall Hollow, Jackson Falls, Tobacco Farm / Old Trace Drive, Gordon House

Phosphate Mine (mi 390)

Nothing spectacular about this stop, but it was a great chance to stretch the legs, run and see an old phosphate strip mine, and grab a snack from the trunk before heading out again.

Fall Hollow (mi 391)

The kids went nuts with excitement as soon as we pulled off the Parkway. They could see the top of the falls across a big ravine and they went tearing off before I could get the stroller out and the baby strapped in. (Note: this was the first stroller-UNfriendly trail we encountered on the Trace). The trail was steep and gnarly but there were enough hand holds to keep from slipping.

There were two sets of falls. This picture is at the first one. The boys slipped behind the water and got splashed a little. The second falls is even more impressive - with a big carved out space behind the falls and a little pool at the base where you can safely stand under the shower. Big hit!

Tobacco Farm / Gordon House / Old Trace Drive (mi 401 - 407)

There are two spots where you can drive (northbound) on the actual Old Trace and it's worthwhile to do it! This Tennessee section of the Trace is so beautiful (especially to flat swamp-conditioned folks) and the Old Trace follows ridges that dump into steep hollows on either side of you. You can get a great feel for how the Trace followed the natural geography of the terrain.

Tobacco Farm and Gordon House are two stops that are quick, allow you to read a sign, wander around a solitary site and then get back in the car. I missed both due to diaper-changing needs, but the kids (and sign-reading Engineer) enjoyed them.

Jackson Falls (mi 404)

We really went out with a bang. I mean, it was a finale to end all finales. Jackson Falls is a steep descent along a nicely-paved path. There is an upper section of the falls, where it pools on a slippery plateau and then drops off another lip onto another slippery plateau before finally sloughing off to meander away through a creek bed. The Engineer took the the three big boys scrambling up the hill to get to the top of the upper falls and I took the littles to the bottom of the lower falls to splash around.

After awhile, I heard a lot of shouting and I craned my neck to see the bottom of the upper falls where I saw my 9-year-old son standing with blood pouring down his arm. When I finally made it up to him, he was shaking with adrenaline but the bleeding had slowed. At the top of the falls, he had sat down, thought about sliding down, changed his mind, but it was super slick and gravity had already taken the reigns. The Engineer counted him lucky that he hadn't broken his nose when he spun around to his stomach to try to stop himself. I counted the other boys lucky that they didn't follow him down the falls (they are featherweights compared to his bulk and I don't think they would have been able to stop at the first plateau...they would have rocketed off the next set of falls).

It was terrifying, but also the most memorable moment of the trip for the lucky kid and he counts it as one of the most exciting moments of his life. :)

Northern Terminus (mi 444)

We did it! Five Days and Five Nights on the Natchez Trace Parkway! So many beautiful sights and opportunities for learning and precious memories. This style of trip was so much to our liking that we've decided that a grand goal to shoot for is to someday do a similar trip along the Oregon Trail. About five times the distance and not as convenient for us to access at this point in life, but, hey, #goals, right? :)

That raps up our Natchez Trace Parkway adventure! Did you ever chance a vacation at a spot you weren't exactly sure you'd like? How did it turn out? Sharing is caring! Leave a comment and tell me about it. :)

#camping #campingwithkids #familyvacation #historytravel #nationalparks #natcheztrace #travel #Jacksonfalls #fallshollow #oldtrace #tennessee #nashville #northernterminus #meriwetherlewis

Check out some of my other travel posts:

Minimalist Packing for Camping with Kids

Collecting National Parks: Natchez, Mississippi

Our Quest to Collect National Parks

Missed the first installment of this series?

Collecting National Parks: Natchez Trace Parkway Day 1

Collecting National Parks: Natchez Trace Parkway Day 2

Collecting National Parks: Natchez Trace Parkway Day 3

Collecting National Parks: Natchez Trace Parkway Day 4

The kids were so sad to say goodbye to Tishomingo State Park. They loved the campsite with it's great view of the lake and close proximity to the bathhouse. We had a lot planned for the day, though, so we set out!

Destination: Meriwether Lewis Site (mi 385)
Planned stops: Cave Spring, Ivy Green, Glenrock Branch
Soundtrack: Doctor Dolittle by Hugh Lofting (audiobook)

Cave Spring (mi 309)

The awesome thing about the Natchez Trace Parkway is that there are literally dozens of quick pull-offs (all notated on the map and by road very clear road signage) that allow you to explore old Indian mounds, or abandoned mines or camps or camps or nature paths...or caves! It wasn't safe to go into these caves, but that didn't stop the boys from lighting up their small kerosene lantern and poking their heads in as deep as they could stretch,

Ivy Green (Helen Keller's Birthplace)

Helen Keller's childhood home is in Tuscumbia, Alabama - another attraction a little jaunt off of the Trace, but since we were so close, we couldn't turn it down.

The house is so much smaller than we expected it would be. Not the sprawling mansion I expected. A docent gave us a tour and pointed out so many interesting things ("This is the china that the Keller family used...the ones that Helen didn't manage to break, anyway."), then we explored the grounds outside, including the cottage where Helen and Annie secluded themselves (it's just outside of the right hand side of the picture - just a few paces from the house!), and, of course, the pump. I've always loved the story of Helen Keller. I've read her autobiography and watched both versions of The Miracle Worker multiple times and the play was one of the first times I was ever exposed to live theater. It was so moving to be in the space where a teacher literally reached into a little girls' silent world and brought her into the light. The boys each bought a braille card from the gift shop and spent the rest of the day in the car trying to learn the letters with their eyes squeezed closed.

Glenrock Branch (mi 364)

This wasn't a planned stop initially, but the baby was getting antsy so we pulled off and found this refreshing creek, stripped shoes and socks off and went wading. Just perfect!

We arrived at Meriwether Lewis site (free, no shower) and picked a great site. Since it was our last night on the trail, we lit a huge bonfire and sang songs and told stories and recounted our highlights. It was probably the most memorable night.

Next up is Day Six of our Natchez Trace Parkway adventure! Did you ever chance a vacation at a spot you weren't exactly sure you'd like? How did it turn out? Sharing is caring! Leave a comment and tell me about it. :)

#camping #campingwithkids #familyvacation #historytravel #nationalparks #natcheztrace #travel #tishomingo #ivygreen #helenkeller #cavesprings #tuscumbia #glenrockbranch

Check out some of my other travel posts:

Minimalist Packing for Camping with Kids

Collecting National Parks: Natchez, Mississippi

Our Quest to Collect National Parks


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