Collecting National Parks: Jean Lafitte, LA

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!


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