Calling All Nature Lovers to the Creole Nature Trail
by Eleanor S. Morris

> more on romantic getaways in Louisiana

The Creole Nature Trail, a newly-designated All-American Road, loops through 180 miles of southwest Louisiana's picturesque marshes, bayous and coastal beaches along the Gulf of Mexico. Think of all the wildlife to be seen and experienced...roseate spoonbills, spring warblers, Vermilion flycatchers and more. Millions of migrating geese and ducks spend the winter here, while millions of migrating songbirds and butterflies use these wildlife refuges as stopovers on the way to Mexico and Central America.

Even alligators seem to think this is their land as they glide up and down bayous and lakes or sun themselves on the banks. (But caution: Don't be deceived by the apparent immobility of a resting 'gator. Do not feed, tease, or prod him by tossing rocks or other items at him. Respect him--and keep your distance!)

The trail begins either in Lake Charles or Sulphur and winds through Calcasieu and Cameron parishes. (Stop awhile in small Sulphur to visit the whimsically-named Brimstone Museum in the Old Southern Pacific Railway Depot, 800 Picard Road, and learn the history of sulphur mining.) Although driving the entire Creole Nature Trail National Scenic Byway takes about eight to ten hours, the most frequently-travel route, from Holly Beach and east across LA 82 to Cameron-Creole and on LA 27/Hwy 14 north to Lake Charles, takes about four to six hours, allowing time to stop at wildlife refuges, beaches, picnic sites or restaurants.

From Sulphur exit I-10 and go south on LA 27 down to Holly Beach. Just before Hackberry you'll cross the Intracoastal Waterway which stretches all the way from Brownsville, Texas, to New York City. Hackberry is a commercial crabbing, fishing and shrimping center with an intriguing legend: pirate Jean LaFitte is supposed to have hidden some treasure here in Kelso Bayou.

On down to Holly Beach through this Louisiana Outback, take out your binoculars to view the wildlife of Sabine National Refuge on both sides of the highway. Stop for a bit at the Sabine National Wildlife Visitors Center, or take the 1.5 mile Marsh Trail, where interpretive panels and four marsh dioramas depict the habitats found on the refuge, giving you some understanding of the coastal marsh environment.

At Holly Beach, 26 miles of Gulf Coast beaches are called by locals the "Cajun Riviera." There, collect conch shells, whelks, sharkseye, angelwings and cockles.

West on LA 82 leads to the Peveto Woods Birds & Butterfly Sanctuary. Along the way, Constance, Gulf Breeze, Little Florida/Oceanview, Longview-Dunn and Martin-Erbelding beaches are tempting place to stop for a picnic. At the sanctuary you'll see a variety of songbirds such as spring warblers, tanagers and orioles. Depending on the time of year, you'll see more different types of wildlife and wildflowers here than simply on a back road in Louisiana. You might even get a view of the Sabine Pass Lighthouse on the Gulf just before the Texas border. It was a working lighthouse for almost 100 years, surviving both hurricanes and Civil War skirmishes before it was extinguished in 1952.

East on LA 82 from Holly Beach leads to the ferry to Cameron, crossing the Calcasieu Ship Channel which connects the Intracoastal Canal to the Gulf. Aboard the ferry, you might see porpoises in the water among the shrimp boats, hoping for a snack. The ferry also offers great views of multitude of sea birds--not only seagulls, but white and brown pelicans. On the jetties, there is fishing--and more great bird-watching. And in Cameron there are restaurants, gas stations and convenience stores in case you feel the need of some temporary relief from nature.

Continue on LA 82 to Cameron Parish's "Walkway to the Gulf" and enjoy a leisurely stroll to a secluded beach. Then on to Oak Grove and north to Creole, another small Louisiana Outback community. Following north back on LA 27 between Creole and Gibbstown Bridge, you'll cross the Intracoastal Waterway again through the Big Burns, 100,000 acres of marsh that burned during the 1930s. But instead of being a disaster, it created ponds of excellent freshwater fishing. Get a permit at a local store and try your luck at large- mouth bas, crappie, white fish and more.

The next stop is three-mile Pintail Drive at Cameron Prairie National Wildlife Refuge, where you'll see ducks, geese, many species of migratory birds, nutria, even white-tail deer and alligators. If the latter are being coy and hiding in the mud, go to the Cameron Prairie Interpretive Center, where in a large man-made pond you can see 'gators large and small at home. Exhibits, too, as well as a state-of-the-art robotic diorama and a telescope on the observation pier. Cameron Prairie's moist prairies are home to resident songbirds such as northern bobwhites and mourning doves, as well.

For brochures, maps and more information, contact the Southwest Louisiana Convention & Visitors Bureau, 1205 N. Lakeshire Dr., Lake Charles, LA 70601 or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Wildlife Refuge Service, 4401 N. Fairfax Dr., Arlington, VA 2203, 800-344-WILD.

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