Heart of Louisiana: The Creole Nature Trail

An alligator greets visitors on the Creole Nature Trail (photo by John Snell)
An alligator greets visitors on the Creole Nature Trail (photo by John Snell)

It's where southwest Louisiana meets the Gulf of Mexico. Daybreak at Rutherford Beach -- a wide ribbon of sand that's washed by the Gulf surf on one side, and marked by a rancher fence on the other. The sun breaks above the horizon.

It's a brilliant beginning for this remote Louisiana paradise, decorated with wildflowers and a treasure of seashells, pushed onto the sand by the ocean tide.

This is just one of the many stops along Louisiana's Creole Nature Trail.

You drive south of Lake Charles and watch the pastures blend with marshes in a 180-mile trek through what's called "Louisiana's outback".

As you drive along the Creole Nature Trail, there's an app that will tell you exactly where you are. And it plays a video so you know what to look for at each stop along the way.

Creole Nature Trail director Anne Klenke says, "We have a ton of wildlife to see. We have mammals, we have reptiles, we have birds… every different season on the Creole Nature Trail is a different natural season."

Klenke oversees the effort to link three national wildlife refuges and one state refuge into one continuous sightseeing adventure. The trail welcomes visitors to stop at several points and use boardwalks to enter the marshes and wetlands. You can sit and observe all kinds of waterfowl and migratory birds such as the high-stepping black-necked stilts and the colorful roseate spoonbills, nicknamed the Cajun flamingo.

Klenke says, "We are on the Mississippi and central flyway here on the Creole Nature Trail, so we literally have hundreds of thousands of waterfowl every year."

Birdwatcher Alex Lamle says, "The spoonbills are awesome."

Some college students from Oklahoma who enjoy bird watching see spoonbills for the first time.

Lamle says, "I've seen a lot of things that wouldn't be able to see in Oklahoma, which is very cool. And that's kind of what it's all about. We're really excited."

But the star attraction is the alligators -- lots of alligators -- that you can view in the wild, only a dozen feet outside your car window. They're in and out of the canals, patiently watching you watch them.

Klenke says, "Any time of year you are going to see an alligator. As long as the sun is out, they will be out sunning. They are cold-blooded creatures so if it's not warm enough they are out sunning. If it's too warm they are in the water and you'll just see their head above the water."

From the gator-filled canals to lakes and ponds full of birds and the surf and sand of the Gulf -- here you have a chance to get away from civilization for few hours and connect with the natural side, the wild side of the state.

The Creole Nature Trail is well-marked, and the self-guided tour really helps you get the most out of this Louisiana wetland experience. For more information, go online to http://creolenaturetrail.org and http://www.visitlakecharles.org/visitors/outdoors/creole-nature-trail/