By Katie McKy
Unlike most states, which make do with one nickname, Louisiana goes by many. To name a few: the Bayou State, the Creole State, the Sugar State, and the Pelican State. One nickname just can't capture the state’s diversity, which manifests in its cuisine, from Creole to Cajun, from bananas foster and beignets to batter-fried crawfish tails, as well as its paddling. Looking at the state as five distinct regions, each divvies up its own flavor of paddling. Whether paddlers want urban trails, big rivers, twisty streams, bayous, wilderness, lazy lake paddling, or freshwater and saltwater kayak fishing, Louisiana offers a bona fide panoply of paddling adventures.
The region known as the Sportsman's Paradise is the northernmost third of Louisiana and it's fun-to-say Bartholomew Bayou is perfect for an afternoon paddle or an extended trip. It's North America's longest bayou at 365 miles and manages to be both dark and light-dappled at the same time, much like a stony cathedral with light streaming through stained glass windows. The bayou's ceiling is its canopy of cypresses and tupelos, permitting long and lovely shafts of sunlight to sparkle on the water’s surface.
In the caramel-colored water, life is teeming with 117 species of fish and 40 species of mollusks, some found nowhere else. Like all bayous, it's loaded with critters to photograph or fish; double-digit bigmouth bass are boated each year. Crappie and spotted bass also abound. With so much life in the water, it's a prime wintering habitat for myriad birds, including turkeys, herons, egrets, ibises and eagles. The variety of wildlife and mild December temps make it a prime winter paddling option.
However, Bartholomew’s cypress trees are the headliners for many paddlers. Their limb-like roots and stalagmite-y knees extend the otherworldly feel of the bayou. The crowning glory is Chemin-a-Haut Creek, accessible only to paddlers. The cypress here are so impressive that many have names, such as the "Castle" and the "Jester." Because only paddlers can reach it, it's pristine. Throughout the bayou, water levels fluctuate greatly, so keep an eye on the rain, as too little or too much are both problematic.
The crossroads region is the middle of the state of Louisiana. If you're looking for a tamer paddle than the sprawling Bartholomew Bayou, North Toledo Bend State Park and South Toledo Bend State Park are great places to start.
Danny Rowzee, the owner of Tack-a-Paw Expeditions, which rents canoes and sit-on-top kayaks and offers shuttle services, said, "South Toledo Bend State Park is the southern end of the lake, close to the dam.” He added that there are “coves and islands with tent camping, RV camping, and cabins. Fishing is good and you can catch bass, bream, white perch, some stripers, and catfish."
Rowzee also likes Toro Bayou with its 17 miles of canoe trails divided into three sections. Section Two is the most popular: at five and a half miles, it's freckled with white sandbars and has five or six simple Class I rapids to perk up your day. Section Three is a three-mile stretch that empties into the Sabine River. "Most people who do that continue on to Section One of the Sabine River," Rowzee said.
Unlike the shaded Toro Bayou, the Sabine River is like a little Mississippi, subject to the elements, but is still a good time, with spotless sand bars for camping and fishing along the way. National Geographic once called it one of the Top 10 camping streams in the nation.
"We service 50 miles of it from the dam down to Highway 190,” Rowzee said. “It's also divided into three sections. The first is 10.5 miles. The second is 28 miles and the third is 11 miles. It's really scenic and somewhat remote. You can camp and not see too many folks."
And what's Rowzee's favorite place to paddle in Crossroads country?
"I like Toro Bayou best because it's remote and has lots of character, as well as opals, petrified wood, and arrowheads,” Rowzee added.
“The character changes from white sandbars to more of a mountain stream with rocky shoals and small rapids, but you can only run on it before or after June. So that means March, April, and May are the best months."
Cajun Country ponies up real wilderness in the Atchafalaya River. Where the Mississippi River turns east toward New Orleans, the Atchafalaya River runs due south to the Gulf of Mexico and whereas the lowest Mississippi is a thoroughfare of industry, barges, and ocean-going ships, the Atchafalaya is a lush maze of lakes, bayous, and canals populated by ospreys, falcons, and roseate spoonbills. You're certain to see alligators at the right time of day.
John Williams, the owner of Pack and Paddle — a Lafayette-based outfitter that canoes and kayaks, plus offers small, private guided trips — suggests the southern Atchafalaya for the best of the Cajun Country’s wilderness paddling opportunities.
"We call it the Southern Atchafalaya Eagle Route,” Williams said. “We go there in the winter because the bald eagles populate that area heavily then. They're up in the cypress trees and tupelos, which are also beautiful. The trees turn autumn red in the middle of December, which is also the best time to see the eagles. You can see a dozen in a day. There is a campground right near there, Lake End Park in Morgan City, which is quite nice."
If you're looking for a lake, Williams has an affinity for Lake Martin.
"Lake Martin is easy and quick from Lafayette,” Williams noted. “It has a huge bird rookery in the lake. There are mostly wading birds like egrets and great blue herons, but there are woodpeckers and bald eagles too. It's a great place to see alligators.
“It's like paddling through a flooded forest, so it gives you shade and breaks the wind. It's typical bottomland, hardwood, Cajun swamp paddling. It's not huge, so you don't go on an all-day trip, but for a morning or afternoon paddle, it's perfect."
Beyond perfect is a stand of old-growth cypress trees along Lake Fausse Point, some up to 20 feet in diameter. Back when the old growth cypress trees were being logged, these survived because they're hollow. They've also withstood countless hurricanes and lightning strikes over the decades.
Williams said, "People come from all over the world to photograph these trees. It's an incredible photography opportunity. Lake Fausse Point is shallow, so stick to the north side or south side, whichever is protected that day. It can get extremely rough. The time you want to avoid is June through October. It gets pretty hot down here. Shoot for late October through the end of May. The very best time is December and then February and March."
If you're in Cajun Country, you must enjoy some of their world-famous grub.
Williams recommended a spot in New Iberia called Jane's Seafood. “It's great for boiled crawfish and other types of seafood,” he said. “It's locally owned and sourced, so it's authentic, the real deal."
Eddie Mullen, owner of PAC Kayak Rental, also suggests The Shack in Houma, “one of the best seafood places.” He added that, “they don't scrimp on the food. It's homey and comfortable. Go as you are and enjoy yourself."
If you're not too full for a final paddle, Mullen suggests Bayou Pointe-aux-Chenes.
Mullen noted the vintage shrimp boats and all types of fishing vessels. “Wild horses in the marsh pretty regularly come up and say hello,” Mullen said. “There are dolphins, raccoons, and otters too. The female dolphins raise their young in the marsh and train them how to hunt there. There are bald eagles in the summer and fall. The marsh is what the Native Americans called a floton, as there's water under the land, so you can't walk on it."
Plantation Country is squeezed between New Orleans and Cajun Country and bisected by the Mississippi River. Beginners should consider the Comite River, as it's shallow and calm most days.
Erin Sullivan, project manager for the Muddy Water Paddle Company, said, "It's really peaceful and sandy-bottomed, great for kayaking and kayak fishing. There are bass and sac au lait (Cajun for crappie). I also like the sandy beach spots where you can stop and hang out."
If you're bitten by the bayou bug, consider Tickfaw State Park.
"It's really shady, slow-moving, and has lots of cypress trees,” Sullivan said. “For a river, it has a real swampy feel. It also has a strong Native American background and you can just feel the forest there."
Tickfaw State Park offers camping spots for tents and RVs, as well as cabin and canoe rentals.
Want some city paddling?
"I like to paddle the LSU Lakes in Baton Rouge,” Sullivan said. “They're right in the city and about 10 acres. You can do a workout paddle or do a leisure paddle. In places, it feels wild, even though it's in the middle of the city, and at other spots, people are jogging and biking the shorelines and flying kites. Best of all, you can paddle all year long here. It's rarely too cold to paddle here."
And there's never a wrong time to dine in Louisiana.
Sullivan recommended Parrain’s in Baton Rogue. “It's really good Louisiana Cajun cooking,” she said. “I love their brunch. They'll put crawfish atop eggs benedict with a killer sauce. Near Tickfaw State Park, there's a Hungarian restaurant called Taste of Bavaria. They've got lots of Polish sausages, amazing pastries, and kielbasa. It's in the middle of nowhere and has a cool, little vibe."
Greater New Orleans
The fifth and final region is Greater New Orleans, which is the toe of the boot that's Louisiana. If you want to paddle by day and walk Bourbon Street by night, there's sprawling Lake Pontchartrain and Bayou St. John, with its abundant charm.
Chris Brooks scouts paddling locations and handles the visual media for Bayou Paddlesports. Brooks said, "The coastal islands in the Gulf of Mexico are great and kayak fishing is available around New Orleans, but most of the time, we paddle Bayou St. John and practice freestyle tricks on the paddleboards. If we get a strong north wind I’ll go to the mouth of Bayou St. John where it meets the lake. The waves get compressed there and sometimes you can surf; it used to be kind of a local secret."
It's no longer a secret, but Brooks enjoys the social atmosphere.
"It's very social on weekends with lots of paddlers,” Brooks said. “We have everything from kayak races and SUP [standup paddleboard] yoga to watergun fights and night paddles. Sometimes people just like to float around or swim. Conditions are normally calm, so Bayou St. John is a great place to paddle for all crafts and skill levels. The water is brackish and pretty clear. I practice rolls in my whitewater kayak. The north section is more open and a little less paddled; it has an island neighborhood you can paddle through. To the south is more action and people."
It's easy to get there from New Orleans.
"It's very convenient since it's centrally located and also accessible by public transport,” Brooks added. “Everyone out here is easygoing and likes a good time. There are plenty of regulars on the Bayou, both renters and people with their own gear."
If you want solitude, go south.
“The coastal islands in the Mississippi Sound offer excellent camping, but are only accessible by water,” Brooks noted. “The driftwood makes great fires and there are not many people out there. On the more distant islands the sky is full of stars. There's lots of wildlife too."
And if you're near New Orleans, don't you dare make do with trail mix.
"There’s Morning Call in City Park (the jambalaya is good there),” Brooks highlighted. “Parkway Tavern is great. Bayou Beer Garden has good food and atmosphere. It's Angelo Brocato’s for ice cream. Farther out is Pyramids Cafe for Mediterranean and The Joint for BBQ. Bevi Seafood usually has good boiled crawfish."
From wildlife and wilderness to deep cultural bayou excursions and urban escapades, this land of many nicknames is also a state packed with a huge diversity of paddling adventures for travelers willing to explore.
Additional Resources for Paddle and Kayak Adventures in Louisiana:
Louisiana’s Top-10 Places to Paddle
Cajun Coast Paddle
Toledo Bend Lake Country
Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge