There's no shortage of ways to describe the Creole Nature Trail, but my favorite has to be that of "Louisiana's Outback," a clever marketing ploy launched by locals more than two decades ago. Just take exit 27 off I-10 West and follow the trail through Calcasieu and Cameron parishes. Only then will you understand why the label fits. It's a shifting terrain where Louisiana's marshes collide with the Texas prairies, a land in constant transition. It supports a vibrant ecosystem of cattle, nutria, wildflowers, cypress trees, bayous, plains, turtles, birds, butterflies and redfish.
In 1993, this 180-mile stretch of diversity was also rightly selected as an official Louisiana Scenic Byway. Three years later it was among the first roads recognized as a National Scenic Byway. In 2002, the feds took real notice and upgraded the trail's designation to that of All-American Road. That designation is a big deal, conferred by the U.S. Transportation Department and awarded only to areas that contain a collective archeological, cultural and natural significance that can't be found anywhere else in the country. Today, there are only 27 All-American Roads.
While the ceremonial titles carry official significance, the "outback" reference remains my moniker of choice. My wife and I traveled the Creole Nature Trail in late July and were struck by the abandoned feel of the road. By abandoned, I mean you should buy gas when you see a station. It's not as if money hasn't been invested in the trail; you'll see those dollars at work the more you travel it. (One great feature to check out, which didn't skimp on production value, is the driving routes and related MP3 downloads you can obtain from www.creolenaturetrail.org. Once in your vehicle, you can sync up your trip to the MP3.)
In 1975, local conservationists, elected officials and business interests started coming up with ways to create and brand the trail. The first real break came from the federal government, which provided $397,000 through the scenic byway program. That brought to the table the Southwest Louisiana Convention and Visitors Bureau and its $100,000 investment. Soon after, a slick marketing strategy, complete with TV and print promotions, pushed the "Louisiana Outback" theme, and inquiries about the area spiked more than 60 percent during the first year of outreach.
Over time, a number of trail stops were added or enhanced, such as the Cameron Prairie National Wildlife Refuge. That was our first pit stop and, fittingly, the first thing that came into view was a 5-foot alligator on the side of Hwy. 27, just past the entrance of the welcome center. Of course, we pulled up next to it to get a picture (not advised), only to find that it was dead (that made it OK). Upon exiting our car with hopes dashed, a loud splash alerted us to another, smaller gator (this one very much alive) swimming in the adjacent canal.
Despite all the reptile action we encountered, the Cameron Prairie Refuge specializes in waterfowl and other indigenous birds, and further exploration showed why. Birds of every shape and size (it's consistently included in top 10 birding lists) could be seen all along the refuge's hiking and driving trails, which made for an adventuresome bit of amateur photography. We also saw a number of shy turtles that were worth ogling for a spell. The welcome center is a hoot, too, and shouldn't be missed. It houses a pair of Boudreaux and Marie automatons that tell the story of Louisiana's marshes and its inhabitants.
Such attractions have increased visits to the Creole Nature Trail by 30 percent over the past five years, and they give the trail yet another identity as a gigantic natural history museum. A must-see in that vein is the Sabine National Wildlife Refuge's Wetland Walkway, located 26 miles south of Sulphur. It was devastated by Hurricane Rita and reopened only last year. It's a self-guided loop that includes interpretive panels and an observation tower offering panoramic views.
The Wetlands Walkway is further proof that the Creole Nature Trail is a work in progress, just like the land itself. It was an eye-opening experience to see majestic horses and monstrous gators coexisting peacefully. But it also served as a reminder of the untapped natural treasures in southwest Louisiana, all of which await those willing to make the three-hour drive from New Orleans.
Jeremy Alford is a freelance journalist from Baton Rouge. You can reach him through his Web site at www.jeremyalford.com.