From a 1,000-year-old cypress tree to the birthplace of Tabasco sauce, get yourself outdoors and off the beaten path while exploring the history of the Pelican State.
Old Growth Cypress Trees
The bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) was made the official state tree of Louisiana in 1963. Unlike most conifers, the cypress is a deciduous tree, not an evergreen; it gets that distinctive “bald” look when it loses its needles in the fall. Cypresses can live to be hundreds of years old, and many of the trees you’ll see today date all the way back before the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. Chemin-A-Haut State Park in Morehouse Parish is home to one of the oldest cypress trees in the state, the 1,000-year-old “Castle Tree.” Swamp tours of the cypress-packed Atchafalaya River Basin, a national heritage area, leave from a number of communities between Lafayette and Baton Rouge, including Breaux Bridge, Henderson and St. Martinville.
The Illinois Central Railroad lived up to its slogan—the “Main-Line of Middle America”—by hauling goods from Chicago to New Orleans over some 150 years. Today, one of its abandoned corridors has been converted into this winding 31-mile hiking and biking trail through St. Tammany Parish in Louisiana’s Northshore region. Tammany Trace stretches from downtown Covington to Slidell, passing through Abita Springs, Mandeville and Lacombe along the way.
“Sabine Free State” Sites
Touring these three state parks along the Louisiana Highway 6 corridor in Natchitoches and Sabine Parishes will give you some insight into the historic power struggle that went down here in the early 19th century. Though U.S. and Spanish military commanders signed a treaty creating a “neutral strip” between the Sabine River and the Arroyo Hondo (now the Calcasieu River) some 25 to 50 miles to the east, the lingering border dispute wouldn’t be fully resolved until the creation of the Republic of Texas, and its U.S. statehood in 1848. The neutral strip, sometimes called the “Sabine Free State,” was eventually divided into all or parts of 10 parishes in western Louisiana.
Fort St. John Baptiste in Natchitoches was the French colonial outpost in the region, while Los Adaes, once the capital of Texas, now houses the crumbling remains of the Spanish colonial fort. U.S. military policed the region from Fort Jesup, starting in 1822. Its most famous commander, General Zachary Taylor, would become the 12th U.S president.
St. Francisville (Audubon Pilgrimage)
When John Jay Audubon arrived in St. Francisville in 1821, he was apparently bowled over by the region’s lush natural beauty—and its abundance of bird life. In exchange for tutoring the young Eliza Pirrie of Oakley Plantation, Audubon had permission to roam local woodlands in search of interesting specimens to paint. All told, the famous artist-naturalist would complete more pictures for his landmark survey “The Birds of America” in Louisiana than in any other single place. Today, the house and remaining grounds of Oakley Plantation are open to the public as the Audubon State Historic Site. In springtime, when the West Feliciana Historical Society hosts the annual Audubon Pilgrimage, a tour of historic homes and gardens is led by docents in authentic 1820s costumes.
Marsden Mounds & Poverty Point World Heritage Site
Poverty Point Reservoir State Park, located in Richland Parish in northeastern Louisiana, allows visitors to take in a little (pre) history. Marsden Mounds, built in three separate phases over a 1,000-year period starting some 2,000 years ago, represents the rich Native American culture that predates by centuries the arrival of European settlers.
Poverty Point World Heritage Site, located some 20 minutes from the park, is an even more significant collection of ceremonial mounds, built between 1700 and 1100 B.C. Archaeologists estimate the complex array of earthworks contains nearly 2 million cubic yards of soil, all of which their creators must have moved by hand or basket. In 2014, UNESCO named Poverty Point a World Heritage site, a distinction shared with only three other archaeological sites in the United States.
Le Vieux Village
As you stroll around Le Vieux Village (that’s French for “The Old Village”), you may feel as if you’re walking in the steps of the early rural residents of Opelousas, Louisiana’s third-oldest city, and the rest of St. Landry Parish. The restored historic structures here range from the mid-1700s to the mid-1900s. Some of them— like the Venus House, one of the oldest Creole homes west of the Mississippi River—have been relocated to the village from surrounding areas. Named for its former owner Marie Francois Venus, a free Creole woman of color who lived there during the 18th century, the house is part of Louisiana’s African American Heritage Trail.
Avery Island, Birthplace of Tabasco Sauce
A salt dome measuring just three miles long and two-and-a-half miles wide, Avery Island is the somewhat surprising home of the beloved peppery condiment created in the 1860s by the former banker Edmund McIlhenny, who married into the Avery family. Today, the family-owned McIlhenny Company continues to make Tabasco sauce on the island, using virtually the same processing formula. After touring the factory, visitors can meander through the Jungle Gardens, the 170-acre botanical garden that stretches along Bayou Petite Anse on the island’s northwest side. McIlhenny founded a colony for snowy white egrets here in the 1890s, when hunters were killing the birds en masse to provide plumes for ladies’ hats. Today, thousands of egrets, along with other species, return annually to nest in the island’s sanctuary, known as Bird City.