From pre-Columbian earthen mounds and antebellum plantations in the north to the swamps of Cajun country and birth of jazz in the south, Louisiana’s national parks have a lot to offer.
We spent a week exploring Louisiana’s National Parks, enjoying the different stops and indulging in the local cuisine. Louisiana tells a lot of its story in its food and we loved every minute of it.
We started in the northeast corner of Louisiana at Poverty Point State Historic Site, then made our way to Natchitoches (pronounced “Nack-a-tish”) and on to New Orleans. While there is a lot more to explore in Louisiana, these spots give a fantastic overview of life in this unique part of the world from ancient times all the way to the present.
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Poverty Point National Monument
Poverty Point State Historic Site is run by the Louisiana Office of State Parks but it is also a National Monument and a UNESCO World Heritage Site!
The site preserves a system of earthen mounds created by a group of hunter-gatherers centuries ago. Some of the mounds are massive, including a 72-foot tall mound which dwarfed any other earthen mound in North America for more than 2,000 years.
These mounds were made by hand, using primitive hand tools and baskets to move dirt. What makes this site most impressive to me was these were hunter-gatherers… they did not farm. This site was home to hundreds, even thousands of people who did not have the capability to raise crops but had to rely upon whatever they could find for food.
The other staggering thing about this site is there is no stone quarries anywhere near by, so the folks who lived here developed extensive trade networks throughout the area to get the materials needed for hand tools.
Touring the site is easy: there is a driving tour and walking trails which will easily take you to all of the mounds. There are also ranger-led tours and demonstrations, a modest visitor center and a pretty good film outlining the site.
You can easily spend a couple of hours here, enjoying the site and watching demonstrations. Admissions is $4 and is NOT covered by a National Parks pass.
Where to Stay and Eat – Delhi, LA
We stayed at the Poverty Point Reservoir State Park, located about 25 minutes away, just north of Delhi. Delhi is located just off I-20, so it makes for an easy visit while traveling on the Interstate.
The campground is great, the sites are easy to get in and out of, the facilities are clean and the cost is cheap. We are definitely keeping this campground on our list of good sites to stop at.
In terms of food, you won’t find a ton of restaurants in town but we did enjoy dinner at Fox’s Pizza Den.
While I wouldn’t want to spend a ton of time here, still we enjoyed the campground and town and would certainly stop here again. It would make a good place for an overnight stay when driving along I-20.
Cane River Creole National Historical Park
Cane River Creole National Historical Park preserves a unique spot in American culture and history: Creole cotton plantations.
These plantations, located along the banks of the Cane River (which is actually a lake now) near Natchitoches, are the most intact of the any Creole cotton plantations in the state. These plantations were owned and operated by the same families for more than 200 years.
Oakland Plantation is the jewel of the park. The Park Service preserved the main house with original furniture and decorations.
We made a point to be there for the tour, which has limited availability, so be sure to plan in advance. What was most interesting to me was the “stranger room.” Since inns were far and few between, the family who owned the home, the Prud’hommes, attached a bedroom to the side of the house. Strangers could spend the night here if they needed a place to stay. Though the Prud’hommes closed the room off from the rest of the house, the family would often ask the guests to breakfast with the family.
How cool is that?
The plantation also preserves several other buildings, including a tenant’s house. Former slaves made up most of the tenant farmers who continued to work the farm after the end of slavery. One of the families who lived there furnished this particular house, keeping it authentic.
As cotton became less valuable, the Prud’hommes opened a general store and eventually added gas pumps as cars overtook horses as the main mode of transportation.
Magnolia Plantation and the Kate Chopin House
About a half-hour drive away is the Magnolia Plantation, which was a 6,000-acre plantation with 275 slaves at one point, housed in a row of cabins. Despite low NPS staffing, we found the plantation available for self-guided tours. You can also view a large cotton gin in one of the barns.
For those who are inclined, the Magnolia Plantation is not far from the ruins of the Kate Chopin house, where the author lived and wrote many of her stories and novels. Unfortunately, the house burned a few years ago.
Since I teach Chopin in my American Literature course, we made the trek but to the site, but there is not much there.
Where to Stay and Eat – Natchitoches
We stayed at the Grand Ecore RV Park just off the Red River to the north of Natchitoches. Honestly, this was one of the best campgrounds we have ever stayed at. Our campsite was awesome, with plenty of room and brand new everything. We really enjoyed staying here and would again.
In terms of food, you are in the right spot. Natchitoches is home to a vibrant downtown with plenty of restaurants to grab a good meal at. We ate a Mama’s Oyster House for dinner and I found some great crawfish étouffée. Bonnie tried one of the meat pies, a Natchitoches specialty, but wasn’t impressed, especially after breakfast the next morning.
After reading all the Trip Advisor reviews, we knew we had to try Laysone’s Meat Pie Restaurant (it’s only open for breakfast and lunch). We hit this place for breakfast and left our campsite a bit late.
Man, are we glad we did!
I had the meat pie breakfast and WOW was it amazing. I got two eggs over easy and some amazing yellow corn grits but the meat pie stole the show. The meat was perfectly cooked and seasoned and the crust was a beautiful golden brown. Accept no substitutes when in Natchitoches!
Read more about our meal at Lasyone’s and other great small-town restaurants in this article by A Wandering Web.
New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park
The New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park is more of a point of contact and showcase for New Orleans jazz than a true park.
The main Park Service footprint is the visitor center, which has a small auditorium for ranger talks and concerts and not much else.
Beyond that, there is an 11-stop walking tour through the city of various jazz sites which either commemorate the jazz giants from New Orleans or are the places where jazz truly began, like Preservation Hall.
We caught part of one of the ranger talks about Second Line bands and their importance in New Orleans. Following that, we walked most of the tour. It was a great way to see parts of New Orleans we would have otherwise ignored.
On our next trip, we are already planning on going to Preservation Hall for a concert.
Pro tip: check the calendar of events before you make your plans so you don’t miss a talk or a concert.
Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve
Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve tells the story of New Orleans and the Acadian people of the swamps to the west. The park has six units scattered about southeast Louisiana: three Acadian Cultural Centers, a battlefield, a visitor center in the French Quarter and a large wetlands preserve.
French Quarter Visitor Center
The French Quarter Visitor Center is all about the history of New Orleans from being settled all the way to present day.
We caught one of the history talks given by the rangers, which explained how and why New Orleans was founded along with the many waves of immigrants who made the city home.
We highly recommend the ranger talk. It definitely gives perspective to the city and what we saw walking the streets. There is not much more to the visitor center other than the exhibits along the wall but it was so worth the time.
Just outside the city to the east is the Chalmette Battlefield. This is where the British and Americans fought the pivotal Battle of New Orleans. The battle cemented Andrew Jackson’s popularity in American politics and ushered in the end of the War of 1812.
The visitor center has displays on the battle itself and a good film outlining the battle. Rangers lead talks when the Creole Queen docks.
We thought about hanging out for the ranger-led talk but, wow, the crowds… We are not crowd people and decided to tour the battlefield on our own. Honestly, there is not much there.
Like most battlefields, it is a large open field with earthworks on the west (American) side. For folks used to the battlefields of the Civil War, it will feel very small. That’s because of the scale of the battle. While it was a large battle in terms of the War of 1812, with 4,500 troops on the American side and 8,000 troops on the British side, it pales in comparison to most major Civil War battles where tens of thousands of troops fought on each side.
Wetlands Acadian Cultural Center
There are three Acadian cultural centers west of New Orleans We decided to visit the closest, the Wetlands Acadian Cultural Center.
Located in Thibodaux, this site tells the story of the Cajun people living in the bayous and swamps. The center boasts an extensive set of exhibits highlighting how folks lived and the differences in culture from their Creole and American neighbors.
The Wetlands Acadian Cultural Center also offers boat tours. We signed up for a tour and were really excited. Alas, heavy rain leading up to the tour canceled it. Apparently, the water got so high the boat could not pass under some of the bridges.
Still, it was really cool to see Cajun country and learn about life on the bayou. When we come back to this part of the world, we want to make a point to visit the other two cultural centers which are further west.
The Barataria Preserve was easily our favorite unit of the park. Located about 18 miles south of New Orleans, this area preserves several different wetlands areas: swamps, marsh and bayous. You can explore the area through easy walks on boardwalks or well-defined trails.
We dodged thunderstorm and heavy rain to see some really awesome scenery and wildlife. Indeed, as we were walking, I commented on not seeing any gators along the Palmetto Trail. A few minutes later, the thunder boomed. We decided to head back to the visitor center when we spotted a gator just off the trail. Somehow, we walked right past it and missed it completely!
We don’t get much time to explore swamplands in our travels but I miss it. I spent two years growing up in Monroe, LA and I had swamps and wetlands to explore often. I spent many days in my youth rowing my Jon Boat through the cypress trees. This place brought back a lot of memories.
Where to Stay and Eat – New Orleans
We stayed on the east side of New Orleans at the Jude Travel Park of New Orleans. The sites are cramped but the owner is a master at backing campers in. While it was certainly not our favorite campground ever, the price and location were great.
In terms of food, we enjoyed so many delicious meals we had in New Orleans that we will have an entire article on the fun we had there.
But, there is one spot we want to highlight outside New Orleans: the Cajun Kitchen in Boutte, LA. Located on the way to the Thibodaux where the Wetlands Acadian Cultural Center is, this spot has some delicious Cajun food. The gumbo was delicious. It was a perfect hole-in-the-wall joint and we can’t recommend it enough.
Cameron Prairie National Wildlife Refuge
Back in 2018, on the way west to Texas along I-10 to Big Bend National Park, we detoured off the interstate for a bit. We explored the Cameron Prairie National Wildlife Refuge, which was gorgeous. There was a nice wildlife loop with a couple of trails we got out on.
From there, we headed southwest, through Cameron and its floating bridge, to the coast and into Texas along the Gulf Beach Highway. We have never seen such an undeveloped section of beach in all of our travels.
While I wouldn’t make a point to stay in the area, it made for a great detour off I-10 and we thoroughly enjoyed our drive through that part of Louisiana.
Final Thoughts on Louisiana National Parks
Louisiana has a ton of unique offerings in its national parks which pair well with its food. There’s a lot to explore and love in the state.
In particular, we discovered great places to stop on future trips, like Natchitoches and Delhi, and we know we have a lot more to see in New Orleans, which we are saving for another trip when we won’t have a car to worry about.
So, until we return, as the Cajuns say, “Laissez les bon temps rouler” or let the good times roll!