Explore the Atchafalaya National Heritage Area

From upland forests, to Cypress/Tupelo swamps, to an active land-building river delta, the Atchafalaya has lots to see

The Atchafalaya National Heritage Area, known as “America’s Foreign Country,” is full of opportunities to take advantage of the great outdoors. Whether it’s paddling on the sparkling waters, hiking through the lush greenery, biking on winding paths, or keeping an eye out for that elusive bird you’ve been looking for­—the Atchafalaya National Heritage area has everything to offer. 

Atchafalaya National Heritage Area Visitors Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

An American-Indian word, “Atchafalaya” (Think of a sneeze: uh-CHA-fuh-lie-uh) means long river. Established in 2006, the Atchafalaya National Heritage Area (NHA) stretches across 14 parishes in south-central Louisiana. It is among the most culturally rich and ecologically varied regions in the United States, home to the Cajun culture as well as a diverse population of European, African, Caribbean, and Native-American descent.

With a story around every bend in the river and music from every corner, the Atchafalaya National Heritage Area is an ever-changing landscape.

Atchafalaya National Heritage Area Visitors Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Atchafalaya Paddle Trails

Head out for a day of paddling under live oaks dripping with Spanish moss through cypress tree forests in the swamp. Watch graceful egrets take wing or glimpse an alligator slide into the water.

Related Article: ‘Pass a Good Time’ on the Bayou Teche Byway

Atchafalaya National Heritage Area Visitors Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bayou Teche/Lower Atchafalaya River Paddling Trail: This trail offers up to 10 miles of paddling if you begin at the Calumet Cut. From there you’ll glide through Patterson to the mouth of the Bayou Teche at the Atchafalaya River. 

Lake Fausse Pointe State Park & Canoe Trail: Located in the Atchafalaya Basin near St. Martinville, Lake Fausse Pointe State Park offers miles of canoeing and kayaking trails in a labyrinth of waterways. You’ll also find hiking trails, cabins and campsites, a boat launch, and a playground. 

Atchafalaya National Heritage Area Visitors Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Avoille Cove Paddling Trail: Lake Fausse Pointe and Grand Avoille Cove lie adjacent to the Atchafalaya Basin swamp. The Atchafalaya River runs through the basin, which extends north from Morgan City past Lafayette in a maze of bayous, lakes, ponds, and cypress swamps. The area is a great place for birding, as the cove is lined with cypress trees.

Atchafalaya National Heritage Area Visitors Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Atchafalaya Birding Trails

Enjoy some of the best birding in the country in the diverse parts of the Atchafalaya Heritage Area which are home to almost 400 bird species including waders like herons, egrets, ibises, and roseate spoonbills.

Jungle Gardens © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Iberia Parish Birding Trail: Louisiana’s coast in Iberia Parish has the perfect combination of wetlands and soil to welcome rare and beautiful birds into its shoreland. The warm temperatures and location within the southern migratory flyway make this an attractive destination for birds—more than 240 species have been documented here. Birding areas of interest include Lake Fausse Pointe State Park, Jungle Gardens/Avery Island, New Iberia City Park, Jefferson Island Rip’s Rookery, and Spanish Lake.

Related Article: I’m going to Cajun Country!

Atchafalaya National Heritage Area Visitors Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Iberville Parish Birding Trail: Uniquely located between two major migratory routes, the Mississippi and Atchafalaya Flyways, Iberville offers an excellent opportunity to observe unique bird species including neotropical migratory songbirds, migratory hummingbirds, migratory wading birds, and raptors.

Atchafalaya National Heritage Area Visitors Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Atchafalaya Biking Trails

Cycling the back roads is a great way to get to know the Atchafalaya Heritage Area.

Atchafalaya Basin Wilderness Trail: The Atchafalaya Wilderness Trail is a remote gravel trail that runs on top of the levee for about 55 miles from Henderson (next to Pat’s Fisherman’s Wharf) through three parishes to Franklin. It’s open for bike riders, walkers, and hikers to enjoy.

Atchafalaya National Heritage Area Visitors Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Old River Control Structure to Natchez Trace Link: You can begin this route at the Old River Lock which allows boats to enter the Atchafalaya River from the Mississippi River. The route from here travels alongside and sometimes on top of the levee bordering the Mississippi River. Several wildlife preserves along the way offer opportunities for camping, fishing, hunting, or exploring.

Atchafalaya National Heritage Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Simmesport, Marksville, Washington Loop: This is a pleasant ride that travels through small towns including Hamburg, Moreauville, Mansura, and Marksville. As you leave Moreauville, you will follow Bayou des Glaises northward through Mansura, a community settled by Frenchmen in the 1700s and now home to the popular Cochon de Lait Festival.

Related Article: Cultural Interplay along the Bayou Teche: Longfellow-Evangeline State Historic Site

Atchafalaya National Heritage Area Visitors Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

St. Martinville to Fausse Pointe Loop: This ride begins in historic St. Martinville and loops eastward past Lake Dauterieve to Lake Fausse Pointe State Park, an area once home to the Chitimacha Indians. The park, at the edge of a beautiful water wilderness, is a perfect point from which to explore the natural and cultural heritage of South Louisiana. Combine your wilderness adventure with a tour of nearby historic areas such as the city of St. Martinville and Longfellow-Evangeline State Historic Site which interprets the history of French-speaking cultures along Bayou Teche by comparing life on an 1800s French Creole Plantation to typical Acadian farmsteads.

Atchafalaya National Heritage Area Visitors Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Franklin to Morgan City: Nature and history offer the main attractions and points of interest along this route which tracks Bayou Teche for much of the way. Keep an eye out for wildlife.

A stop at Brownell Memorial Park offers a view of the palmettos, elephant ears, cattails, and ferns that grow wild in the area.

Atchafalaya National Heritage Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Morgan City to White Castle: As you leave Morgan City, you’ll cycle along beautiful Lake Palourde, one of the largest natural lakes in Louisiana. Veer off and ride to the top of the levee occasionally for a look at one of the most beautiful swampland wilderness areas in the nation, the Atchafalaya Basin. In Pierre Part, stop for a photo of the bayou running through the main street—you might even see one of the locals paddling a pirogue.

Atchafalaya National Heritage Area Visitors Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

National Wildlife Refuge Trails

The National Wildlife Refuges’ mix of scenic bayous, oxbow lakes, swamps, and bottomland hardwood forest are great places to fish, bird watch, paddle, or just plain enjoy the scenery.

Atchafalaya National Heritage Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bayou Teche National Wildlife Refuge: The primary mission of this refuge in the lower part of the Atchafalaya Basin is to preserve and manage habitat for the threatened Louisiana black bear so there is potential for bear sightings along with the system of interconnected trails. Other wildlife you are likely to spot include wading birds, neotropical songbirds, waterfowl, and various reptiles and amphibians Within the refuge, you can take your pick of four trails: Wood Duck Trail (approximately 10 miles); Black Bear Trail (12 miles); Alligator Trail (10 miles); and Yellow Bayou Trail (6 miles).

Atchafalaya National Heritage Area Visitors Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Indian Bayou National Wildlife Refuge: The Indian Bayou area is a 28,000-acre paradise for hunters, fishermen, bird watchers, boaters, nature photographers, and outdoor enthusiasts located in the heart of the Atchafalaya Basin. It is a haven for wading birds like the great blue heron and the great egret. Mallards and wood ducks are abundant as are reptiles and amphibians including the American alligator and western cottonmouth. Reflective white-on-blue directional signs mark the trails at major turning points allowing paddlers to navigate without a guide.

Atchafalaya National Heritage Area Visitors Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

And for an added bonus: Check out the many outdoorsy and cultural stops along the Bayou Teche Byway. Immerse yourself in Acadian culture in cafés and dance halls that serve up Cajun and zydeco music along with boiled crawfish and étouffée.

Read Next: Cool-As-Hell Louisiana Towns You Need to Visit (Besides New Orleans)

Worth Pondering…

Goodbye joe, me gotta go, me oh my oh
Me gotta go pole the pirogue down the bayou
My yvonne, the sweetest one, me oh my oh
Son of a gun, well have good fun on the bayou.

—Lyrics and recording by Hank Williams, Sr., 1954

I’m going to Cajun Country!

Most travelers come to southern Louisiana expecting to find gumbo, accordions, and maybe a few gators. But the mix is far richer.

The southwestern region of Louisiana is officially called Acadiana but most people find themselves saying, “I’m going to Cajun country.” I was drawn to the region’s heritage and hoped to eat Cajun food, listen to zydeco, and maybe head out on the bayou. What I didn’t expect: soul-stirring natural beauty and a unique community with a layered history that continues to thrive and adapt.

Bayou Teche at St. Martinsville © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

I set off for Lafayette Parish which welcomes roughly 3 million people each year. Here, in the center of Acadiana which showcases the region’s fiddle-and-accordion-driven music and cultural events like the Festivals Acadiens et Créoles (October 8-10, 2021).

Whether you’re coming for the weekend or planning an extended stay, the “Happiest City in America” has numerous family-friendly things to do. From foodies, history and cultural buffs, and geocachers to the more adventurous outdoor activities, Lafayette has the perfect experience waiting for you.

Longfellow-Evangeline State Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lafayette Parish is surrounded by wetlands, so there’s no better way to experience the area than by boat. Hop aboard a swamp tour via airboat or rent a kayak. It’s also a birding paradise. Visit Bayou Vermilion, Lake Martin, or Avery Island with binoculars in hand. Admire the plant life on the Lafayette Azalea Trail or Avery Island’s Jungle Gardens, a 170-acre complex with azaleas, camellias, and even wildlife. And don’t forget your camera!

Lafayette is known as “The Hub City” because of its proximity to major roadways heading north, south, east, and west that lead locals and visitors to explore smaller towns. Though Lafayette is the largest city in the region, a great portion of its rich culture here is driven by surrounding communities, the gems that makeup Acadiana, a 22-parish (county) region.

Cracklins © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Canadians make up the largest group of international visitors which makes sense. The word Cajun is an Anglicization of Acadien, the French Catholic ethnic group that in the 18th century was expelled from eastern Canada (largely Nova Scotia) by the British in what became known as Le Grand Dérangement, or the Great Upheaval. Thousands ended up on the bayous of Catholic, French-speaking Louisiana.

Boudin © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lafayette Parish has received countless awards for its culinary scene including Southern Living’s Tastiest Town in the South. Where else can you tour a rice plantation, a crawfish farm, a meat market, and a chile pepper growing facility before enjoying a dish that combines them all? Avery Island’s Tabasco Experience is perhaps the best-known foodie attraction. And the area also has its own Boudin Trail (What is boudin? Rice, pork, and spices in a smoked sausage casing, served in links or in boudin balls which are deep-fried cousins of the iconic Cajun delicacy). Don’t miss the opportunity to chow down on dishes like crawfish etouffee, cracklins, and gumbo. The Lafayette area also has both down-home eateries that have been here for decades and new restaurants with modern interpretations of the traditional cuisine.

Bayou Teche at Breaux Bridge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

My first stop was Breaux Bridge, the “Crawfish Capital of the World.” Nestled along the banks of the slow-rolling Bayou Teche, Breaux Bridge is a gorgeous historic town with world-class restaurants and a thriving Cajun music and folk art scene. Conveniently located just off I-10 at Exit 109, nine miles east of Lafayette, Breaux Bridge is a great place to stop off for a meal and an even better place to camp at a local RV park (see below) and stay awhile.

Breaux Bridge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The bridge itself isn’t much to see (though you can’t miss it)—it’s a tall, slightly rusty metal drawbridge that spans the Teche (pronounced “tesh”). The downtown stretch of Bridge Street, though, is adorable. Antique shops, boutiques, art galleries, and restaurants span several blocks; strolling the length of the strip can easily fill an afternoon.

Cafe Des Amis at Breaux Bridge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Breaux Bridge is the gateway to authentic Cajun culture in south Louisiana with traditional Cajun and funky Zydeco music, world-famous cuisine, and a rich history filled with interesting stories. Breaux Bridge is home to the world-famous Breaux Bridge Crawfish Festival every May (May 6-8, 2022) where thousands converge on the little city to pay homage to Louisiana’s famous crustacean.

Lake Martin © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Just outside of Breaux Bridge is the gorgeous Lake Martin, a wildlife-filled preserve and rookery that’s protected and administrated by the Nature Conservancy. You can drive or walk along the edge of the lake and see alligators, egrets, herons, roseate spoonbills, nutria, and many more critters of various sizes hiding among the bald cypress and water lilies. There are several tour operators offering boat tours: Champagne’s Swamp Tours dock right at the entrance to Rookery Road and offer an eco-friendly tour experience. You can also rent canoes and kayaks and take your own trip around the lake.

Atchafalaya Basin Natural Heritage Area Visitor Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Just a bit further out of town, in the neighboring hamlet of Henderson, you’ll find access to one of the largest swamp ecosystems in the United States, the Atchafalaya Basin. McGee’s Landing Basin Swamp Tours take you into the basin for a look at some of the plants and wildlife that thrive in its murky waters, including the aforementioned gators and wading birds. And it goes without saying, the fishing’s great here and in Lake Martin. They don’t call Louisiana the Sportsman’s Paradise for nothing.

Tabasco factory and museum © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The McIlhenny Company still operates at its original home on Avery Island which is a must-do when visiting Acadiana. Built on a salt dome, it’s a mysteriously beautiful place where the red chile peppers grow, the factory hums, and abundant wildlife can be seen in Jungle Gardens. Tour the history and production of TABASCO Sauce including TABASCO Museum, Blending and Bottling, TABASCO Country Store, and 1868! Restaurant, a casual eatery serving spicy, authentic Cajun favorites and other classic favorites seasoned with TABASCO Sauce. Experience the natural beauty and tranquility of Jungle Gardens, a 170-acre semitropical garden on Avery Island. Enjoy the gently rolling landscape, botanical treasures, and abundant wildlife. Attractions range from beautiful flowers to birds to a 900-year-old Buddha, a magnificent centuries-old statue on the grounds. Thousands of snowy egrets nest in Bird City.

Where to Stay

Cajun Palms RV Resort

Cajun Palms RV Resort, Henderson

New in 2009 with paved streets, Cajun Palms offers long pull-through sites that range in length from 55 to 75 feet. Not to be ignored are the back-ins to the lake in the 55-60 foot range. Pull through and back-in sites have 20 feet of space between each concrete pad. Easy-on, easy-off Interstate 10 (Exit 115) at Henderson (near Breaux Bridge).

Poche’s RV Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Poche’s RV Park, Breaux Bridge

Poche’s RV Park is a pleasant and unique location with excellent fishing and birding. RV sites are located on several sides of a pond overlooking the water. Sites are concrete and level and separated by grass. Picnic tables are located at every site with fire rings at every other site. During our last visit, the interior road was in rough driving condition. Top tip: The owners also have a great little Cajun market with a really good restaurant a mile or so away on the road to Breaux Bridge. 

Frog City RV Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Frog City RV Park, Duson

Frog City RV Park opened in 2006. The park is located just off I-10 in Duson, a small town 10 miles west of Lafayette and deep in the beautiful Cajun countryside. With 62 spacious RV sites, Frog City offers Wi-Fi, cable TV, pull-through sites, a swimming pool, coin-operated laundry, and private hot showers that are sparkling clean. Guests receive a unique welcome package upon arrival.

Worth Pondering…

Goodbye joe, me gotta go, me oh my oh
Me gotta go pole the pirogue down the bayou
My yvonne, the sweetest one, me oh my oh
Son of a gun, well have good fun on the bayou.

—Lyrics and recording by Hank Williams, Sr., 1954