I love exploring areas that, despite being right under everybody’s noses, not many people visit or are even aware of. My imagination sometimes runs wild while driving west on I-10 out of Baton Rouge and crossing over the largest swamp in the country while driving on the third-longest road bridge in the country. There are a couple exits that seem to drop off the bridge into the middle of the swamp, that just are aching for someone to explore.
You can imagine how thrilled I was when I discovered that along the west bank of the Atchafalaya River is a little-known spot named the Indian Bayou Area. Despite the underwhelming name, the Indian Bayou Area consists of 28,500 acres of swamps and forests bordering the Atchafalaya National Wildlife Refuge. Indian Bayou is overseen by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, due to the close proximity of the Atchafalaya’s levee system.
Indian Bayou is a mixed-use area, and the majority of the use comes from hunters heading into the backcountry on ATVs. Luckily for the hikers, though, the Army Corps of Engineers has designated thirteen miles of trails for hiking only. The main trail is the Alligator Trail, which is a 1.5-mile loop following along Alligator Bayou. The bayou has been completely overgrown with duckweed, and looked like a solid green mass rather than a typical bayou. The trail itself is through the woods, meaning that we were cool and shaded the entire trip. The trail is surprisingly well-signed, so getting lost isn’t a problem, and we were delighted to find a number of nice benches that had been hiked out to the wilderness.
Another popular trail is the Atchafalaya Trail, a short one-mile out-and-back that brings you to the bank of the river. Just south of that one is the Oxbow Trail, another one-miler that ends at a scenic oxbow lake that used to be a bend in the Atchafalaya.
We accidentally visited Indian Bayou during one of the top deer hunting weekends of the year, and even though the Alligator Trail is in a “no hunting area” the rangers wouldn’t let us venture out without blaze orange. Luckily the ranger station keeps spare hunters’ vests to prep us for the hike. As to be expected, though, we didn’t encounter anyone out there looking for dinner in the Alligator Bayou area.
The next time you’re cruising to Lafayette on I-10, duck off the Interstate at Exit 121 and turn north. The exit ramp practically dumps you onto a dirt road, and the juxtaposition between highway and backroads is shocking. Or, if you prefer, before heading into the swamp you can stop at the Atchafalaya Welcome Center off the same exit. In addition to being a nice rest stop, it is also a National Park Service stop in the Atchafalaya National Heritage Area and a stop on the state of Louisiana’s brand new Atchafalaya Water Heritage Trail.