Dig Baton Rouge

Outdoors: Hiking and swimming at Cat Island

Everyone knows that Louisiana has big, beautiful trees. You know, like, “stately oaks and broad magnolias.” But have you ever wondered where the largest tree in Louisiana grows?

About 45 minutes north of Baton Rouge is the Cat Island National Wildlife Refuge just outside of the lovely village of Saint Francisville. The town is more well-known for its historic plantations and quaint downtown, but the surrounding nature hides some easily accessible secrets if you know where to look.

One of those hidden gems is Big Cypress, the largest tree in Louisiana. Big Cypress is an appropriately-named big cypress tree, and has been given a proper name to recognize its stature. Not only is Big Cypress the largest tree in the state, but it’s the sixth largest tree in the country and the largest tree east of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Big Cypress is 96 feet tall, and its trunk is 56 feet in circumference. (To put that in perspective, if you were sitting in the top of the tree you’d be higher than you are when you’re sitting on the deck of Tsunami in downtown Baton Rouge.) Big Cypress is estimated to be over 1,500 years old, and due to a fluke of topography it survived Louisiana cypress logging boom of the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Cat Island is located on very low-lying land, meaning that it floods regularly. Because it was so wet and inaccessible, loggers didn’t penetrate into the woods as deeply here as they did in many other parts of South Louisiana. Additionally, due to the flooding, Cat Island has been known to close for times of the year that correlate with high waters on the Mississippi River, so you’ll want to call ahead before making the trip.

Cat Island doesn’t have personnel who are based in the refuge full-time, so we stopped at the Saint Francisville Visitor’s Center on the way north; the drive takes you right by the Visitor’s Center anyway, plus it’s good to get all your information before you get out to the refuge. The Visitor’s Center will make sure you’re heading the right direction, and can also provide you with trail maps and instructions on how to get around on the refuge. The drive will take you through the astoundingly beautiful and very small Tunica Street, which winds through the woods for over five miles. Most of the road is dirt, and much of it runs alongside Bayou Sara. With a slow speed limit and a unique low-water bridge over the bayou, the drive itself is an adventure.

Once reaching the refuge boundary, it’s still a few miles to the Big Cypress trailhead. Luckily, it’s nearly impossible to get lost on these roads; there are no turns! The hike to Big Cypress is quick, flat and straight. However, due to the frequent flooding, the trail can be damp and muddy even in the best conditions, so you’ll want to bring shoes you don’t mind getting dirty. Once you reach the tree itself, there is an elevated boardwalk and viewing platform to check it out. The platform was built specifically to prevent people from approaching the tree; cypresses have very unique root structures, and a lot of people walking on the fragile dirt can be bad for the tree.

After exploring the refuge and visiting Big Cypress you might be hot and sweaty, but luckily there’s still one more stop to make before heading back to town. As the dirt road descends onto the low-water bridge over Bayou Sara, you might notice people in the water. Bayou Sara is a fun swimming hole, so remember to bring your swimsuits! The bridge is only a few feet above water level, and the water is only a couple feet deep. You won’t be doing any Olympic swimming, but it’s perfect to wade in and cool off. You didn’t hear it from me, but there were even people who had set up tailgating chairs in the water and were enjoying cold beer in the sunshine. That sounds like the perfect way to end the adventure!

Photo by Chase Berenson.

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