The day after Thanksgiving, my girlfriend and I skipped the malls and hit the trails. This has been our Black Friday tradition since before REI made it cool, but this year we were happy to see so many people on the trail. We ventured out to the Big Branch Marsh National Wildlife Refuge, more than 18,000 acres of wilderness preserved between Mandeville and Slidell. As the largest undeveloped area on the Northshore, Big Branch Marsh serves as an important stopping point for a number of migratory birds making their treks from the United States to Central and South America. It’s also a great place for humans who want to witness what the edges of Lake Pontchartrain used to look like before the growth of New Orleans suburbs took over.

Located just a few miles from I-12’s Exit 74, the Boy Scout Road Trail allows people to take a peek back in time while they get out to enjoy the fresh air. The trail begins with a half-mile boardwalk over the water. This is the transition zone, where the pine forest gradually changes into marsh as the elevation changes by a matter of inches and the water dictates what vegetation can grow. The forest consists mostly of loblolly pines, beautiful trees that are tall and skinny with no branches until the very top — because the loblollies are spaced out, you can see the marsh through the trunks before you even reach it. Even though you know it’s coming, it’s still impressive when the canopy of trees stops and the boardwalk heads out into the open air of the marsh. As the home of wood ducks and red-cockaded woodpeckers, not to mention wading ibises and egrets, the marsh features a soundtrack of bird calls and birdsongs that you can’t find anywhere in Baton Rouge. The boardwalk is a treat for both the eyes and the ears.

There are two options at the end of the boardwalk: turn left to return to the parking area or turn right and head off onto the main trail. The Boy Scout Road Trail is a two-mile, one-way out-and-back, which means the entire trip will be about four and a half miles. Unsurprisingly, the Boy Scout Road Trail used to be a road that led to an area popular for Boy Scout campouts. Today it’s a wide, flat trail that winds its way back into the pine forest and towards Bayou Lacombe.

Since the Boy Scout Road Trail reenters the forest, it provides shade for the warm Louisiana winter days. For hikers the trail seems to be perfectly flat for the whole two miles, but the plants and animals pick up on even the tiniest changes in elevation. Because of these tiny changes (measured in mere inches), the plant and animal life varies widely alongside the trail. The loblolly pines grow well where the brackish water of the marsh can’t intrude on their roots. In this part of the forest, there is very little mid-level vegetation, and the plants that are there provide nesting and foraging areas for animals like muskrats and turtles. Where the trail makes a right turn it climbs onto the (imperceptibly) higher elevation known as an oak ridge. Since the brackish marsh water is even further away from the root structures, oak trees can grow and provide food for animals such as squirrels and deer.

The most impressive feature of the trail is the observation deck built where the ground (again, imperceptibly) dips to the lowest elevation and the forest comes to a sudden stop. Unlike the boardwalk where the forest gradually transitioned to marsh, here the change is abrupt. The trees stop suddenly, like a line of soldiers ordered to stop marching, and the marsh grasses reach out to the horizon. This is one of the defining vistas of Southeast Louisiana, and is the type of view that everyone who lives in the state should witness.

Even if you don’t have much time to spend in the refuge, the half-mile boardwalk is quick and impressive, plus easily reached from the Interstate. The next time you’re heading down I-12, plan on making a stop to stretch your legs and experience Louisiana wilderness.

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