Much of life in Southern Louisiana is defined by water. Our state is bordered by the Gulf of Mexico, our city is bordered by the Mississippi River, and bayous criss-cross everywhere in between. But sometimes, the most magical water features are waterfalls. Yes, Louisiana does have waterfalls! The tallest waterfall in the state, Rock Falls, is located in the J. C. “Sonny” Gilbert Wildlife Management Area near Leland, Louisiana.
I knew this wouldn’t be an easy trip to the falls. My research revealed surprisingly little information about the area and the falls themselves. One of the few resources that I found even stated that, “Hikers may want to avoid this Wildlife Management Area altogether.” Sightings of the Louisiana black bear had been increasing there recently, plus five of the seven species of poisonous snake in Louisiana live within the WMA. On the drive up I stopped at the nearest visitor center in Vidalia, and the women were incredibly friendly but they could only provide a poor quality map and the advice that, “It’s really hard to find.” But the siren’s call of the waterfalls was too strong. I was going.
The WMA can be accessed from north or the south, but the roads don’t meet in the middle; effectively it’s divided into two distinct areas. I decided to tackle the northern area first, and I just barely found the entrance on LA-915. (Look out for a tiny, easily-missed sign pointing you down a one-lane dirt road.) The north side features the Saint Mary’s Falls Trail, but I didn’t know where. The road quickly fragmented into a series of trails with no signage or indication of any directions. I drove for over an hour, discovering a beautiful lake, a creepy abandoned building, and no sign of any other humans on what I would’ve predicted to have been a busy summer weekend. I had three paper maps as well as GPS and my phone’s GoogleMaps, but none of them helped determine where I was. I would not advise entering the north side of the WMA unless you have faith in your ability to retrace your drive and avoid getting lost.
I did eventually find the Saint Mary’s Falls trailhead, and excitedly hit the trail. My travels have taken me all over the state, and I can truthfully say that the terrain here was steeper than anywhere else I’ve been in Louisiana. The trail was surprisingly well-marked, and there were study wooden bridges crossing the ravines. However, based on the number of spider webs I ran into (and the lack of any people on the roads), I got the impression that though this area once received ample funding it has since fallen on hard times. While hiking I passed a nice waterfall and was tempted to stop and cool off, but I convinced myself that I should continue on because the trail must end at the best one. You can imagine how defeated I felt when I realized the trail was a loop, not an out-and-back, and I ended up back at the trailhead hot, sweaty, and without enjoying the waterfall.
In my disappointment, I decided to leave the north side and try my luck on the south. The south entrance is on LA-8 and is similarly hard to spot except for a tiny sign. Luckily, the road network on the south side is significantly easier to manage and the Rock Falls trailhead is easy to find. After a steep two-tenths of a mile, I came to Rock Falls, at 17 feet tall Louisiana’s tallest waterfall. There are natural steps down to the base of the fall, and the cool water felt incredible in the hot Louisiana air. I have no idea how long I played in the waterfall, alone in the world, enjoying Mother Nature’s original air conditioner; it was one of those magical feelings that you have to experience to understand.
The trail continued on for another mile-and-a-half past the falls, but after all the adventures of my day I decided to quit while I was ahead. I climbed the trail back out to the car, and started the drive back to Baton Rouge sweaty, tired, and happy.