From Big Branch Marsh to Fontainebleau State Park, the sounds of the city seem far away.
If you’re looking for a day trip from New Orleans, you might not need to go much farther than the other side of Lake Pontchartrain.
The Northshore is home to an abundance of scenic parks and trails that can feel a world away from New Orleans, even though they’re really not far at all.
Big Branch Marsh
Among the most extraordinary is the Big Branch Marsh National Wildlife Refuge Boy Scout Road Trail in Lacombe. There, you can stroll along a boardwalk through a stunningly beautiful set of lily ponds and a marsh landscape replete with families of ducks, turtles, butterflies, armadillos and birds exotic to most of us city dwellers.
As you look around, you’ll see a pine forest towering above the water, and you can follow a mostly gravel trail through the woods for another two miles down to shimmering Bayou Lacombe (yes, it really shimmers), amazed that the car dealerships and big-box stores in Slidell are only a few miles away. Stop at the lookout platform and benches about halfway to enjoy a view of waving marsh grass or cool off in the shade of the woods.
If anyone in your group is feeling tired, remember you’ll need to walk back the same way you came, so this may be a good spot for an early turnaround. Otherwise, press on through the Christmas tree-smelling pinewoods for a look at that tranquil bayou where otters have been known to splash.
The trail and road got its name because it was once a popular Boy Scout campground, and you should follow their lead and be prepared. The gravel portion trail and some of the approach roads can flood–two recent visits had water deep enough that small fish were swimming across the trail–so if it’s been rainy, wear boots and be ready to find alternate driving routes if it’s been rainy. As with most outdoor activities in Louisiana, wear bug repellent if you’re not a fan of mosquito bites, especially on the latter parts of the trail. And keep in mind that wild hogs do prance in the woods and trail mud, so while they will mostly avoid humans, look up trusted information about how to handle them if you are concerned.
Also, note that there are no restrooms or trash facilities along the trail or at the parking area.
While in the area, you might also want to stop by the Highway 190 Trading Post, a largely outdoor flea market a few miles from the trailhead. Yes, it kind of looks like every roadside flea market you’ve ever seen, but this one is ours. There are records, tools, books, VHS tapes and oddities like antique medical equipment and, on a recent visit, a lifesize mannequin of the president of the United States. And public restrooms.
If you’re hungry, consider grabbing a very reasonably priced cheeseburger or po’ boy at nearby Alice’s Restaurant (and sorry in advance if you get the Arlo Guthrie song stuck in your head).
Honey Island Swamp
If you feel like seeing an even more moist landscape, check out part of the Honey Island Swamp and Pearl River Wildlife Management Area. Boat tours of the swamp are available, or you can head to the hiking trails within the Wildlife Management Area to explore a bit on foot and see cypress trees and often turtles emerging from the water. Note that some of the trails are more cleanly marked and maintained than others, so be diligent and keep your eye on the signs as well as on nature. And don’t be (too) alarmed by the constant sound of gunfire: there is a shooting range in the swamp very near the trails.
This is a good time to mention that technically, to be in a state wildlife management area, you are required to have either a $15 hunting license or a $9.50 Wild Louisiana stamp, or get a $2 one-day stamp. You can get them online or through some sporting goods stores. You’re also legally required to check-in and out of the areas online or with paper forms available at the unstaffed entrances and exits.
Make sure to double-check your GPS directions: the parking area for the swamp boat tours is far from the hiking trails, and simply putting “Honey Island Swamp” into mapping apps sometimes inexplicably leads to the driveway of a stately home on a suburban Slidell cul-de-sac.
Camp Salmen Nature Park
If you’re looking for something a bit more curated, Camp Salmen Nature Park is another former Boy Scout campground that’s been turned into a St. Tammany Parish park. Scenic nature trails abound with cute cottontail rabbits, as well as whimsical signs that someone clearly had fun putting together, explaining the flora and fauna of the area.
The remains of the Boy Scout facilities, including an old grotto, give the park a pleasantly autumnal haunted air. Note that the park is only open Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays — check the website for the exact hours.
Fontainebleau State Park
If you want a stop further west, Fontainebleau State Park is a great spot to stop and dip your toes into Lake Pontchartrain itself. It’s one of the closest places to New Orleans to spread out a towel and feel sand beneath your toes. You can also enjoy beautiful live oak trees and take a stroll along the park’s short, heavily signed nature trail which includes an easy-to-navigate boardwalk portion. Like most Louisiana state parks, admission is $3 per person, with additional fees for activities like camping.
If you want to go further into the woods, there’s a longer, pleasantly shaded hiking trail where birds and animals like deer (and snakes) are not an uncommon sight at all.
It’s usually much less crowded than the shorter trail and the beach area if you’re looking for social distance or solitude. Note the trail can get muddy and even flooded toward the end, so you may want to bring waterproof boots or simply turn around early, although you will miss the Spanish moss hanging over the marsh along Bayou Cane.
Almost across the street from the park is Northlake Nature Center, with additional, similar trails through the woods and along small waterways. Admission is free.
Catfish and the Swamp
If you head further west still, and are looking for an outdoor or takeout Northshore meal, consider Middendorf’s Restaurant in Manchac, famous for its thin-fried catfish and its outdoor patio overlooking Pass Manchac, the scenic body of water that connects Lake Pontchartrain to Lake Maurepas. There’s a second location in Slidell.
A bit north of the restaurant along Old U.S. Highway 51 is a well-maintained swamp boardwalk within the Joyce Wildlife Management Area. Stroll through the cypress-filled swamp along the beautiful (and surprisingly Instagrammable) wooden walkway, looking out for waterfowl and other interesting sights.
There’s another trail in the Manchac Wildlife Management Area, even closer to Middendorf’s, but it offers similar views to the Joyce WMA path without the benefit of a boardwalk, meaning more mud and bugs.
Sunset Park, a small area of greenery essentially under the Interstate 55 viaduct also offers a nice view over Lake Maurepas at that time of day, traffic noise notwithstanding.