A Campout in Louisiana’s Only National Forest
Kisatchie National Forest
Highlighting the absence of Boy Scout training in my youth, I circle Longleaf Campground in Kisatchie National Forest, asking the few families picnicking if one of them could spare some matches. Somehow I had left mine at home.
“No matches, but I got a lighter I can give you for a dollar,” Melanie, an Alexandria native out with her son, offered. A good omen, I think to myself. Handing over the buck, I thank Melanie profusely and head out, anxious to get started on my first overnight camping trip into Louisiana’s only national forest.
Less than a three-hour drive northwest from Baton Rouge, Kisatchie is a vast wilderness area made up of more than 600,000 acres of hardwood creek bottoms, sandstone bluffs, winding creeks and sprawling, evergreen woodlands. The Forest is actually made up of five geographically separate districts that span seven parishes in the northwestern area of the state.
The area I’ve selected to explore, officially called the Kisatchie Ranger District, covers some 100,000 acres, beginning about 40 miles north of Alexandria and stretching up towards Natchitoches along the west side of I-49. Inside the federally-protected boundaries visitors will find dozens of campsites, well-maintained roads, and a myriad of trails for hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding and offroading. In addition, thanks to an extensive wildlife management program, Kisatchie is home to all kinds of wildlife, including deer, turkey, quail, squirrels, rabbits, and numerous bird species, including the endangered cockaded red-headed woodpecker.
“At Kisatchie, we do a lot of forest and wildlife management, which means there are a lot of animals for visitors to see,” said acting District Ranger Kelly Boles. “We’ve planted acres of wildlife food plots and we do prescribed burning, which allows grass to grow for animals like deer and turkey. We are also planting longleaf pine, the species of tree preferred by the red cockaded woodpecker.”
With all the arrival of the spring rains, which temporarily have closed some trails, I am following the suggestion of a longtime Kisatchie hiker and Natchitoches resident Mary Gladney, who recommended I walk the seven-mile Backbone Trail. Named for its location along the ridge of one of the forest’s rocky hills, Backbone normally remains free of the mud and muck that often affects of the lower-lying routes. This also means, as I soon find out, that following a ridgeline signifies frequent changes in elevation, which normally wouldn’t mean much for flat, featureless Louisiana. However, one of this Ranger District’s unique attributes is its steep grades, which in some places drop as much as 320 feet, making the park one of the highest points in the state. Thanks to the hills, the trekking along parts of Backbone is challenging. But the few folks out this time of year – I have seen only one so far – are rewarded for their efforts with cool afternoon breezes and shutter-snapping views over the surrounding landscape.
“We usually don’t see anyone when we go out on the Backbone,” Gladney said. “And the scenery’s beautiful along the trial – it’s our favorite and there are lots of places to camp out.”
Even if you’re not up for overnighting in the forest, Kisatchie has numerous options to choose from, the most impressive of which – driving the scenic 17-.3 mile Longleaf Loop through the heart of the massive park – doesn’t even require folks to leave the comfort of their cars. But to truly experience this place, I’d suggest leaving the main road, at least for a little while, and walking some of the 100+ miles of hiking trails maintained by the National Forest Service.
After a couple of hours along the well-marked path and a taxing climb up Turpentine Hill a few miles in, I continue for another hour or so, breaking frequently to drink the water I brought (there’s no potable water provided on the trails) and enjoy the long overdue absence of ringing cell phones and CNN headlines. The topography can be surprising, especially to longtime Pelican State residents. Rock-strewn hillsides merge with mini-rivers that roll hurriedly between their banks. New-growth pines rest at the foot of massive beech trees. Rounding a sharp curve in the trail, I notice a narrow footbridge across the wide, rushing creek bisecting the trail ahead. The scene reminds me of a hike my dad and I once took through a rain forest in Panama – same white sandy shores, similar bridge design, identical soundtrack from the gurgling stream, and of course, the humidity’s no different. But in the place of elephant-ear ferns and palm fronds the steep shores along Backbone are lined with cypress knees and adolescent magnolias. Instead of squawking scarlet macaws, I watch two mockingbirds chase after a crow, and a minute later, spot an endangered woodpecker looking for his dinner. Wind stirs the thick canopy overhead. This is not the Louisiana I remember as a kid.
According to Boles, the U.S. Forestry Service set aside the Kisatchie National Forest area in June of 1930, after massive de-forestation had stripped bare thousands of acres of woodlands. Soon, rangers began a forest management project that has since replanted hundreds of thousands of acres. Unfortunately in 1985, one of the worst cases of pine beetle infestation hit north Louisiana, and in turn, forced the removal of hundreds of acres of infected pine forests. To make matters worse, a lighting-started fire wiped out another 5,000 acres two years later, causing further damage. However, since then, the land has been rejuvenated and efforts continue to manicure some affected areas, allowing for some of the finest flora and fauna viewing in the South.
While making camp later that night, I gather some deadwood and get a fire going with my newly-acquired lighter. Through the rising smoke, a full moon lights up the night. The temperature is perfect this time of year, and it’s incredible how clear things seem without the distractions of daily life. Peace and quiet. No cell phones. No other folks for miles. Just the stars, the solitude and a dark, sleeping forest. Taking one last look around, I crawl drowsily into my sleeping bag. In the real world, not every day ends so tranquilly. But here in the Kisatchie National Forest, I’m willing to bet happy endings like this are daily occurrences.
Kip Patrick is a Louisiana native. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.