Cheré Dastugue Coen
'Little Grand Canyon' in Louisiana? Well, kind of.
In the heart of Louisiana, the flat swamps and marshlands of the south turn to hills, rolling through the “Great Piney Woods” surrounding Alexandria and the historic town of Natchitoches. One of the gems of this central Louisiana region is the Kisatchie National Forest, 600,000 acres of pine forests, lakes and beautiful scenic drives.
Largely because of its unusual terrain, the Kisatchie Ranger District northwest of Alexandria is considered by local residents to be the “crown jewel” of the Kisatchie National Forest. Variations in topography range from level land to steep bluffs. And for those of you who live near mountains, take "steep" with a grain of salt. But hey, to Louisianans, it's pretty exciting.
One such stretch of this region is the Longleaf Trail, located 5.5 miles south of the Derry Exit on Interstate 49. The trail consists of a 17-mile route along a high ridge through the rugged Kisatchie Hills area and has been designated a scenic byway and touted as one of the most scenic drives in Louisiana. The terrain is exceptionally rugged for Louisiana, ranging from 120 to 400 feet in elevation (again, mountain folk keep quiet), which allows for dramatic overlooks that go on for miles. Visitors will find mesas, buttes and sandstone outcrops, backdropped by longleaf pines and the Kisatchie Bayou, a state natural and scenic stream. The Trail also traverses the National Red Dirt Wildlife Management Preserve, which includes the Kisatchie Hills Wilderness for about half its length. This entire region provides numerous opportunities for viewing birds and wildlife.
To access the Longleaf Trail, exit I-49 at the Derry Exit, then head west on Louisiana Hwy. 119 to Hwy. 59. After traveling through the Kisatchie Forest, the Trail ends at the intersection with Hwy. 117, south of Bellwood. The Longleaf Trail is a two-lane paved road suitable for all vehicles. It remains open year-round.
The Kisatchie Hills Wilderness lies next to the byway and is known locally as the "Little Grand Canyon" because of its steep slopes, rock outcrops, and mesas. Hiking and horseback riding trails lead you into this wilderness area. The Longleaf Vista Picnic Area is surrounded on three sides by this 8,700-acre wilderness area. A 1.5-mile Longlead Vista nature trail is located here, which offers picnic areas in addition to the gorgeous view, and a small visitor center. Restrooms and drinking water are also provided. Most of the Vista’s buildings were built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps.
The Longleaf Vista Picnic Area is an excellent spot to view neotropical birds migrating along the Mississippi Flyway, as well as a wide variety of resident species. On a recent outing, we spied a pair of cockaded woodpeckers.
Most of the camping areas along the byway are primitive but do have drinking water or restroom facilities. Dogwood Campground is the most developed and has 20 RV and tent sites, drinking water, and flush toilets. Kisatchie Bayou has 17 walk-in sites and only one drive-in unit. Drinking water and vault toilets are provided. There is no water at Coyote, Cane, and Oak Campgrounds.
For more information, visit Kisatchie National Forest, PO Box 5500, Pineville LA 71361 / 318-473-7160.