On a recent trip to New Orleans, we decided to rent a car and drive to a swamp. We chose Barataria Preserve near New Orleans, part of Jean Lafitte National Historical Park, because of its uniqueness and that very little gets between you and the wildlife. While the park consists of several trails, we settled on the Palmetto Trail, a .9 mile Point-to-Point trail. This is an important detail as you’ll see later on in my story.
Tip: Did you know there is a visitor center for Jean Lafitte National Historic Park and Preserve in the French Quarter on Decatur Street? Get a glimpse of the park while drinking a hurricane and eating some beignets!
First breakfast, then the swamp
Mardi Gras Floats, kitschy Decor, and the garden District
Our hotel on this trip was in the Central Business District and our rental car agency was within walking distance. We started our day walking to the agency to pick up our car opting to rent for one day to avoid hotel parking fees. Once we picked up our car, we headed to the Garden District where we decided to stop at Molly’s Rise and Shine, a kitschy decorated spot with a rumored delicious breakfast. On our drive we were delayed due to dozens of Mardi Gras floats pulled by tractors passing by. This was so exciting as this trip was our first time in town during Mardi Gras and we’d be seeing our first parades that evening.
Planning a trip to New Orleans? Check out my post on Photographing New Orleans, 15 Things You’ll Want to Capture to plan ahead all of the amazing photographs you’ll be taking and what to look out for.
We get to Molly’s Rise and Shine and have a seat. The place is super cute and full of nostalgia and fun, thoughtful details. I was enamored by the home I saw across the street! We planned to explore the Garden District more later that evening and I couldn’t wait. After our delicious breakfast we decided to try and get a slice of King Cake at La Boulangerie. Unfortunately, they only sold full cakes so we opted for a King Cake inspired treat. Once finished, we were on our way to the swamp!
Who is Jean Lafitte?
An early 19th-century French pirate operating in the Gulf of Mexico with ties to New Orleans and the Barataria area. He’s most famous for helping General Andrew Jackson defend New Orleans from the British in the final War of 1812.
A swampy Hike
We mapped our drive to the Barataria Preserve Visitor Center, about a 30 minute drive from the Garden District. We pull into the lot and notice there were plenty of parking spaces which is always nice to see. The other end of the trail lets out into the Bayou Coquille Parking Lot where you can park if this lot is full and start the trail on the other end.
We park our car and walk up towards the visitor center. We decided not to visit inside and just made a quick restroom trip before continuing onto the trail. The first part of the trail is called the Visitor Center trail. This is the short version that guests can visit if they just want a quick little view of the swamp and not do a full hike. As you continue, you’ll notice railings for a brief time and then the railings slowly merge down into the path until they are gone and now nothing separates you from the swamp.
Keep walking until you reach a hexagonal shaped break in the trail and take a moment to soak it all in here. There are benches to rest on and just listen to the sounds of the swamp. I recommend doing this as sometimes when hiking you don’t always get to just soak it all in like this.
Now that you’ve had a moment to take it all in, keep on hiking through the Visitor Center trail. You’re going to be in awe as you’ll have a 360 degree view of the swamp and as you look down, it’s right there on the left and right of you. Such a surreal trail and it’s really awesome to be surrounded by this much nature as you continue to hike.
Tip: Watch your step as some of the wood planks on the trail raise up or feel squishy and waterlogged which can catch you off guard or trip you. You don’t want to fall into these swampy waters!
alligators, snakes, and spiders oh my
After a short time walking you will see a fork in the trail. This is where the Palmetto trail begins and the Visitor Center trail completes. You’ll notice the different type of wood pattern in the trail where the Visitor Center trail wood planks all go vertical and the Palmetto trail planks are smaller and go horizontal.
We continued on the Visitor Center trail to see what else was there and it eventually just comes to a stop and you’ll have to turn around to walk back. We walked back to the point the Palmetto trail began and started that hike. This part of the trail is more narrow than the Visitor Center trail so you’ll need to watch your steps even more.
FYI: While exploring the swamps we learned that alligators use a survival technique in colder months called brumation. This technique helps them regulate their body temperatures and slow down their metabolism until they become lethargic. When the weather begins to warm, they go through thermoregulation which will bring their bodies back to its normal temperature. We visited in mid-February and noticed the alligators were still on the smaller side and appeared to be brumating. Consider this when planning your trip as you may not see as many gators during the cooler months.
Spotting our first alligator!
It wasn’t long before we encountered our first alligator, about 10 minutes into the Palmetto Trail. We were so excited! There it is, literally a few steps away from us just floating in the swampy water. This one was really close to the trail, almost partially under it, and oddly this didn’t make me afraid of its proximity. We took some time to observe it as it stayed still. We took photos and continued on our way. I made a joke about “what happens if an alligator is on the trail?” Thinking it probably wouldn’t happen as we continued to walk down the trail.
There's an alligator on the trail ahead, now what!?
We see a few snakes, a couple more alligators, and other small critters. Thankfully we do not see any spiders! I’ve seen photos of them from this area and they are as large as your hand. We finally get to the end of the trail which releases into the Bayou Coquille Parking Lot and turned around to make our way back to the Visitor Center Parking Lot.
I’m getting a bit whiny at this point as it happened to be the warmest and sunniest day of the whole trip and it was starting to feel like too much heat and sun for me. Anyway, we keep going and I am daydreaming about being in the air-conditioned car and finally relaxing when we encounter a group of people walking our way.
Trails closed ahead, alligator climbed on the trail and the rangers can’t touch them and had to call in special help.
Well, crap. Remember how I made the joke about what would happen if an alligator was on the trail? Well, we’re about to find out. Turns out we had to walk back to the Bayou Coquille Parking Lot and then walk over to the highway and walk back to the Visitor Center Parking Lot.
The downside of hiking with alligators
This part was rough
This is the part of the trip I really didn’t like. As mentioned above, I was already feeling overheated from the sun and my feet hurt from the boots I wore and now we had to walk almost a mile back to the other parking lot on the highway. There are no sidewalks here and the side of the road was swamp-like along the way which made it hard to get too far out of the way when a car drove by. Thankfully, almost every car that drove by us went towards the middle of the road as they passed but it still made me very nervous.
Overall, we really enjoyed the hike and the trails we experienced. If you are short on time, you could get away with walking half or less of the Palmetto Trail. While beautiful, it was a lot of the same views along the trail and there weren’t many visually different areas so you wouldn’t miss out on that.
Barataria Preserve is part of Jean Lafitte National Historic Park.
Fees & Passes: No fees or passes needed to enjoy the park. Donations are accepted at the Visitor Center.
Visiting Hours: Visitor Center is open Wednesday-Sunday 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Closed on federal holidays. Preserve parking lot gates are open daily for access to trails 9:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m., including on federal holidays. The preserve is completely closed on Mardi Gras.
Pet Policy: Your pet is only allowed in the parking areas and on the visitor center deck. They must stay on a leash with you holding the leash. Service Animals are allowed on the trail, however, the wildlife present may make your pet uncomfortable.
Know Before You Go
The heat and sun can get pretty intense if you are out for long periods of time. Wear the proper protection for your activities. A hat, sunglasses, proper shoes, and sunscreen are all good ideas.
Never attempt to touch, capture, or bother any wildlife you encounter. Remember, you are in their home. Please be respectful of all life – plant or animal.
There are stinging insects in the park from mosquitos, caterpillars, and fire ants. Watch where you step and put your hands and wear insect repellant.
Always check out the parks official page for the most up to date news on hours, closings, and other helpful information.