Water Trails in Louisiana

Already a designated Scenic and Natural Waterway, the richly endowed Bayou Bartholomew springs from the Arkansas River floodplain hundreds of miles upstream in the middle of Arkansas near Little Rock and flows southward and parallel to the Mississippi River in a bewildering pathway of angular river bends.

It is thought to be the longest bayou in North America (365 miles). In addition, it is the longest undammed waterway on the lower Mississippi River. This fact alone will be of great interest to any paddler, because paddlers know undammed rivers are the wildest and most scenic.

Like most flowing waters of any size in the area, “Da By” (as it’s referred to locally) once provided transportation for the steamboats of the region that plied its waters to reach remote plantations and outposts. Unlike most other waters of the South however, the “By” somehow escaped the zealous river engineering of the past century. As a result, it is a thriving paradise of bankside cypress forests and wildlife. It is the richest fish habitat of any bayou.

Bayou Bartholomew is a classic mixed cypress/hardwood bayou that reaches its most beautiful articulation at the confluence of Chemin-a-Haut, a forest of giant Louisiana bald cypress.

In this section of the Bayou Macon, the landscape subtly changes as the Macon Ridge becomes less prominent and the forest becomes drier and thicker with locusts, sycamores, cottonwoods and willows. Some of the land is used for grazing cattle. Some tallow trees are found along the banks, and more and more swamp-like vegetation can be seen from the canoe.

Continuing down the bayou past the boat ramp, the river opens up noticeably, and the current lessens, partly due to some dredging and channelization done in the 1960s. You will start seeing more and more waders – the water-loving class of birds that includes white pelicans, herons, egrets, storks, roseate spoonbills and anhinga. Bald eagles have been sighted here, as well as osprey and harriers.

As you paddle along, watch carefully for old oxbows of the Bayou Macon that were isolated during channelization.

At most water levels you can paddle into one of these lakes for a view of classic Deep South scenery – Spanish moss draped cypress trees full of egrets and waters thick with turtles, snakes and that most famous of all southern amphibians, the American alligator.

Big gators have been seen in these oxbows. (Caution: Children especially should stay in their vessels. Watch your pets, if you are carrying any.) You will pass four oxbows, one at mile 13.5, one at 14.1, one at 14.7 and the last at 16.1. The first and last are accessible from the river at medium to high water levels, but the middle two have been incorporated into the Poverty Point Lake and cut off by the levee.

Along a wooded bend of the river at mile 15.5 you will paddle past the four cabins of Poverty Point Reservoir State Park that overlook the Bayou Macon. These cabins can be rented but they are popular sites, so make your reservations well in advance.

Other constructed landmarks in this section of the bayou include a high-voltage transmission line (mile 15.9), an oil pipeline, a natural gas pipeline and several openings through the woods on the west bank where you could clamber up the levee and get a view across the reservoir.

Paddling around the last bend in this section at mile 18 you will see the Highway 80 bridge downstream and should start making plans for your final approach. Beware: There is a dangerous weir not far below this take-out. The boat ramp is under the bridge to your right (west bank). You will see a stout pier sticking out into the channel that you can tie your vessel to if you don’t want to run it up the ramp.

The Highway 80 boat ramp is a steep concrete ramp and always accessible. Beware there is a low-head dam 200 yards downstream. This ramp is located within the Delhi City Park on the eastern edge of town. Camping is OK with permission but not recommended. The best choice for camping is at Poverty Point Reservoir State Park.

Piney forests, rolling hills, five fishing piers and a beautiful lake draw visitors to this quiet, majestic state park. Designed to keep the focus on nature, park facilities blend with the natural landscape to enhance the outdoor experience of this park.

Fishing piers and boat docks attract visitors to Lake D’Arbonne, the marvelous 15,250-acre centerpiece of the park. Recreation on Lake D’Arbonne is tremendously popular among locals and visitors, and record freshwater catches of bass, crappie, catfish and bream make Lake D’Arbonne a fishing haven. Wide open areas of the lake, about seven miles from the park, appeal to water skiers and pleasure boaters. The boat launch at the park opens up all of these opportunities to outdoorsmen.

Tree stands in the lake captivate photographers, as do the towering pines on land and the rich diversity of wildlife and birds that make the park their home. Bring your binoculars and camera to capture the wonders of the natural world from our beautiful nature trails.

Cyclists will enjoy the challenge of the rolling hills of the park as a starting point for biking excursions into the steep inclines and scenic beauty of North Louisiana. Lighted tennis courts add to the activity options available for all visitors. Return for a picnic under the canopy of pine trees and celebrate the magnificence of nature preserved.

Imagine paddling down long hallways of tall, serene cypress trees, with spanish moss swaying in the breeze. Imagine canoeing or kayaking through a maze of flooded cypress forests and around groups of solemn cypress knees. Where is this watery magic kingdom for paddlers? Along the Mississippi River in northeastern Louisiana!

The lake country of north Louisiana provides a delightful alternative to its rivers and bayous. While paddling the streams is dependent on water levels, the lakes are always good for canoeing, kayaking and stand-up paddleboarding. When the river water is too low or too high, paddlers can always get on the lakes. While the rivers present snags, strainers, deep muddy banks, occasional trash and infrequent blockages, the lakes are always wide open and full of sparkling clean water. Water clarity and quality varies from lake to lake, but in general, the lakes of north Louisiana are deep, clear and clean.

If this sounds too perfect to be true, here’s the drawback: The lakes are surrounded by houses and during the summer months are filled with boaters. Paddlers have to share the water with water skiers, jet boats, party boats, bass boats and johnboats. Regardless of traffic, the lakes are full of wildlife, and paddlers can always find places that no one else can get to. Naturalists of all sorts will enjoy the birds, the fish and the unique solitude of paddling through flooded cypress forests. These Louisiana lake trails have been chosen for the best scenery, quietest places and the most wildlife.

Spring and fall generally are the best times of year for outdoor activity in the south, but these lakes are open year- round and can be enjoyed on almost any day of any season.

It is advised to stay off the lakes during stormy weather and high winds. Check the weather forecast before embarking on any adventure. Severe thunderstorms sweep through this region with dangerous ferocity. Beginners should only paddle on calm days. Moderate and advanced paddlers can try it if the wind is 15 mph or above – but be ready for strenuous paddling and waves. All paddlers should stay off the lakes if the wind is gusting to 25 mph or above. Cold weather paddlers should dress in wetsuits or drysuits and also be able to self-rescue in case of capsize. Hypothermia is always a danger between November and April. In the event of strong winds, choose a route with protection from the wind, like a line of trees along one shore or the other.

The paddling trails are daytrips only, and arrangements for lodging will need to be made at any number of nearby campgrounds (like Lake Bruin State Park), lakeside hotels (like Lake Bruin Lodge or Spokane Resort) and cabins (like Netterville cabins).

The Lower Mississippi River Refuge Complex includes St. Catherine Creek, Bayou Cocodrie and Cat Island National Wildlife Refuges. All three are within 5 miles of the Mississippi River. From loess bluffs to cypress swamps, each refuge has its own unique landscape. These lands were set aside to allow our nation’s wildlife to thrive, but, you can experience the refuges by hiking or paddling on designated trails listed in this brochure. Both activities offer a safe way to learn and observe nature in the Miss-Lou area. All trail distances are round trip unless stated otherwise.

There is no quieter way to get close to nature than from a paddle-powered craft such as a canoe or kayak, and nowhere is this more rewarding than in the depths of the Tensas River National Wildlife Refuge. The possibilities for paddlers on the Tensas River and adjacent bayous, backwaters and tributaries are almost endless. The very best choice, we feel, is the route from Fool River Boat Launch to Ben Lilly Boat Launch.

The Tensas River creates a natural wonderland of big trees and spectacular wildlife through the middle of northeast Louisiana. The Tensas is legendary for its natural history of red wolves, Florida panthers, ivory-billed woodpeckers and Louisiana black bears. Unfortunately, out of that list, only the black bear remains.

The best way to experience the natural wonders of the Tensas River is by canoe, kayak or pirogue. Paddlers will be humbled by giant cypress trees and thrilled with birding, flourishing flora, frequent turtle and gator sightings and many signs of the Louisiana black bear. During winter, bald eagles may be sighted.

The Tensas River flows out of Lake Providence and meanders south before it descends into the expansive woods of the Tensas River National Wildlife Refuge.

On a map you will notice graceful loops, which begin in small radial turns and then grow in size as the river coils into giant loops that are actually ancient channels originally carved by the violent floods of the Mississippi. You will be amazed by the directional changes as you make your way down. In one section, the river channel loops around 20 miles to make 2 miles of southerly gain!

Two trails are on lakes that inhabit old channels of the Tensas that have been isolated by the changing nature of the river and are now charming still water pools ringed by deep forests drenched with the aroma of cypress/hardwood forests.

The visitor’s center at Tensas River National Wildlife Refuge should be your first stop before embarking on any water travel inside the refuge. Consult someone at the main desk for permits and information about current water conditions and landings.


The river too high to paddle?  Not interested in a wild muddy river?  Don’t feel strong enough to get on the wild and powerful Lower Mississippi River?

Rewarding alternative for paddlers in Northeastern Louisiana can be found at any number of lakes.  Some of these lakes are found within the Tensas National Wildlife Refuge.  Others are the giant oxbow lakes found alongside the mighty Mississippi such as Lake Bruin, Lake Concordia, Lake St. Joseph and Lake St. John.  These lakes are safe for paddlers of any ability, but require the usual precautions.

If you had to choose between the oxbow lakes, Lake Bruin has the most friendly access.  Within Tensas NWR Africa Lake is the most beautiful and furthermore is slightly smaller and easier to access.  That said, you could paddle around any of these lakes within a half day.

2-3 miles round trip

Good paddling on beautiful clear water lake.  You can canoe or kayak as far as you feel like going, but 2 to 3 miles suggested to get full flavor.  Lake Bruin is an oxbow lake of the Mississippi River with 3,000 acres of open water.  The lake dives to over 50 feet deep in places.  The recommended trail begins and ends at the State Park and makes a short loop around its southeastern extreme.

Small but very deep oxbow lake, Concordia sparkles with the clearest water of any of Northern Louisiana’s oxbows.  Great swimming, but be wary of gators. Over 150 deep in places.  Thickly populated with houses and piers along its southern end, and busy with motorboats during the summer months.  Paddlers can find some peace and more wildlife at the northern end of the lake amongst stands of bald cypress and clumps of vegetation.  Good paddling for canoes, kayaks or stand up paddleboards.

3-5 miles round trip

Lake St. Joseph is thought to be one of the oldest oxbow lakes along the Lower Mississippi.  It is also one of the most storied: It was important to the Mississippian peoples who populated the region, and later to the Tensas people who lived in numerous villages along the lake.  It is the site of Louisiana’s first Christian mass, which was conducted by the LaSalle Expedition.  Along its bank is found “Winter Quarters,”

Mississippi River Old oxbow lake.  St. John is ringed by houses and fields on all but its northeastern extremity.  Hence the best paddling, and most plentiful wildlife is found at the same.  At writing time (2013) the only reliable public access close to north end was found at the Spokane Fishing Resort, but we were told by locals a public access was being planned for an old primitive ramp located in the far NE end of the lake, in a smaller but connected pond/wetlands swamp.