Louisiana's Kisatchie Hills Wilderness

There's more to the Louisiana's deep South than swamps and Cajun food.
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There's more to the Louisiana's deep South than swamps and Cajun food.

Little-Known Fact: The Caroline Dorman Trail in the Kisatchie Hills Wilderness Area is named for the first woman employed in forestry in the United States (1930).

Mesas, wilderness, hillside bogs, and white sandy creek beds ~ not what you typically think of when somebody mentions camping in Louisiana.

But these are my surroundings as I pitch my tent for the night at Longleaf Vista on a bluff overlooking a crystal-clear stream. The next morning I watch the sun rise over the 8,700 acres of the Kisatchie Hills Wilderness Area from my sandstone perch. Were these hills in Utah, they would be called mesas (well, mini-mesas at least).

My hike starts on the Caroline Dormon Trail. Ahead of me lies about 15 miles of varied forest habitat before I reach the end of the trail at Kisatchie Bayou Campground.

The Caroline Dormon Trail is easy traveling with very few hills, and I make good time on the northern portions. The lower trail, however, is fairly new and not well-trodden. Some sections of the path have been blazed but not cleared. I often feel like I'm bushwhacking even while following the markers.

On the south end of the trail I pass by a slough holding inky dark water. I then climb a small rise to look down a steep bank at the white sand of Kisatchie Bayou. I consider that from here it would be possible to abandon the trail and walk the bayou. It might save a half mile or so, but I am tired and prefer solid footing to trudging through sand and water.

Many people consider the Kisatchie District of the Kisatchie National Forest to be the prettiest part of Louisiana. The Kisatchie Hills Wilderness Area displays the most rugged terrain in the state, with hills ranging from 120 to 400 feet in elevation. This is the largest of three designated wilderness areas in Louisiana and the only one managed by the Forest Service. Kisatchie Bayou, a State Natural and Scenic Stream, flows through the district.

Your best chance for solitude is to pack into the wilderness area on the Backbone Trail. The sandstone ridged terrain is more rugged and interesting than that on the Dormon Trail. The Backbone Trail is not listed in the recreation directory, but the trailheads are signed. The eastern entry point is just across the road from the Dormon trailhead.

It is late afternoon, and I have traveled the Dormon Trail far enough to spot the rocky streambed for which Kisatchie Bayou Campground is known. I hear something and pause. Watching carefully, I spot an armadillo rooting through the leaves. I stand still and it approaches to within three feet. As I shift my weight from one foot to the other, the armadillo senses movement and gets up awkwardly on its hind feet to wiggle its ears and sniff at me. I guess it decides that I'm a funny-looking tree stump, because it resumes its snuffling through the underbrush.

Contact Information:

Kisatchie National Forest

Kisatchie Ranger District

Box 2128

Natchitoches, LA 71457

318/352-2568

Location:

Kisatchie National Forest is in western Louisiana, about 150 miles northwest of Baton Rouge and 40 miles northwest of Alexandria.

Getting There:

Take I-49 to the Derry exit. Travel five miles south on State Hwy. 119 to the intersection with the Longleaf Trail Scenic Byway.

Seasonal Information:

Go in late March or early April for dogwoods, wild azaleas, and other flowers, or fall to avoid hot, humid summer weather. In the spring and fall, temperatures are mild ~ in the 70s and 80s.

It can rain anytime in Louisiana, so be prepared. Unless you have current weather information, don't camp in the bottoms because a thunderstorm can raise water levels precipitously.

Wildlife:

You might see beavers, bobcats, coyotes, foxes, mink, muskrat, nutria, opossum, otters, raccoons, ring-tailed cats, skunks, squirrels, owls, deer, wild turkeys, and armadillos.

Insects:

Ticks are common, but mosquitoes are not as prevalent as in some parts of the state.

Plant Life:

The Caroline Dormon Trail passes through pine woods, wax myrtle, and French mulberries. After a while, the trail dips into a lower area where hardwood trees dominate ~ beeches, oaks, hickories, gums, and magnolias mix with loblolly pines. Looking down from the multicolored fall foliage of the gum trees, you can see white mushrooms the size of pancakes.

Wildflowers such as coreopsis, sunflowers, and wild azalea thrive along trails. And the Caroline Dorman Nature Preserve boasts Louisiana iris, shadow-witch orchid, orange fringed orchid, white fringed orchid, bog orchid, and white buckeye.

Facilities:

  • Campgrounds are free and primitive.
  • Kisatchie Bayou Campground is the most scenic and developed, but it tends to fill up on weekends. It offers drinking water, picnic tables, tent pads, and vault toilets.
  • If you want solitude, you can make camp along the Dormon Trail or in the little used, more rustic Red Bluff Campground, where the owls will lull you to sleep. Red Bluff is also situated on the banks of Kisatchie Bayou at a bend where the water is usually still and deep. Chances to see deer, wild turkeys, and other wildlife are much better here because there's less human intrusion. This campground is a bit damp in the spring, more attractive in the fall, but worth a visit anytime to simply stroll the path beside the bayou. Red Bluff offers a vault toilet.

Parking:

Contact park office for information.

Permits:

Permits are required for large groups only.

Policies:

No motorized equipment or bicycles permitted.

Hazards:

  • Snakes, including cottonmouths, are in the area.
  • Poison ivy is abundant.
  • The 1986 Southern Pine Beetle epidemic killed pine trees on approximately 4,000 acres of the wilderness. Visitors should be extremely careful in these areas since there is the possibility of falling limbs and trees.
  • Be careful with campfires since many areas contain high volumes of fuel.

Leave No Trace:

Contact park office for information.

All LNT guidelines apply.

Maps:

Forest Service handouts are sufficient. If you plan to hike in the wilderness area, specifically request the wilderness trail map. A more detailed map is available for $3.

Other Trip Options:

  • Within Natchitoches, there are some good lakes for fishing and waterskiing.
  • Visit Natchitoches National Fish Hatchery Aquarium (318/352-5324).
  • Take a tour of the sites where the movie "Steel Magnolias" was filmed.