Outdoor Adventures on Louisiana’s Northshore

Story and Photography by Deborah Burst

Hiking, biking, and birdwatching are just a few of the outdoor activities available on Louisiana’s exotic-looking Northshore.

Just 30 miles north of New Orleans across Lake Pontchartrain, the tree-topped skyline stands in stark contrast to its south-shore neighbor. Nicknamed the Northshore, its wildlife flourishes inside thick strands of oaks, pines, and cypress. Louisiana’s own tropical paradise, home to melodies of exotic birds and echoes of hawks hunting their prey. It’s an endless wonderland of thrilling swamps and coffee-colored bayous veiled by dark shadows and marbled pools of light.

In the city of Mandeville’s historic district, what locals call the lakefront, 19th-century homes and opulent mansions line a storied landscape. Known for its ozone water and the sweet smell of pines, steamship service once ran between New Orleans and Mandeville. People still flock to the soothing vistas, some spread blankets and enjoy the serenity while others jog along the seawall or stroll the curvaceous walkway winding through a canopy of ancient oaks. Ready the camera for sailboats streaming in and out the harbor or take a break on park benches. Families enjoy swing sets and mini playgrounds, along with the fishing pier jutting out across the lake.

A favorite for locals and visitors is the Tammany Trace Hiking and Biking Trail, a 31-mile asphalt trail and wildlife conservation corridor linking parks, wetlands, forested greenways, and historic neighborhoods. Walkers, joggers, bicyclists, and in-line skaters enjoy a colorful stage of nature’s wonders. Tune in to the concert of cicadas and inhale the buttonbush blooms. Or spy the creatures of the woods with early morning sightings of deer, often a doe and her fawn, rabbits nibbling on grass and egrets eyeing their next meal congregating along the waterways.

The Trace draws a host of people in and out of the parish, state and even the country. From 2011 to 2013 nearly 300,000 visit the Tammany Trace, a hallmark for both the parish and the state.

“The Tammany Trace is first and foremost, innovative. As the only Rails–to-Trails conversion in Louisiana, this lush amenity immediately sets our Parish apart,” said Pat Brister, St. Tammany Parish president. “At the same time, the Tammany Trace brings us all together. It connects our communities, and gives locals and tourists alike, a unique and scenic perspective on our community. We are grateful for every visitor who makes their way to us because of our nationally recognized Rail-Trail Hall of Fame, the Tammany Trace.”

Heading east in Mandeville, the Northlake Nature Center boasts 400 acres of marked trails across four ecosystems. An inviting and soothing journey, wander deep inside swamps, marshlands, ancient pines, and hardwood forests. The nonprofit Nature Center offers guided nature tours, biking and hiking. A moonlight tour lets visitors listen to the echoes of the night. Families and their canines are welcome, and children will delight in the many turtles swimming to the bridge greeting visitors.

Every turn brings a new adventure, marigolds crawling across the forest floor and waterfowl descending the evening skies roosting in the treetops. Photographers enjoy its mystical presence in a teeming thicket of trees dipping their branches into dark-stained waters. Perhaps the most commanding is the cypress trees, adorned with a menagerie of moss and known for their beauty and resilience. They stay strong against fierce storms with swollen trunks and knobby knees anchored in the water’s muddied banks.

Rue McNeil, executive director of the Northlake Nature Center, coordinates the annual Great Louisiana BirdFest, which highlights the best birding locations in St. Tammany Parish. Among her fondest memories are working with both Boy Scout and Girl Scout volunteers, and then, the first moonlight hike and marshmallow melt.

“It was an awesome sight watching the flashlights glowing in the dark in a trail of hikers,” she remembers.

Nearby is Fontainebleau State Park, a favorite with families, campers, photographers and wildlife enthusiasts. Once a sugar plantation, the owner, Bernard de Marigny de Mandeville, christened his estate, Fontainebleau, based on a forest near Paris. Crumbling remains of the sugar mill offer evidence of the park’s history. A long pier joins an inviting beach on Lake Pontchartrain with a pavilion over the water, and nearby is a sandy stretch of cypress trees, a perfect stage for stunning sunsets.

Known for its abundant wildlife, Fontainebleau is the perfect place to spot deer grazing under the oaks in the early evening. The visitor center offers ranger talks highlighting the park’s history, primitive woodworking demonstrations, and tours through the park’s nature trails. Cabins, camping sites, and boat rentals are also available.

Further east is the small town of Lacombe and home to the Big Branch Marsh National Wildlife Preserve. Witness the early morning wail of geese and the shrieking battle cry of pileated woodpeckers among the marshlands, grass beds, piney woods, and hardwood hammocks. Rent a kayak or canoe paddling down Cane Bayou and watch the egrets playing tag along the treetops in route to a secret hideaway.

Many visitors seek Lake Road for shoreline fishing along with crabbing and crawfishing. Photographers often stage their cameras in hopes of an epic portrait, a piney ridge silhouetted against an orange sky or the sun dipping inside a pool of the lake’s blue water.

Near the state line in Slidell is the Pearl River Wildlife Management Area, a living library of nearly 36,000 acres of forests, swamps, and bayous. Thick with massive alligators and a jungle of wildlife, some are elusive while others are a bit more curious. Each trip inside this engaging forest reveals a precious lesson, and many enjoy a front-row seat aboard the swamp tour boats. Guides host a two-hour long nature tour deep inside Pearl River’s protected sanctuary. Be on the lookout for snakes slithering across tree limbs or a blue heron sliding a fish down its skinny neck. Alligators can be found sunning their hides on the banks of the bayou or lurking inside the murky waters patiently waiting for a crunchy turtle, tasty duck, or a treat from the tour boats.

Step inside nature’s paradise, a powerful but tranquil kingdom. From Old Mandeville’s historic hamlet to the exotic wilds of the Honey Island Swamp, the Northshore is a delightful escape for families, solo travelers or hardcore trailblazers. It’s home to legions of birds and intoxicating scents of wildflowers, and signature sunsets with scorching ribbons of clouds in a fiery canvas of pastel colors. Adventures abound on the northern shores of Lake Pontchartrain, hiking the woods, paddling the waters, or just watching nature’s nonstop lineup.


Read More in DeSoto Magazine online.