Friday, December 28, 2012

Tunica Hills Preservation Area provides wilderness experience near St. Francisville, LA

By Anne Butler

Old Tunica RoadLouisiana’s state preservation areas have been carefully selected to preserve and interpret significant natural areas showcasing a wide variety of landscapes and environments. The nearly 700-acre Tunica Hills State Preservation Area is a splendid example, a spectacular site along the Mississippi River including a towering bluff and the steep wooded ravines for which this unique area is noted.

Ranging from St. Francisville northwest along the Mississippi River, the Tunica Hills are rare land formations found only in a narrow strip from West Feliciana Parish north into Tennessee. They are actually loessial ridges created by dust storms of the Glacier period which swept in from the western plains carrying powdery fertile soil to form high vertical cliffs resting on the sand-clay bottom of an ancient sea bed. In cool, deep shady glades and steep forested hills, the area harbors rarities like wild ginseng, Eastern chipmunks and other flora and fauna found nowhere else in Louisiana.

Wild GinsengThese rugged hills provide the perfect backdrop for a huge variety of outdoor activities, including some of the most challenging hiking in the state. In wintertime, scenic forest vistas open up which are not visible to hikers in the lush crowded overgrowth of summer, and even Sunday drivers can appreciate the hilly roads, some so ancient they began life as prehistoric game trails stamped indelibly into the soil of lands claimed by native Indians long before the first Europeans arrived. Birdwatchers find the area still provides unspoiled habitat for the same rich abundance of birdlife that so inspired artist-naturalist John James Audubon in the 1820's that he painted many of his famous bird studies right there.

The development plans for the Tunica Hills State Preservation Area encompass hundreds of acres of these loessial bluffs and bayous, with interpretive centers telling the story of the early Tunica Indians and the later Civil War battle at nearby Como Landing, while introducing Louisiana's "flatlanders" to the wonders of this hilly wilderness. The interpretive center will consist of several units elevated high above the ravines to showcase the uniqueness of this diverse ecosystem, and there will be hiking trails, a tram system, amphitheater and river overlook, plus primitive camping sites.

tunica hills tramPlanning for this unique preservation area began in earnest in 2002 with the approval of $700,000 in funding for planning and design. In 2012, the Governor’s Office won approval from the State Bond Commission for a non-cash line of credit of nearly $3 million for Phase I construction, which will include site access and entrance road, tram trail including several timber bridges and fueling station, purchase of two trams, bridges and water well, utilities and site preparation, five miles of hiking trails, fencing and 3100 feet of boardwalks. Subsequent phases, estimated to cost more than $10 million, will include construction of the Interpretive Center and observation deck overlooking the Mississippi River, plus an entrance station and manager’s residence.

The Office of State Parks considers this site to have the potential to become one of Louisiana’s most unique tourist destinations, and the master plan has been carefully designed to provide environmental education about the site’s unique natural systems. Designed for low impact on the surroundings, the planned construction requires little removal of natural vegetation, accommodating existing trees and land formations, while the sustainable design of structures and bridges fosters an appreciation for the natural environment, utilizing galvanized or natural materials requiring little or no maintenance.

 Entrance StationPlans call for using abandoned logging roads and natural ridges as entrance roads and trails as much as possible. Vehicular traffic will be limited, and alternative fuel vehicles will transport visitors to the highest part of the site for orientation. The five-mile trail system will provide an on-the-ground experience with varied levels of difficulty. Utilizing old logging roads, stream beds and natural cleared areas, the trails will be marked, with vertical transitions for safety. Only minor clearing will be required, and there will be trash receptacles, interpretive exhibits and rest areas along the trail system. Besides enhancing the experience, these amenities and the designated trail system will serve to control access and lessen the overall impact on the natural area.

The state has the authority to enter into a contract by July 2013 and to spend the initial funding after that date. At this time, the Office of State Parks continues to work with the legislature and governor’s office to actually obtain the appropriated funding and to gain approval for additional monies required to continue development of this site. Once completed, the Tunica Hills State Preservation Area promises to become a popular destination for ecotourists, outdoor recreation buffs, nature lovers and all manner of visitors.

The Tunica Hills area abounds in other prime recreation possibilities as well. Clark Creek Natural Area just across the state line near Pond, Mississippi, has challenging trails leading to a series of spectacular waterfalls. The Tunica Hills Wildlife Management Area has thousands of acres of rugged hills, high bluffs and deep shaded ravines sheltering a significant wealth of rare plant and animal species, including the Louisiana black bear. The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (225-765-2360) maintains this property in two separate tracts for public hunting, trapping, hiking, riding, birding and sightseeing, and has pamphlets delineating regulations governing its use.

Indigo BuntingBesides the outstanding recreational opportunities offered in the surrounding Tunica Hills, St. Francisville is a year-round tourist destination featuring a number of splendidly restored plantation homes open for tours daily: The Cottage Plantation, Butler Greenwood Plantation, The Myrtles Plantation, Greenwood Plantation, plus Catalpa Plantation by reservation. Afton Villa Gardens and Imahara’s Botanical Gardens are open seasonally. Particularly important to tourism in the area are its two significant state historic sites, Rosedown Plantation and Oakley Plantation in the Audubon state site, offering periodic fascinating living-history demonstrations so visitors can experience 19th-century plantation life and customs.

There are unique art galleries plus specialty and antiques shops, many in restored historic structures, and some fine little restaurants throughout the St. Francisville area serving everything from Chinese and Mexican cuisine to seafood and classic Louisiana favorites. For overnight stays, the area offers some of the state’s most popular Bed & Breakfasts, including historic plantations, lakeside clubhouses and beautiful townhouses right in the middle of St. Francisville’s extensive National Register-listed historic district, and there are also modern motel accommodations for large bus groups.

For visitor information, call St. Francisville Main Street at 225-635-3873 or West Feliciana Tourist Commission at 225-635-4224; online visit (the events calendar gives dates and information on special activities) or