Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Gateway to the Hills

St. Francisville, LA: Gateway to the Hills
By Anne Butler

Clark CreekSt. Francisville for many years has been justly famous as the heart of Louisiana’s historic English plantation country, but as changing tourism demographics attract younger and more active visitors, the little rivertown has lately become known as the Gateway to the Hills. And winter, with snakes hibernating and poison ivy no longer a problem, plus fallen leaves opening up clear vistas not seen in the tangled overgrowth of summer, is the ideal time to take advantage of all the recreational opportunities offered throughout the Tunica Hills.

These unspoiled wilderness areas, rare loessial ridges running northwest from St. Francisville along the Mississippi River north into Tennessee, feature steep forested hills and deep cool shady hollows carved out by the Glacial Age, harboring plant and animal life found nowhere else in South Louisiana. Several large chunks of West Feliciana land have been preserved for public usage by the state, and along with a third state natural area just across the Mississippi line, provide ideal landscapes for hiking, birding, hunting, photography and nature studies.

waterfallTunica Hills State Preservation Area consists of some 700 rugged acres, including a towering bluff overlooking the Mississippi River. Planning for this unique preservation area began in 2002, its exciting innovative design showcasing the uniqueness of this diverse ecosystem with hiking trails, tram system, amphitheater, river overlook, interpretive center elevated high above the ground, and boardwalks designed for low impact on the natural environment. The Office of State Parks continues to work with the legislature to find funding for completion of this significant project.

The Tunica Hills Wildlife Management Area consists of two separate tracts totaling more than 5500 acres operated by the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. Here, wooded hills, high bluffs and deep ravines harbor a huge variety of game animals, making these areas particularly popular with hunters. LDF regulations govern use of these management areas, and hikers should avoid them during hunting seasons.

One of the most popular hiking areas is Clark Creek Natural Area, just across the state line in Mississippi, reached from St. Francisville via LA 66 to Hwy. 969 to Fort Adams Rd. near Pond Store. The challenging trails lead to a series of waterfalls through some of the most scenic sections of the Tunica Hills. The area is maintained by the state of Mississippi as a natural area, safe even during hunting seasons, but visitors should be sure to wear sturdy hiking shoes or boots and allow plenty of time to get out of the woods before dark.

trail at clark creekLess strenuous is the hike through Cat Island National Wildlife Refuge to gaze in awe at the immense national champion bald cypress, largest tree of any species east of the Sierra Nevada mountains, thought to be over 1,000 years old and an astounding 85 feet tall. The Big Cypress Trail is only 1½ miles; there are also longer hiking trails through this 10,473-acre refuge which preserves one of the largest tracts of virgin wetland forest not protected by levees from cyclical flooding. Some springs it can be inundated by 15 to 20 feet of Mississippi River overflow, and the dynamics of the wetting and drying cycles make this refuge exceptionally unique and ecologically significant. Hunting is popular here, so hikers should exercise caution during certain seasons, and the area is not always accessible by car or on foot during high water times, although Bayou Sara Kayak Rentals offers new possibilities for access as well as guided fishing excursions.

Steps along the trailAudubon State Historic Site, centered by the wonderful historic Oakley Plantation house where John James Audubon stayed and painted dozens of his Birds of America studies in the 1820s, has a system of child-friendly nature trails showcasing the natural and historic aspects of the park. Nearby is the Mary Ann Brown Preserve of 109 acres of mature forests, self-guided interpretive trail, picnic areas and primitive campsites available for school or scout groups. The extensive West Feliciana Parish Sports Park also offers trails, tennis courts, fishing pond, rodeo arena, playground, ballfields and other recreational facilities, plus organized sports and camps for all ages; the wooded trails are particularly popular for dirt bikes and physically demanding races like the Warrior Dash.

Biking, including bicycle racing, is popular in the St. Francisville area due to the challenging terrain, as is golfing at The Bluffs Golf Resort. The 200-acre Arnold Palmer course was designed to highlight its unique site on a tall bluff overlooking Thompson Creek with its sandy beaches.

Resolved to get more exercise and pursue a healthier lifestyle in 2016, did you? St. Francisville’s got you covered. Of course there are less strenuous entertainments still offered in the St. Francisville area as well, for those who’d prefer to be pampered at one of the diverse Bed & Breakfasts, or shop ‘til they drop in the historic downtown area’s boutique marketplaces and galleries, or enjoy the assortment of eateries, or tour historic plantations and 19th-century gardens. Visitors can do it all; or do nothing but relax and rejuvenate in the calm country atmosphere.

Rocks at Clark CreekLocated on US Highway 61 on the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge, LA, and Natchez, MS, the St. Francisville area is a year-round tourist destination. A number of splendidly restored plantation homes are open for tours: the Cottage Plantation, Myrtles Plantation, Greenwood Plantation, plus Catalpa Plantation by reservation; Afton Villa Gardens and Imahara’s Botanical Garden are open in season and are both spectacular.

Particularly important to tourism in the area are its two significant state historic sites, Rosedown Plantation and Oakley Plantation in the Audubon state site, which offer periodic living-history demonstrations to allow visitors to experience 19th-century plantation life and customs (state budget constraints have unfortunately shuttered Oakley Monday and Tuesday).

tri fallsThe nearby Tunica Hills region offers unmatched recreational activities in its unspoiled wilderness areas—hiking, biking and especially bicycle racing due to the challenging terrain, birding, photography, hunting, and kayaking on Bayou Sara. There are unique art galleries plus specialty and antiques shops, many in restored historic structures, and some nice restaurants throughout the St. Francisville area serving everything from ethnic 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 West Feliciana Tourist Commission and West Feliciana Historical Society at 225-6330 or 225-635-4224, or St. Francisville Main Street at 225-635-3873; online visit, or (the events calendar gives dates and information on special activities).