The swamps of Louisiana – the region’s majestic forested wetlands – are the only of their kind in the world and are considered to be among America's last great frontiers. New Orleans is a city surrounded by swampland, virtually making it a low-lying island, the second lowest lying land in the United States.
The mysterious swamps closest to the city can be accessed in as few as 20 minutes, yet they feel a world away. Numerous swamp tour businesses operate to meet the demand to explore these exotic places of untouched, pristine, wilderness, and most excursions (via nicely appointed boats) take two hours and include a guide. In summer, when the heat can be brutal, a morning tour is recommended and insect repellent and sunscreen are absolute necessities.
Louisiana is a warm southern state and its swamps are a habitat to creatures that are considerably different to those found elsewhere. Animals, reptiles, amphibians, insects, and birds of all types are present in great numbers. The most worrisome of these inhabitants are snakes, which can often be seen hanging from tree branches or slithering through the water, and pre-historic looking alligators, which commonly grow to between 14 –18 feet. These great beasts alternate between lying in the water and on the banks as a means of regulating their body temperature and are most active during the warmer months - tour guides are adapt at coaxing them from the water for visitors to observe. Several varieties of turtles and bullfrogs can also be seen on swamp logs and banks, including snapping turtles. Birds are plentiful and include elegant snowy egrets, blue herons, pelicans, ducks and geese. Hideous, orange-fanged, longhaired nutria also make their homes in the swamps of Louisiana, as do hordes of mosquitoes and spiders.
The still waters of the swamp are shrouded by towering, centuries-old cypress trees, which grow in shallow water as well as on land. Vegetation also includes dripping Spanish moss, climbing vines, marsh grasses, palmettos, and brilliant wildflowers.
The swamps are also home to dwindling groups of people who make their living off of the land as hunters and trappers. Their cabins can be seen perched atop tall stilts along the edges of the waterways.
These places of stunning beauty have given rise to several popular legends. It has been said that Jean Lafitte, a hero from the Battle of New Orleans, made his living off of pirate booty worth millions of dollars that he found buried in the swamps. Reported sightings of Big Foot, a legendary hairy monster, date back to when native Indians ruled the land.
Pearl River Eco-Tours distinguishes itself by avoiding a folklore-heavy approach to sightseeing in the swamps of Louisiana in favour of a more informative experience. Tour captains head deep into the Honey Island Swamp and White Kitchen Conservatory on spacious, covered pontoon boats to provide a unique window into the local area.
Barataria Preserve-Jean Lafitte National Historical Park & Preserve affords 20,000 acres of forest, swamp, and marsh on eight miles of boardwalk, hard-surfaced trails, or over 20 miles of waterways managed by the National Park Service. A visitor centre with exhibits is located on-site, which is just 25 minutes from downtown New Orleans. Jean Lafitte Swamp and Airboat Tours explore the back country along the meandering bayous. The airboat rides are for thrill seekers and can travel at speeds as high as 200 miles per hour. However, airboat operators often pause to allow tourists to take pictures of the extraordinary scenery.
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Have you visited the swamps of Louisiana? Let us know in the comments section below.
Written by Jyl Benson
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About the author: JylBensonJyl Benson
A native of New Orleans, Jyl Benson has over two decades of experience as a journalist, editor, and writer, with a concentration in southern American culture, cuisine, and heritage.