West Feliciana Woods Beckon as Walden Once Did
By Anne Butler
Distraught? Distressed? Disturbed? Weary of worrisome world affairs?
Take a tip from Henry David Thoreau, born in the summer of 1817, who despaired of seeing his fellow men leading “lives of quiet desperation” and sought solitude in the woods by Walden Pond. There he “wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
Now Walden Pond is operated by Massachusetts as a state reservation, complete with solar-powered visitor center and half-a-million hikers, boaters, swimmers, sunbathers or skiiers annually. But there are closer areas beckoning those wishing to commune more quietly with Nature. Strolling through St. Francisville’s 19th-century landscapes and formal gardens or wandering unhurried along the little rivertown’s bricked streets beneath overhanging moss-draped live oaks can impart the feeling of being a million miles away from the urban hustle and bustle, and the surrounding area has plenty of unspoiled wilderness accessible to the world-weary public.
Just south of St. Francisville on Highway 965 are several child-friendly hiking venues. Audubon State Historic Site has short trails through the hundred-acre park surrounding historic Oakley Plantation house (the house itself is temporarily closed for lead-abatement, but visitors are welcome on the grounds). Nearby Mary Ann Brown Preserve, 109 acres donated to The Nature Conservancy as a memorial, has interpretive trails as well as facilities for scout or school groups to picnic and camp with advance reservations.
The West Feliciana Parish Sports Park, extensive manicured complex of ballfields, tennis and basketball courts, rodeo arena and music stage, is open from 7 a.m. to dusk and hosts organized sports, camps and activities for all ages. Particularly popular is the aptly named Beast, rugged 6.5-mile hiking and mountain biking trail through the challenging terrain of typical Feliciana hills and hollows, providing great exercise for both advanced and intermediate hikers and bikers. There’s also a tamer walking path around the fishing pond. Hikers and bicyclers (who are required to wear bike helmets on the trail) should sign in at the trailhead; no horses are allowed.
The Tunica Hills State Preservation Area and Tunica Hills Wildlife Management Area offer thousands of wooded acres encompassing rare land formations found only in a narrow strip from St. Francisville northwest along the Mississippi River into Tennessee. Cool deep shady hollows and steep forested hills harbor rare plants and animals found nowhere else in Louisiana. The Office of State Parks has grand plans for the state preservation area, 700 acres along the river with loessial bluffs and bayous, steep wooded ravines and such a diverse ecosystem that this promises to become one of Louisiana’s most unique tourist destinations once funding is provided to fulfill the master plan. At present, this area and the wildlife management area which is actually two separate tracts of several thousand acres each operated by the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, offer unmatched opportunities for hiking, photography and birdwatching, hunting in season (LDWF), horseback riding and just plain appreciation of unspoiled nature. Admission to the wildlife management area is free, but visitors must fill out daily self-clearing permit cards at entrance stations; the South Tract along Old Tunica Road is open year-round, while the North Tract along Farrar-Davis Road is closed March through September.
Also in the Tunica Hills but entered just above the Mississippi state line is the popular Clark Creek Natural Area with challenging trails leading to a series of waterfalls. This area is reached from St. Francisville via US 61 north, left onto LA 66, right onto Hwy. 969 (Pinckneyville Road), then left onto Fort Adams Road at the old Pond Store (well worth a visit). A nominal contribution is payable at the trailhead parking area. The first two falls are reached by established trails; the rest require some challenging hiking.
Cat Island National Wildlife Refuge is currently closed to the public (including parts accessible by boat) awaiting parish road repair after wash-outs rendered Creek Road impassable during the Great Flood of 2016, but Bayou Sara Kayak Rentals (with or without guides) can access similar areas via the lazy waters of the creek with its swimming holes and sandy beaches.
One resident with a well-documented appreciation for Feliciana’s pastoral reaches and verdant woodlands was, of course, artist John James Audubon, who in the 1820s found inspiration for dozens of his famous bird studies while staying at Oakley Plantation. Just over a century after his stay, what was called a “Bird Fete” first celebrated his tenure in the parish with a presentation of scenes from his life, historic homes open “for inspection,” and a colonial ball. Noted writer Stanley C. Arthur was master of ceremonies, and Audubon relics, portraits, prints and letters were on exhibit at the local library, sponsored in the 1930s by the Drama-Library League. The West Feliciana Historical Society for the last four decades has carried on the tradition with its springtime tour of historic homes and related activities known as the Audubon Pilgrimage.
Today the area still celebrates its huge population of both resident and migratory birdlife with an annual event highlighting the unique hummingbird feeding and breeding habitat that entices ruby-throats to linger awhile in the months between late March and early September as they migrate between South/Central America and Canada. The Hummingbird Festival is set in two private gardens for Saturday, September 9, from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., when there should be an abundance of migratory hummers on their way south for the winter. Vendors offer hummingbird-attractive plants and equipment, while hummingbird biologists Linda Beall and Nancy Newfield capture and band birds, giving visitors the rare opportunity to observe the tiny creatures up close as they are being weighed and measured. The banding sites are the homes of Carlisle Rogillio on Tunica Trace (his 400-acre National Wildbird Refuge sponsors the event this year, the 17th festival) and artist Murrell Butler on Oak Hill Road, both of which usually attract dozens of hummingbirds.
Located 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 (weekends), 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 (Oakley’s main house is temporarily closed for lead abatement, but the wonderful visitor center/museum remains accessible).
The 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 www.stfrancisvillefestivals.com, www.stfrancisville.net or www.stfrancisville.us (the events calendar gives dates and information on special activities).