Monday, January 18, 2016

Bluebonnet Swamp Nature Center (Blog Hike #558)

Trails: Outer Loop and Library Trails
Hike Location: Bluebonnet Swamp Nature Center
Geographic Location: southeast side of Baton Rouge, LA
Length: 1.1 miles
Difficulty: 1/10 (Easy)
Last Hiked: January 2016
Overview: A short hike on boardwalk and gravel trail along the eastern edge of Bluebonnet Swamp.

Directions to the trailhead: On the east side of Baton Rouge, take I-10 to Bluebonnet Boulevard (exit 162A).  Exit and go south on Bluebonnet Blvd.  Drive Bluebonnet Blvd. south 2.2 miles to North Oak Hills Parkway and the signed entrance for the Bluebonnet Swamp Nature Center.  There is a traffic light at this intersection.  Turn right on North Oak Hills Parkway, which deadends at the Nature Center.  Park in the only parking lot, and walk the boardwalk to the main Nature Center building where you will need to pay a small entrance fee before beginning the hike.

The hike: Created by the State of Louisiana in 1946, The Recreation and Park Commission for the Parish of East Baton Rouge (known as BREC for short) owns and operates numerous parks in East Baton Rouge Parish.  Despite the commission’s limited geographic scope, BREC operates under the state government and not under the parish or city government.  Twice BREC has won the prestigious National Recreation and Park Association’s (NRPA) Gold Medal Award, and it has been a finalist for the award 12 other times.  The people of Baton Rouge are fortunate to have such a great system of parks in their area.
            Consisting of only 103 acres, BREC’s Bluebonnet Swamp Nature Center is definitely not the largest of BREC’s properties, but it may be the best.  The Center sits on the eastern edge of Bluebonnet Swamp, a classic Louisiana cypress-tupelo swamp.  Bluebonnet Swamp’s only building features a large number of live animal exhibits.  The Center offers three short trails: the 0.35 mile Inner Loop, the 0.5 mile Outer Loop, and the 0.3 mile one-way Library Trail.  The route described here combines the Outer Loop and the Library Trail to form a 1.1 mile tour of the swamp.
Information kiosk at trailhead
            The two trails that start at the front door of the Nature Center building form the two arms of the Outer Loop.  Choose the one on the left nearest the information kiosk to begin hiking the Outer Loop clockwise.  The gravel trail heads south through hardwood forest with a dense shrubby understory, which includes some holly and magnolia.  In a few hundred feet where an unmarked trail exits right, stay left to remain on the Outer Loop.
            Major trail intersections at Bluebonnet Swamp are marked by wooden stakes bearing trail names, and at 0.1 miles you reach the first such intersection.  This stake tells you that the Library Trail exits left here.  The Library Trail does not loop and goes nowhere of interest, but it does increase the hike distance.  Thus, this hike turns left to begin the Library Trail.
            For its entire distance the Library Trail stays in a narrow strip of dry woods with the swamp on your right and the back of a commercial area on your left.  The trail surface is gravel in the higher areas, but it turns to wooden boardwalk when you descend into the edge of the swamp.  As such, your first good views of the grassy swamp emerge here.  The difference between high and low areas is only a few feet, so the going is quite easy.  Nevertheless, in this part of the country a few feet makes the difference between high well-drained soil and submerged wetland.
Boardwalk at Bluebonnet Swamp
            After a slight climb, the Library Trail ends at perhaps the oddest trail end I have ever seen: a wooden gateway with a locked door!  The gateway stands beside the parking lot for the Bluebonnet Regional Branch Library, a location in the East Baton Rouge Parish Library system.  The odd wooden structure prevents people from accessing the swamp’s trails except via the Nature Center.
End of Library Trail
            Because the door in the gateway is locked, you have no choice but to turn around and retrace your steps along the Library Trail back to its junction with the Outer Loop.  Angle left to continue the Outer Loop.  The Outer Loop soon turns to boardwalk and reaches an observation deck at the edge of the swamp.  Some bird feeders have been placed here to enhance bird viewing opportunities, but the surrounding area is too developed for Bluebonnet Swamp to be a top-notch birding destination.
            Just past the observation deck, the Highwater Trail exits right to avoid the lowest section of the Outer Loop.  If water levels allow, continue straight to remain on the Outer Loop.  At 0.8 miles, the Inner Loop exits right.  Continue straight on the boardwalk once again to keep following the Outer Loop.
Wetter area of Bluebonnet Swamp
            0.9 miles into the hike, you reach a wooden escarpment deck that sits right on the edge of the swamp.  The deck and numerous other benches provide plenty of opportunities to rest if needed.  Small green interpretive signs help you identify trees and shrubs of the forest.  The trail curves right as it hits the home stretch and passes beside a small meadow.  The Inner Loop comes in from the right, and shortly thereafter you arrive back at the front of the Nature Center to complete the hike.

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