Thursday, January 14, 2016

Cypress Island Preserve: Levee and Boardwalk Trails (Blog Hike #557)

Trails: Levee and Boardwalk Trails
Hike Location: Cypress Island Preserve
Geographic Location: east of Lafayette, LA
Length: 5.5 miles ROUND-TRIP
Difficulty: 3/10 (Easy/Moderate)
Last Hiked: January 2016
Overview: A flat out-and-back on levee and boardwalk along the west shore of Lake Martin.

Directions to the trailhead: From downtown Lafayette, take SR 94 east 2.3 miles to SR 353.  Turn right on SR 353.  (Alternatively, take SR 94 west 5.2 miles from Breaux Bridge and turn left on SR 353.)  Drive SR 353 south 5.3 miles to the preserve Visitor Center on the left.  The Visitor Center is unsigned, but you reach it immediately after passing Rookery Road.  Park in the gravel lot in front of the Visitor Center.

The hike: Owned and operated by The Nature Conservancy, Cypress Island Preserve protects 9500 acres around Lake Martin (also known as Lake la Pointe) in south-central Louisiana.  The preserve lies on the western edge of the ancient Mississippi River floodplain, and it boasts one of the best bottomland hardwood forests in the entire lower Mississippi River valley.  The preserve also features one of the largest waterbird rookeries in the country.  The rookery combined with the semi-open waters of Lake Martin make Cypress Island Preserve a top-notch birding destination especially during the spring.
            In the early 1950’s private landowners constructed a 5 mile levee around Lake Martin with the intention of opening the area to public recreation.  The eastern half of the levee features gravel Rookery Road, some swamp tour operators, and some fishing/boat ramp sites.  The western half of the levee travels through less developed areas, most of which are now owned by The Nature Conservancy. 
The western half of the levee contains the Levee Trail featured on this hike; the preserve’s short Boardwalk Trail is added for a little variety.  Parking lots at both the north and south ends of the levee allow you to do this out-and-back hike as a two-car shuttle if you wish.  The preserve is open every day, but parts of the Levee Trail are closed in late summer and early fall for alligator nesting.  The season restriction is not very restrictive: I would not even consider doing this hike in the summer due to heat and bugs.
Visitor Center trailhead
            The hike starts at the Visitor Center, which has some nice exhibits but only opens on weekends most of the year.  From the front porch of the Visitor Center, take the gravel trail with wooden berms that heads to the left (east) away from the picnic pavilion.  Notice the brick stilts on which the Visitor Center sits, a reminder that you are only 10 feet above sea level.  Some large Spanish moss-draped live oaks live in the Visitor Center’s front lawn.
            Very quickly you cross gravel Rookery Road and begin the preserve’s boardwalk.  The short U-shaped wooden boardwalk explores the cypress forest at the southern end of Lake Martin.  The shallow algae-covered water attracts many birds, but the thick cypress forest restricts your sight lines.
Southern end of Lake Martin
            At the west end of the boardwalk, you arrive back at Rookery Road.  To get to the Levee Trail, turn right and walk a short distance down the gravel road to the Levee Trail’s south trailhead on the right.  The trailhead is unsigned, but the yellow iron vehicle gate and portal make it hard to miss.
Levee Trail's south trailhead
            The Levee Trail heads north northwest with Lake Martin on your right and a water-filled borrow pit on your left.  As you would expect for a levee, the trail is dead flat and nearly dead straight.  As you head north, the cypress forest starts to thin, and better sightlines for bird viewing open up.  The bird tally from my visit included blue jays, wrens, sparrows, cardinals, chickadees, red-winged blackbirds, herons, gold finches, an egret, and a roseate spoonbill.
            At 1.3 miles, you reach an extension of the levee that protrudes out into the lake on the right.  The extension provides your best view yet of open waters.  Continuing north, the preserve’s Nature Trail exits to the left and drops off the levee 1.8 miles into the hike.  The Nature Trail explores an area that was clear-cut in the late 1970’s but has now been reforested with hardwood trees such as elm, ash, oak, pecan, and tupelo.  You can add on the Nature Trail if you wish, but many of the interpretive signs are dirt-covered because the trail floods during times of high water.  Thus, the preserve’s best hiking option remains the Levee Trail.
Hiking the Levee Trail
            The levee curves right as you approach the more open waters of northern Lake Martin, and soon Ruth Canal appears on the left.  On my visit the waters of Lake Martin were dark and foreboding while the waters of Ruth Canal were muddy brown from runoff.  I saw the spoonbill in the canal near the northern end of the trail.
Northern end of Lake Martin
            At 2.8 miles, you reach another yellow iron vehicle gate and portal, this one marking the north end of the Levee Trail.  There is also a wooden fishing pier here that makes a nice place to sit and rest while observing the lake, and the parking lot that serves this fishing pier lies just beyond the portal.  You can make a complete circumnavigation of Lake Martin on foot, but hiking the eastern half of the levee requires walking a narrow gravel road that sees significant vehicle traffic.  Thus, I chose to turn around and retrace my steps along the Levee Trail to return to the Visitor Center and complete the hike.

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