Friday, January 22, 2016

Fontainebleau State Park (Blog Hike #559)

Trails: Sugar Mill Nature and Bayou Cane Hiking Trails
Hike Location: Fontainebleau State Park
Geographic Location: east of Mandeville, LA
Length: 5.1 miles
Difficulty: 3/10 (Easy/Moderate)
Last Hiked: January 2016
Overview: A flat hike featuring views of Bayou Cane and Lake Pontchartrain.

Directions to the trailhead: In southeastern Louisiana, take I-12 to SR 59 (exit 65).  Exit and go south on SR 59.  Drive SR 59 south 3.7 miles to US 190 and turn left on US 190.  Drive US 190 east 2.7 miles to the park entrance on the right.  Turn right to enter the park, pay the small park entrance fee, and drive the main park road 1.1 miles to the small perpendicular parking area on the right in front of the sugar mill ruins and the Visitor Center, which was closed for repairs on my visit.  Park here.

The hike: Established in 1938, Fontainebleau State Park (pronounced like “fountain blue”) is one of the oldest state parks in Louisiana.  The park occupies 2800 acres of land that used to be a sugarcane plantation owned and operated by the famous planter and politician Bernard de Marigny.  Marigny named the plantation Fontainebleau due to his admiration for the famous Fontainebleau Forest near Paris.  The plantation’s location on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain ensures that temperatures stay a few degrees cooler here than in Marigny’s home of New Orleans, thus making Fontainebleau a favorite summer retreat for Marigny.
            The state park today offers a 143 site campground, a small lodge, a group camp, and 12 deluxe cabins.  The park also features a water playground for kids, a small beach on Lake Pontchartrain, and a reservable picnic pavilion.  The Visitor Center near this trailhead interprets the human history of this land.
            For hikers, Fontainebleau State Park offers two trails: the gravel 1.25 mile Sugar Mill Nature Trail and the more primitive 4.8 mile Bayou Cane Hiking Trail.  Combining these two trails forms the 5.1 mile barbell-shaped hike described here. (Note: the park’s official Bayou Cane Hiking Trail distance of 4.8 miles also includes part of the Sugar Mill Nature Trail, thus accounting for the difference between the combined trail lengths and the round-trip distance I list for this hike.)
Sugar mill ruins
            Before heading out on the trail, take a minute to view the brick sugar mill ruins located directly in front of the parking area.  An interpretive sign explains how raw sugar cane was heated to produce molasses and other sugar products.  The plantation’s location beside a railway and Lake Pontchartrain allowed for easy transport of the finished products.
Trailhead: Sugar Mill Nature Trail
            After viewing the sugar mill ruins, pick up the Sugar Mill Nature Trail, which starts at a signed trailhead located across the park road from the ruins.  The crushed limestone trail heads southeast through lowland forest with a dense understory of palmetto.  Interpretive signs help you identify common trees and shrubs of the forest.
            Just past 0.2 miles, you reach a trail intersection where the Sugar Mill Nature Trail turns right and the Bayou Cane Hiking Trail turns left.  Turn left to leave the gravel and head for Bayou Cane.  The meandering dirt/grass trail heads in the general direction of east.  The trail is mostly exposed to the sun overhead, so wear a hat to provide sun protection.  In spite of the sun, wet areas will need to be negotiated if it has rained recently because most of this trail is only 5-10 feet above sea level.  Short wooden bridges carry you over the worst of the wet areas.
Backcountry picnic site
            You pass several benches and shaded backcountry picnic tables on your journey toward Bayou Cane.  These areas make nice places to stop and have a snack if bug numbers are tolerably low.  At 1.2 miles, the Bayou Cane Hiking Trail splits to form the eastern loop of this barbell-shaped hike.  An official-looking “do not enter” sign urges you not to turn left, so this hike will angle right to hike the eastern loop counterclockwise.
            The trail climbs slightly through more of the same scenery to reach the highest elevation of the hike: 15 feet above sea level.  This point also marks a trail intersection.  We will eventually continue the loop by turning left, but this trail description first turns right to hike the spur to Bayou Cane.
            Beginning with a brief but noticeable descent, the spur trail to Bayou Cane is the park’s lowest trail in terms of elevation, and therefore it is also the park’s wettest trail.  I came here a few days after a major rain, and I ended up slogging through a few inches of water in a couple of places.  2.2 miles into the hike, the spur trail ends at the west bank of Bayou Cane.  From the viewpoint at the trail’s end, two Spanish moss-draped cypress trees perfectly frame the bayou’s dark, still waters.  This point would be a nice place to do some bird watching provided the bugs are not too onerous.
Bayou Cane
            The spur trail ends at Bayou Cane, so your only choice from here is to turn around and head back to the height of land.  A bench near the spur trail’s beginning makes a nice place to rest and perhaps dry out your socks near the midpoint of the hike.  When ready, keep going north to continue the eastern loop.
            At 2.5 miles, you reach another trail intersection.  The spur trail to the group camp continues straight here, so you need to turn left to keep following the Bayou Cane Hiking Trail loop.  Two official-looking signs that say “wrong way” discourage you from taking the spur trail to the camp.
            The northern arm of the eastern loop heads west following a course that roughly parallels the route you took in the opposite direction earlier with much the same scenery.  At 3.2 miles, you close the eastern loop as you exit the trail that was marked “do not enter” from the other direction.  Angle right to begin retracing your steps and continue your westward journey.
Bayou Cane Hiking Trail
            4.1 miles into the hike, you arrive back at the Sugar Mill Nature Trail.  Turn left to continue the western loop, the one formed by the Nature Trail.  A couple of wet areas are crossed using wooden planks placed lengthwise between logs.  I could hear some birds in the surrounding woods, but the dense understory limits sight distances.
At 4.4 miles, a spur trail exits left for the Alligator Marsh Boardwalk.  The boardwalk used to extend out into the reedy northern edge of Lake Pontchartrain, but most of it was destroyed by Hurricane Isaac in 2012.  The destroyed section had not been rebuilt as of my visit in early January 2016.  Thus, presently the spur trail ends at the edge of the lake.
Large live oak tree
Continuing around the Sugar Mill Nature Trail, you quickly pass a couple of very large Spanish moss-draped live oak trees.  4.6 miles into the hike, the main Nature Trail turns right where a spur trail continues straight to head for the park’s developed beach area.  The beach area features a pier that extends well out into Lake Pontchartrain, so it is worth a visit either now or on your drive out.  The pier gives a distant view of the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway as it heads south to New Orleans, and I saw a nice egret when I stopped at the beach area.
Lake Pontchartrain
The main Nature Trail stays in the edge of the woods before turning left to enter a mowed grass area beside the main park road.  This area is called the Alley of Oaks because several large live oaks grow here.  Turn right to head through the alley and get back to the park road.  Your car sits in the parking lot just ahead on the left.

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