With a long and unique history reaching back centuries—long before the United States became a country of its own—Louisiana is famous the world over for the richness and diversity of its heritage, being the home of Cajun culture and the birthplace of Creole cuisine, as the place that gave us jazz, and the state that celebrates Mardi Gras like no other.
But—enticing as they may be—seafood gumbo, second lines, the revelry of Bourbon Street, and crawfish étouffée aren’t all Louisiana has to offer. With warm weather throughout the year and a varied and distinctive landscape unlike any other in America, the state at the mouth of the Mississippi River provides a wealth of opportunities for outdoor adventures, whether they be urban hijinks in New Orleans, wilderness escapades in the Louisiana backwoods, or explorations in the open water of the Gulf of Mexico. Any outdoor lover who has visited Louisiana knows why the state earned its nickname, the Sportsman’s Paradise.
1. Paddling and Kayaking
With its Gulf Coast, marshes, swamps, bayous, and rivers, more than 15 percent of Louisiana is covered in water, making the state a water lover’s paradise. An intimate and peaceful way to experience Louisiana’s unique aquatic ecosystems is via paddleboat, canoe, or kayak. In Bayou Dorcheat, near Shreveport in north Louisiana, paddlers can meander among forests of mixed hardwood, cypress, and tupelo. To the south, the Cajun Coast Paddling Trails include seven water routes through more than 170,000 acres of protected wildlife management area, making this an especially attractive journey for bird-watchers. Even in the urban center of New Orleans—in the waters of City Park or the four-mile stretch of Bayou St. John that, a lesser-known gem, flows slowly through the middle of town—paddlers and kayakers can get a workout while enjoying the city from a new point of view.
The Audubon Golf Trail offers 16 beautifully maintained golf courses throughout the state, including The Wetlands in Lafayette, the heart of Cajun country; Audubon Park in uptown New Orleans; Santa Maria Golf Course in the state’s capital city of Baton Rouge; and The Island Country Club near the town of Plaquemine. Whether you’re taking a much needed outdoor break during a barrage of business meetings or making a special visit to enjoy golfing in the Louisiana outdoors, the state’s year-round warm weather means you can hit the links almost any day of the year.
Louisiana may be known for its lowland marshes, swamps shrouded in mystery, numerous waterways, and fertile cropland, but the state also boasts a variety of hiking trails for those who prefer to explore the outdoors on foot. Just minutes from New Orleans are the Barataria Preserve trails of Jean Lafitte National Park, with wooden platforms to guide you through marshes and swamps often teeming with alligators. For those seeking to add a little elevation to their hike, north Louisiana is home to Driskill Mountain, where a forested 1.9-mile trail suitable for all experience levels will take you to the highest point in the state, at 535 feet above sea level. Near the Mississippi border, just north of St. Francisville, the Tunica Hills State Wildlife Management Area features abundant wildlife, waterfalls, and rugged terrain that put Louisiana’s geographic and ecological diversity on full display.
One of Louisiana’s best kept secrets is its beaches. In Mandeville, just across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans—a drive that will take you across one of the longest over-water bridges on Earth—are the white-sand beaches of Fontainebleau State Park. The barrier island of Grand Isle is a mere two hours south of the Big Easy and boasts 10 miles of coastline and sandy beaches along the Gulf of Mexico. Toward the Texas-Louisiana border in Lake Charles are rare white-sand beaches 20 miles inland from the ocean, just minutes from the urban offerings of southwest Louisiana’s biggest city.
5. The Salt Domes
For lovers of hot sauce and leisurely strolls through beautifully manicured parkland is Avery Island, a salt dome just a 20-minute drive from the Cajun town of New Iberia. Every drop of Tabasco hot sauce on Earth is bottled on Avery Island by the McIlhenny Company, the family-owned firm that has been making the world’s most iconic hot sauce since 1868. A factory tour will let you in on how the company makes its famous sauce, but the real treat is Avery Island’s Jungle Gardens, 170 acres of beautifully maintained semitropical landscape featuring massive live oaks, bamboo, and a kaleidoscope of flowers, plus alligators, deer, and a lively bird sanctuary that helped rescue the snowy egret from the brink of extinction. The Rip Van Winkle Gardens on Jefferson Island, another salt dome rising out of the south Louisiana marshlands, offers more manicured gardens and stately old cottages near the peaceful waters of Lake Peigneur.
6. Freshwater Fishing
With its abundance of lakes, bayous, and rivers, Louisiana tops any angler’s list of the best freshwater fishing locations on Earth. From the start of January to the end of December, fishermen in Louisiana haul in white perch, catfish, gar, sauger, redear sunfish, drum, and numerous other species throughout the state’s many scenic freshwater fishing hot spots. Western Louisiana’s Toledo Bend has been named by Bassmaster’s magazine as the best bass fishing lake in America twice—the only lake to have held the title for two years running.
7. Saltwater Fishing
Down a long, skinny spit of dry land in Plaquemines Parish that extends far into the Gulf of Mexico is a spot many consider one of the best places to embark on a saltwater fishing expedition: Venice, Louisiana, where the mighty Mississippi meets the Gulf of Mexico. In the brackish waters near town and the saltwater out at sea, anglers bring in redfish, speckled trout, yellowfin tuna, and other species in hauls that have rightly earned Venice its legendary status. Cocodrie is just one of many other spots along Louisiana’s Gulf Coast where skilled guides take fishermen on expeditions that yield fabled hauls of flounder, snapper, and other fish that flock to the lush aquatic ecosystems.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
Though Louisiana certainly is the Sportsman’s Paradise, the state still knows how to party. And the warm weather in every season means most events take place outside. Whether it’s the annual Frog Festival in the small town of Rayne—the self-proclaimed “Frog Capital of the World”; the Bayou Teche Black Bear Festival; the Natchitoches Meat Pie Festival; the Ascension Hot Air Balloon Festival; the Breaux Bridge Crawfish Festival, one of the largest gatherings in south Louisiana’s Cajun Country; or a more mainstream music festival like Voodoo Fest in New Orleans, there’s outdoor celebrating to be had year-round. In New Orleans, the weeks leading up to Mardi Gras are filled with parades and outdoor parties. And in Louisiana’s Cajun Country the Courir de Mardi Gras—a tradition from medieval France in which costumed celebrants travel from home to home singing, eating, drinking, and engaging in the various traditions unique to each of Louisiana’s Cajun towns, is alive and well.
With its tremendous architectural history and plentiful opportunities to eat, drink, and dance throughout the city, it’s sometimes forgotten that the Mississippi River isn’t the only major body of water near New Orleans. On the other side of town is the large, open expanse of Lake Pontchartrain, to which sailors of all experience levels flock, taking private lessons to learn the ancient art. On Wednesday nights from March through November, the New Orleans Yacht Club hosts a famously laid-back racing night, with outdoor cooking, revelry, and a night of fun-filled racing. Anyone enthusiastic about sailing or simply learning how is encouraged to come and join in the celebration.
10. Swamp Tours
Taking a relaxing chartered boat ride through the famous swamps of Louisiana is always an enjoyable way to explore the state’s plants and wildlife, and many tour guides will include a bit of Cajun food and music for good measure. Louisiana’s swamp tours can bring you up close with wild alligators amid stands of cypress under canopies of Spanish moss. You might even find yourself in a traditional Cajun village accessible only by boat or gazing at nearby owls, turtles, and swimming feral pigs. The Atchafalaya Basin near Morgan City is home to a thriving population of America’s most majestic bird, the bald eagle.