Uncover 300 years of history in Natchitoches, Louisiana, explore Creole culture along the Cane River National Heritage Trail, and experience outdoor adventure in the Kisatchie National Forest.
I was a guest of Natchitoches CVB, but all thoughts and opinions are my own.
Table of Contents
- 1 Natchitoches & the Cane River National Heritage Trail
- 2 Natchitoches
- 2.1 National Historic Landmark District
- 2.2 Beau Jardin & Roque House Gardens
- 2.3 Roque House
- 2.4 American Cemetery
- 2.5 Steel Magnolia House
- 2.6 Minor Basilica of the Immaculate Conception
- 2.7 Kaffie-Frederick General Mercantile
- 2.8 Natchitoches Christmas Festival of Lights
- 2.9 Cane River Paddle & Pedal Sports
- 3 Cane River Lake
- 4 Cane River National Heritage Trail
- 5 Cane River Creole National Historical Park
- 6 Melrose Plantation
- 7 Additional Sites Along the Trail
- 8 Isle Brevelle Trail
- 9 Kisatchie National Forest
- 10 Lodging & Dining
- 11 Map It!
- 12 We Would Love to Hear From You
- 13 Pin this Post!
Natchitoches & the Cane River National Heritage Trail
Although there is no official list, I think it’s pretty safe to say Natchtoches ranks in my top ten US destinations.
Before we go any further, I know what you’re thinking . . . . “Natchi-WHAT?”
Let me make it easy for you.
Natchitoches, a town in Central Louisiana, is pronounced “NACK-a-tish,” and by the time you finish this post it should be forever etched in your memory.
It’s really pretty simple why Natchitoces ranks so high on my list. It has so many of the things I love, meaning a concentration of history and scenic beauty for days.
Natchitoches is located at the eastern terminus of the El Camino Real de los Tejas National Historic Trail, a route I traveled a few days earlier while touring West Texas and the sportsman’s paradise that is Toledo Bend Lake in nearby Sabine Parish. Natchitoches is also a crossroad where the Camino Real intersected the even older Natchez Trace.
This time, however, I would be exploring sites along the Cane River National Heritage Trail and other regional byways in the vicinity of Natchitoches. I would drive river roads, hike forest paths, scout hidden sites, tour historic homes, and enjoy local cuisine, all the while falling in love with the rich history and scenic beauty of a part of Louisiana previously off my radar.
Although the city of Natchitoches did not incorporate until 1819, it was established as a trading post one hundred years earlier in 1714 by Louis Juchereau de St. Denis during the French colonial period. Named after the native Natchitoches people, the settlement was situated in territory acquired by the United States in 1803 as part of the Louisiana Purchase.
French architectural influence rarely seen outside of New Orleans is evident in the storefronts that line the brick-paved Front Street in the historic district.
National Historic Landmark District
As the oldest permanent settlement in the Louisiana Purchase, a 33-block section of Natchitoches has been named a National Historic Landmark District.
Visitors can relive 300 years of history through self-guided walking and driving tours. Free guided walking tours are available most days, as well. Download a historic district map and tour route by clicking the map above, or consult the Cane River NHA website for the complimentary guided tour schedule.
Here are a sampling of sites you may encounter on your itinerary.
Beau Jardin & Roque House Gardens
Beau Jardin and Rogue House Gardens is a newly-developed area in the historic district nestled between Front Street and the riverfront. The water features, bridges, and landscaping make it an ideal location, not just for scenic walks, but for weddings and other events, as well.
The Roque House, moved here from its Down River location in 1967, occupies a prominent spot on the Natchitoches riverfront.
Historians believe this example of Creole “bousillage” architecture, carefully joined without nails, was built by a freedman of color named Yves. The house is named for its final resident, Madame Aubert Roque, a granddaughter of Augustin Metoyer, patriarch of the Cane River Creole community. Both surnames are common in the area to this day, and I encountered them frequently during my visit.
The oldest cemetery in the Louisiana Purchase was established in association with Fort St. Jean Baptiste in 1737. Along with other local settlers, Natchitoches founder Juchereau St. Denis and his wife Manuela are buried here in the American Cemetery.
Steel Magnolia House
The Cook-Taylor House, made famous as a location in the 1989 movie “Steel Magnolias,” is now a bed and breakfast. Visitors can download a Steel Magnolias Movie Locations map and itinerary for self-guided tours of this and other sites featured in the motion picture.
Minor Basilica of the Immaculate Conception
The current Minor Basilica of the Immaculate Conception is the sixth building to house the parish since its founding in 1728. Construction began in 1857, but it was not completed until the early 1900s. Any church that demonstrates “antiquity, dignity, historical value, architectural worth, and is a significant center of worship” may be elevated to the status of a basilica.
Kaffie-Frederick General Mercantile
Entering the doors of Kaffie-Frederick General Mercantile on Front Street is like taking a step back in time. I could have spent hours exploring the inventory of the oldest general store in Louisiana, where the original 1892 freight elevator still works and the 1917 cash register still rings up every sale.
Natchitoches Christmas Festival of Lights
Held annually on the first Saturday in December since 1927, the Natchitoches Christmas Festival is legendary! The event which draws an estimated 100,000 visitors to town is celebrated with food, music, a parade, fireworks, and more than 100 lighted riverbank set pieces. If you plan to attend, be sure to make your lodging reservations early.
Cane River Paddle & Pedal Sports
For visitors who want to view historic Natchitoches from a different perspective, Cane River Paddle & Pedal Sports offers kayak, stand-up paddle board, and various other watercraft rentals to the public. Cane River is the perfect location for first-timers who don’t want to be concerned with water currents, as you are about to see.
Touring historical Natchitoches was just the beginning of my visit to Central Louisiana. With an abundance of scenic and historical destinations in outlying areas, I soon learned that Natchitoches was a classic hub-and-spoke city, perfect for travelers like me who enjoy history with a side of outdoor adventure.
Cane River Lake
I know it sounds like a contradiction, but Cane River is really a lake. Although its creation, both natural and manmade, was explained to me by a heritage ranger, I’m still a bit fuzzy. Even so, I will explain it the way I understand it. Here goes . . . .
Cane River Lake was originally a channel of the Red River, but in the mid-1800s the Red River began to meander (change course) to a new channel. In order to preserve the previous waterway, earthen dams were built at either end of the 33-mile channel in the early 1900s. Today the body of water is a lake, yet with the winding characteristics of a river.
Grand Ecore Visitor Center
The best location to learn the history of the Red and Cane Rivers is the Grand Ecore Visitor Center, located four miles north of Natchitoches. From its perch on an 80 ft. bluff, it offers a panoramic view of the Red River and surrounding lands.
This joint project of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Red River Waterway Commission not only manages the region’s water resources, but also educates the public through interactive exhibits and heritage rangers on staff.
Visitors can witness the human and natural history of the Red River basin at the visitor center daily during the summer and Wednesdays through Sundays throughout the rest of the year.
Readers may recall Lalita Tademy’s best-selling book Cane River (also an Oprah Book Club selection), as well as its companion Red River. The fact-based historical novels are set within the vicinity of the two rivers.
Cane River National Heritage Trail
I was beyond excited to head downriver from Natchitoches and spend the day exploring the Cane River National Heritage Trail, a driving route through the 116,000 acre Cane River National Heritage Area. Earlier in the year, I had experienced the culture and scenic beauty of Louisiana’s Atchafalaya National Heritage Area on a breathtaking airboat tour.
The best way to plan a day on the trail is to study the region in advance. Visitors planning itineraries can download a guide by clicking the above map, or by ordering a hard copy by mail. If you are a completionist like me, you may want to begin your drive at Grand Ecore in the north or Monett’s Ferry in the south, but there are other options to consider that will be explained below.
Cane River Creole National Historical Park
Within the national heritage area and situated along the heritage trail, the Cane River Creole National Historical Park features two historical plantations that authentically preserve the French Creole cultural landscape. Both properties have also been named National Bicentennial Farms because they were owned by the same families for more than 200 years, and they are the only such farms situated west of the Mississippi River.
Oakland Plantation founder Jean Pierre Emanuel Prud’homme began farming this land in 1785 and was awarded a Spanish land grant in 1789. Eight generations of his family would continue farming tobacco, indigo, and eventually cotton on a large scale.
After the Civil War, the family opened a general store that also operated the Bermuda post office. The store would remain in operation until 1983.
Today the store houses exhibits and the park gift shop.
Cane River Creole NHP participates in the NPS Civil War to Civil Rights trading card initiative, a program “offering more than 500 trading cards to mark the 150th anniversary of the Civil War and the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.” Kids of all ages can view “the cards online and discover stories from nearly 90 national parks in 31 states and the District of Columbia.”
If you are a John Wayne fan, you might recognize the 1826 oak alley and front entrance to the Oakland Plantation main house as a scene from the 1959 motion picture “The Horse Soldiers.”
Guided tours of the main house begin daily at 1:00 PM. Visitors should meet at the rear of the plantation store. Tours are limited to 15 people, so you might want to arrive early.
Construction on the main house was completed in 1821. The house is a classic example of Creole architecture, raised on brick piers to allow air circulation and protection during flooding. Unique porch features include jib windows that open at floor level and a strangers’ room for travelers in need of shelter for the night.
To me, the most fascinating part of the house tour to was seeing the eclectic blending of period pieces that authentically illustrate the Prudhomme family’s occupancy for more than two centuries.
Oakland Plantation encompasses more than twenty outbuildings and ruins for visitors to explore on self-guided tours. Keep an eye open for the lasting craftsmanship of gifted slaves who built most of these structures. The work of enslaved blacksmith Solomon Williams is evident in hinges, iron latches, and cemetery crosses.
One intriguing structure on the grounds is the plantation privy. Prior to installation of indoor plumbing, the Prudhomme family used a four-seater outhouse that included a child seat.
Other outbuildings of noter are a pigeonnier, the overseer’s house, mule barn, cook’s house, and slave/tenant quarters.
Guided tours of the slave/tenant cabin begin immediately before the main house tour at 12:30 PM daily.
A drive eleven miles south of Oakland along the heritage trail will bring you to Magnolia Plantation, the second NHP property.
LIke Oakland, the c. 1873 Magnolia Plantation store is the information center and first stop for self-guided tours.
The LeComte family established Magnolia Plantation in 1835 on land acquired in a land grant almost one hundred years earlier. By 1860, the LeComte-Hertzog family owned more than 6,000 acres where 275 enslaved persons cultivated and harvested cotton and other cash crops.
The family suffered fatalities and property loss during the Civil War, and retreating Union troops burned the original plantation main house. The overseer house survived, and the Hertzog family lived there until the main house was rebuilt in the 1890s. The current main house is privately owned by descendents of the Hertzog family and not open to the public.
Of the twenty-one structures in the park, the eight surviving slave cabins make the strongest statement. The unique brickwork on the corners and gables testify to the master craftsmanship of the slaves who built them. After emancipation, the slave quarters were occupied by tenant farmers and day laborers into the early 1970s.
The cotton gin barn at Magnolia Plantation houses a rare treasure, a wood-screw cotton press, the only one of its type still structurally integrated at its original site.
Guided tours of the Magnolia Plantation grounds are offered on Saturdays and Sundays during the months of April through November, beginning at the plantation store at 2:30 PM.
Cell phone tours of both Cane River Creole NHP plantations are available by dialing 585-421-7340, and self-guided maps are distributed at both sites.
Located halfway between Oakland and Magnolia Plantations you will find the most storied plantation along the trail. Founded in 1795, Melrose Plantation, now privately owned and run by the Association for the Preservation of Historic Natchitoches (APHN), would become one of the largest plantations owned by free people of color.
Nine historical structures situated on the plantation grounds tell a 200-year history that begins with the legendary Marie Thérèse Coin-Coin, former slave of Nachitoches founder St. Denis, who became a powerful landowner, businesswoman, and ultimately a slaveowner herself.
Coin-Coin’s son Louis Metoyer was deeded the 911 acres that would become Melrose in a 1796 land grant, and he began construction on the main house in 1832. His son Jean Baptiste Louis Metoyer completed construction in 1833.
The interior of the main house tells stories of it own. It houses the famous Louisiana library of Cammie Henry who acquired the property in 1899, worked tirelessly as a preservationist, and created a retreat for artists and writers who were welcome to stay as long as they remained productive. Visiting writers included Lyle Saxon, William Faulkner, Erskine Caldwell, and Rachel Field.
The most prominent artist to emerge from Melrose itself was former field hand and Cammie’s cook, Clementine Hunter, who found some discarded paints on the property and began painting for the first time while in her 50s. Hunter’s most famous work, the African House Murals, are displayed on the second floor of that structure on the Melrose grounds. Destined to become one of America’s most celebrated folk artists, Clementine Hunters’s work is displayed today in pretigious galleries across the country.
Some readers may enjoy learning about the work of another self-taught Louisiana primitive artist, Donaldsonville’s Alvin Batiste who was featured in our Ascension Parish article.
Melrose Plantation is open daily, except Mondays, with guided and self-guided tours available at varying admission fees.
Additional Sites Along the Trail
The landscapes and vistas along the Cane River National Heritage Trail provide a stunning backdrop to countless historical locations, including these highlights.
The 1830 Oaklawn Plantation house was built by French planter Narcisse Prudhomme. Oaklawn’s oak alley is the third longest in the state of Louisiana. The property is privately owned by Steel Magnolias playwright and screenwriter Robert Harling.
Cherokee, a privately-owned plantation named for the Cherokee roses at its front gate, was built circa 1837 by a young Frenchman named Emile Sompayrac. In 1839, a political rift between Generals F. Gaiennie and P. E. Bossier escalated to a duel on the grounds of Cherokee Plantation. Gaiennie fired early, but Bossier shot him through the heart. Although he won the duel, Bossier took his own life in 1844.
St. Charles Borromeo Chapel
The 1909 St. Charles Borromeo Chapel is the only known example of a white mission church sponsored by a predominantly black congregation, St. Augustine Catholic Church.
Cane River Commissary
The Cane River Commissary is located near the entrance to Oakland Plantation. The newly-opened restaurant occupies the former commissary building of the adjacent Lambre Cotton Gin, and it is the only known eatery located on the Down River section of the heritage trail. It is open nightly for dinner, except Mondays, and opens early for lunch on Saturdays and Sundays. If you plan to explore the trail during closed times, I recommend packing a picnic lunch in advance.
Atahoe Plantation was once part of Bermuda Plantation. In 1868, the Prudhomme brothers Jacque and Pierre split the lands along the river, and in 1873 Jacque’s land including the main house was renamed Oakland, and Pierre’s lands became Atahoe.
Isle Brevelle Trail
Isle Brevelle was established as a Creole community by Marie Thérèse Coin-Coin in the late 1700s along the west bank of the Cane River. Inhabitants were primarily free people of color descended from French, Spanish, African, and Native American ancestry, and many of them were wealthy and influential. The Isle Brevelle Trail is an alternate route along the west bank of Cane River Lake that include many unique historical sites. I highly recommend taking this route either on the initial or return drive.
Highlights of the trail follow.
St. Augustine Catholic Church
St. Augustine is the first Roman Catholic church in the United States established by and for people of color. The church’s founder was Nicolas Augustin Metoyer, a freed slave and son of Isle Brevelle matriarch Marie Thérèse Coin-Coin.
The current church building, completed in 1917, is the third structure at the location, the previous two having been destroyed by fire. In April of 2017, the sanctuary was outfitted with twelve new stained glass windows.
The church was the filming location for Shelby’s wedding in the movie Steel Magnolias.
“Grandpère,” as Augustin Metoyer is called to this day, is buried in the church cemetery beside his wife Marie Agnès. The cemetery is Clementine Hunter’s final resting place, as well.
The circa 1770 Badin-Roque House (rear) is the only surviving “poteaux-en-terre” (posts-in-ground) structure in Louisiana. The kitchen (foreground), originally located near the house, has been moved closer to the roadway.
The Jones-Roque House is a privately owned Creole cottage built circa 1845. The original house columns were made of wood salvaged from the original St. Augustine Church. Unfortunately, during restoration the columns could not be saved.
John Carroll Jones House
Built circa 1818, the John Carroll Jones House is a unique Creole structure, raised one full story above the ground. The house is named after an African American man from Tennessee who relocated to Isle Brevelle with his Choctaw wife, purchased the home, and became a wealthy planter.
Kisatchie National Forest
I met up with Ranger Mike Dawson at the Kisatchie Ranger Station to learn about longleaf pine reforestation, wildlife protection, outdoor recreation, and other forest initiatives. He greeted me warmly with a gift of a Kisatchie National Forest Quarter, 27th in the America the Beautiful series released in 2015.
The Kisatchie is the only National Forest in Louisiana. The 604,000 acre forest comprises multiple units and ranger districts, and it is a worthy environmental complement to the region’s rich history.
Then, Ranger Mike introduced me to the legacy of Caroline Dormon, a botanist and preservationist whose tireless efforts led to the designation of the national forest in 1930. I had unknowingly snapped a picture of a school where she taught in her early years on one of my typical pullovers prior to arrival at the station.
Longleaf Trail: Louisiana Trails & Byways
To explore the forest further, we headed out on the Longleaf Trail, one of my beloved Louisiana Trails & Byways.
The forest foliage was alive with the colors and textures of early winter.
Red Cockaded Woodpecker Nesting Sites
We stopped to observe a stand of pines marked with white rings. These trees afflicted with heart-rot are unsuitable for timber, but they make perfect nesting sites for the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker.
Kisatchie Hills Wilderness
Back on the road we passed the Kisatchie Hills Wilderness, a section of unmanaged forest where nature is allowed to takes its course. The wilderness is open to the public for hiking, horseback riding, and primitive camping.
Longleaf Vista Recreation Area
The highlight of our driving tour was a short hike at the Longleaf Vista Recreation Area along an improved trail that offered panoramic views from above sandstone bluffs.
Lodging & Dining
Natchitoches offers a wealth of lodging and dining options. The following locations were hosted sites during my visit.
Chateau Saint Denis Hotel
The Chateau Saint Denis Hotel is a new property located in the Natchitoches historic district. It was selected as a unit of the elite Southern Living Hotel Collection.
I stayed an additional night at the Comfort Suites Natchitoches, conveniently located near I-49.
Grand Ecore RV Park
The Grand Ecore RV Park is a brand new state-of-the-art facility managed by the Red River Waterway Commission. Situated adjacent to the Grand Ecore Recreation Area boat launch, the property features more than 100 sites, an activity center, free Wi-Fi, and lots of shady pecan trees.
Lasyone’s Meat Pie Kitchen
I enjoyed a delicious breakfast at Lasyone’s Meat Pie Kitchen, a Natchitoches institution since 1967.
Maglieaux’s Riverfront Restaurant
Maglieaux’s Riverfront Restaurant is located at the north end of Front St. above Beau Jardin. The menu features Italian classics with a Creole flair.
Steak and seafood is always on deck at Mariner’s Restaurant. The salad bar is fresh, the Creole stuffed chicken is tasty, and although not the most photogenic item on the menu, the shrimp artichoke bisque is to die for!
We Would Love to Hear From You
We enjoy dialogue with our readers, especially when they share off-the-beaten-path destinations and useful travel tips. Have you ever visited Natchitoches, Louisiana, and the Cane River National Heritage Area? If so, we would love to hear about your experience. We invite you to leave your comments and questions below, and we always respond!