Explore Natchitoches and Louisiana’s Cane River

Originally Published In

Visit historic downtown Natchitoches and Louisiana's Cane River National Heritage Trail to experience Creole culture.

cane river LouisianaTom and Isa Crews/Gagnon/Getty Images
The Cane River, which is actually an oxbow lake, is the heart of downtown Natchitoches.

You could make a strong argument that live oaks are the world’s most beautiful trees—their moss-draped limbs reaching wide and high, rewriting the open Louisiana landscape into something at once elegant and haunting. Here, on the Cane River National Heritage Trail in the northern part of the state, live oaks punctuate a meandering trip along a winding river through fertile farmland and gentle hills. The Bayou State is chock-full of diverse history, but on the Cane River, some of its most interesting stories uncoil.

The History of Natchitoches

Established in 1994, the trail follows the approximately 35-mile route of Louisiana’s Cane River, which is actually a narrow oxbow lake. The town of Natchitoches (locals pronounce it NACK-a-dish), which consistently ranks as one of America’s most charming small towns, is the trail’s centerpiece. Extending west and south, this route reveals a rich 300-year history, capturing natural splendor and cultural complexity along the way.

I start my exploration in Natchitoches, first founded in 1714 by French settlers eager to trade with nearby Caddo Native Americans. Natchitoches is Louisiana’s oldest permanent European settlement, older even than New Orleans, which was established four years later.
On Jefferson Street overlooking the Cane River waterfront, I get acquainted with the past at the Fort St. Jean Baptiste State Historic Site, where engaging replicas of a fort and trading post show how French settlers lived. I take in exhibits of firearms and period dress at the well-organized visitors center, then make my way outdoors along a shady path where cabins, a mercantile, a church, a cooking hearth and more bring back 18th-century life.

Discover 5 reasons you should visit the oldest town in Texas.

Horse-drawn carriage in Natchitoches, LouisianaJohn Elk III / Alamy Stock Photo
Horse-drawn carriage in Natchitoches, Louisiana

Spanish Fort

The French weren’t the only ones to settle these parts. The eastern edge of what was once New Spain lies just 14 miles from here. I hop in the car and head west along Highway 6 to Los Adaes State Historic Site, once a Spanish presidio, or fort, and the former capital of Spain’s Texas territory. Highway 6 actually marks the overland route used by the Spanish, called El Camino Real (the King’s Road). Los Adaes, a lush outdoor site, once held a large hexagonal Spanish fort. It has yielded a trove of archaeological finds over the years and is the perfect place to stretch my legs, read about life for the soldiers here and listen to the rhythmic cackle of a pileated woodpecker in the surrounding woods.

Check out 5 scenic drives for your next epic getaway.

Downtown Natchitoches

Next, I head back to Natchitoches and meander its brick-lined downtown. Awash in Creole and Art Deco architecture, the area includes a 33-block National Historic Landmark District you can enjoy on foot or by horse-drawn carriage. The Cane River waterfront is also great for strolling, and decorative park benches under magnolia trees offer a view of the river. Kayakers are enjoying the water today, their paddles slicing through the placid, glassy surface as the sun beams down. Even in the winter months, the local climate is often mild enough for one to spend the day comfortably outside.

I’m keen to explore some of the shops among the wrought iron-trimmed storefronts on Front Street, and one that comes highly recommended is Kaffie-Frederick General Mercantile, a two-story emporium founded in 1863. Downstairs, I find shelves and bays packed with tools, hardware and gifts, while the upstairs holds trendy housewares. My favorite part of shopping here is paying for my purchases (some vintage toys and cheeky cocktail napkins) at the 1910 cash register.

Check out the 30 best small towns for fall foliage.

Natchitoches Meat Pies

I’m starting to think about food, so I head around the corner to Lasyone’s Meat Pie Kitchen on 2nd Street, a homespun cafe that has served the community’s signature dish since 1967. Meat pies are serious business in Natchitoches—there’s even a fall meat pie festival complete with cook-offs, live music and the crowning of the Miss Natchitoches Meat Pie Queen. I order a couple to go and set out to explore the downriver portion of the heritage trail, where Louisiana’s rich Creole history comes alive in the land.

Cane River Creole National Historical Park

Swamps and wetlands may be the typical Louisiana landscape, but here you see swaths of farmland and groves of massive hardwoods. Ten miles south of Natchitoches along quiet Highway 494, I reach the Cane River Creole National Historical Park, a site run by the National Park Service that includes the two most intact French Creole cotton plantations in the country: Oakland and, a little farther downriver, Magnolia. At Oakland, 16 historic buildings—including the main house, slave or tenant farmer quarters, a pigeonnier (a structure that holds pigeons and doves) and a general store­—paint a picture of how enslaved people once lived here. They farmed, and some eventually became tenant farmers and landowners. This part of the trail also includes Isle Brevelle, where the Creole descendants of French planters and enslaved Africans lived as free people of color.

These spectacular photographs of America’s national parks will leave you awestruck.

Cane River Folk Art

Five miles farther downriver, I reach Melrose Plantation. Touring the grounds and buildings of Melrose, I learn about one of the American folk art world’s great stories. The plantation became an artists colony in the early 20th century, and on a chance occasion, a visiting artist left behind his supplies. A cook who lived and worked at Melrose named Clementine Hunter picked them up and began using them, discovering she had both passion and talent. Hunter’s primitive folk paintings eventually earned attention and international acclaim. I head to the second floor of the African House outbuilding to see her stunning murals of Cane River life.

I end the day with a sunset stop at St. Augustine Catholic Church and Cemetery, established in the early 19th century by and for local Creoles at a lovely bend in the river. It’s still operational today and is also part of Louisiana’s African American Heritage Trail. I stroll the grounds and gravesites. Later I pause near the river to sit and sink my teeth into one of those succulent beef and pork meat pies, its deep-fried crust is perfectly crisp.

As I walk through the sanctuary, light plays through stained-glass windows, a gilded contrast to the simple beadboard walls. It’s a fine place to reflect on the Natchitoches, Louisiana, area’s beauty and resilience.

Next, explore the Piney Woods and rose capital of America in East Texas.

Originally Published in Country