Thursday, March 7, 2013

Canoe Camping in Chicot State Park (LA)

Paddlers from the Lafayette (LA) Paddle Club perform maintenance on canoe trail signs in Chicot State Park north of Ville Platte, LA.  They are from left; Mike VanEtten, Kathy Knierim and Thomas Junk.
      The eight-mile paddle trail in the swamp-like lake at Chicot State Park north of Ville Platte, LA is marked with signs.  The yellow, rectangular signs are nailed to towering tree trunks rising from the brown lake water and can be easily seen by paddlers floating amid the watery forest of bald cypress and tupelo gum trees that reach into the lake from the low wooded hills surrounding it.  The signs show where the designated camping sites are (there are six) and keep paddlers following the mapped trail on track.
     Without the signs, navigation on the 2,000-acre lake requires a GPS or map and compass skills to locate a destination because once on the water landmarks that were so distinct when standing at the launch quickly disappear from view.  It is a lot easier to get lost on a lake that is seldom more than a quarter-mile wide than you might think.  Not really life-threatening but certainly embarrassing.         
     That's why on a cool day in early March, Mike VanEtten, president of the Lafayette (LA) Paddle Club, spent a sunny afternoon leaning from the bow seat of a faded red canoe to wipe each trail marker clean.   He reattached loose signs to the massive trees being careful to leave some of the nail sticking out so the tree could grow and not pop the sign off.   And he made mental notes on missing signs that will need to be replaced later.  VanEtten's stern paddler, Thomas Junk, another LPC member, scouts for upcoming signs and slowly pilots VanEtten into position through stubby cypress knees and clumps of green, floating aquatic vegetation.
     The setting for the chore is beautiful--the busy paddlers surrounded by a tupelo gum/bald cypress swamp, the tall trees draped with Spanish moss swaying in the breeze, the air filled with the chirps, chortles and songs of migrating song birds.  But the work is not without risks.
     "Look behind every sign before touching it.  There could be a wasp nest there," VanEtten cautions LPC member, Kathy Knierim who is helping him administer to the signs from the seat of a smaller blue solo canoe.  The lake is rife with alligators but the trio sees none.  Apparently it is still just too cold on this early spring day for the cold-blooded reptiles to climb out of the water to sun on a log.
     The signed trail is accessed from the three boat launches in the park.  Canoes, located at the South Landing rent for $20 a day.  Pay at the entrance station.  The eight miles of paddle trail is divided into three sections: the Northern Loop Trail, connecting the North Landing and the East Landing is 4.5 miles, the trail from the East Landing to the South Landing is 1.5 miles and the trail from the South Landing to the south end of the lake is two miles-one way.  Bring bug repellent every trip, even in winter. 
     The paddle trail is one of two popular trails in the 6,400 acre Chicot State Park.  The other is the Buckeye Trail, a 20-mile hiking/backpacking/mountain bike trail; a root and stob strewn loop through the hilly beech/magnolia forest surrounding much of the lake; difficult for a mountain biker, taxing for the hiker/backpacker.  "Up" is only 30 feet higher than "down" along the trail with little level trail so flat-landers are especially challenged.  One of the Bayou State's longest backpacking trails, the Buckeye Trail is also the venue for an ultra-endurance run each December attracting competitors from around the world.
      The volunteer labor provided by the three members of the Lafayette (LA) Paddle Club tending to the canoe trail signs is both welcome and comes at a good time of the year, said Chicot State Park assistant manager, Keith Broussard.
     "In the spring when the weather is warm but not hot, the trails are very popular.  The Easter holiday is a busy time here at Chicot," Broussard said.
     Members of outdoor clubs such as the Lafayette Canoe Club and the Louisiana Hiking Club, based in Baton Rouge (LA), provide valuable assistance in helping maintain the trails in the park at a time when trail maintenance is not a top priority in tight state park budgets.
     Mountain bikers, hikers, backpackers and paddlers will find the park welcoming.  The staff is friendly and savvy to the needs of non-motorized recreationalists.  Don't be surprised to be offered a map of the park's canoe trail even before you ask if a staffer sees your paddle craft on top of your vehicle.
     The efficiency and friendliness of  "those kids" working the entrance station in the park is a point of pride for residents of Ville Platte, six miles to the south.  One fisherman from a group of men having coffee at the Ville Platte McDonald's, heaped praise on the Chicot staff after seeing my canoe and hearing I had paddled in the park.
     Because the park is about a three-hour drive from New Orleans, paddlers, hikers and bikers from the Crescent City usually stay one or more nights in the park, either at a back country site, in the campground or in a cabin.  To avoid the disappointment and inconvenience of arriving at the park after a long drive only to find all the camping is taken, plan your trip carefully.  And if your goal is one of the six back country sites, which cannot be reserved, hope you are lucky.

How to get a back country site.

     Drive to the Chicot SP entrance off LA highway 3042, seven miles north of Ville Platte, LA.  This is the main entrance.  You must register here to camp at the back country sites.  The fee for back country camping is $1 per person, per day.  There are six back country sites sprinkled along the seven-mile long lake's shoreline.  ALL BACK COUNTRY SITES ARE FIRST COME, FIRST SERVE.  BACK COUNTRY SITES CANNOT BE RESERVED.  Five are accessible from the lake and by foot: one is only accessible from the lake.  (Somewhere there is a map with the GPS coordinates for the back country sites.  I used to have a copy but I don't any more.) Arriving at a campsite in a motorized boat is not permitted.  All back country sites are open to both hikers and paddlers.
      Because everyone camping at a back country site registers in person at the entrance station, staff at the entrance station know immediately when all six back country sites are filled.  If you are the seventh person to appear at the entrance station to ask for a back country site YOU WILL BE TURNED AWAY!  (Plan B: If there is an unreserved site in the campground you are welcome to stay there.  Fees start at $16 per night plus the reservation fee of $6)  Staff at the park said they don't like to turn people away but they do when all the back country sites are taken.  Do not call from New Orleans, Baton Rouge or Lafayette to ask if there are any back country sites left.  NOBODY KNOWS HOW MANY WILL BE LEFT BY THE TIME YOU GET TO THE PARK.  BACK COUNTRY SITES CANNOT BE RESERVED! Staffers say there is high demand for back country sites on holidays and weekends in the spring and fall and all six sites can be occupied by Friday night.   Planning to snag a back country site Saturday morning?  DO YOU FEEL LUCKY?
     The entrance station is open later on Friday and Saturday nights but call to confirm entrance station hours.  You can register for a back country site only if the entrance station is open.  The park opens earlier and stays open later than the entrance station so make sure you know the different times.
     Ask for both the trails/facility map and the canoe trail map.  The canoe trail map does not show the location of all the back country camping sites.  (You know somebody cares when you get a hiking trail map with the trail highlighted by hand using three different Sharpie marker colors!)
     Reservations are strongly recommended for the 198 camping sites ($16 and up per night) in the parks two campgrounds.  Call toll-free, 877-226-7652, to reserve a campsite or cabin.  Back country sites cannot be reserved.  There is a $6 fee to make a reservation.   You don't have to reserve a site--drive ups are welcome if there is an open spot--but you pay the $6 reservation fee for a camping site no matter if you reserved it or not.  This is the policy for all Louisiana State parks.
     The park and the adjoining Louisiana State Arboretum schedule a variety of family activities, such as guided canoe treks, bird hikes and nature programs.  After paying the entrance fee, the scheduled activities are free.  Visit the arboretum blog for program information or call 1-888-677-6100.
     Recently a beautiful new building housing the arboretum visitor center has opened in Chicot SP off  North Landing Road in the park.  The old entrance to the 600 acre arboretum on the highway is still there as is the tiny museum at the Caroline Dorman Lodge.   The six miles of trails in the arboretum connect the two locations.
     The lake is very popular with fishermen, dating back to the day the park opened in 1942.  Chicot is one of the oldest state parks in Louisiana.
     For more information call the park toll-free at 1-888-677-2442 or not toll-free at 337-363-2403.  The E-mail address is


Reader said...

Great article, Jack! I definitely want to paddle and camp here one weekend. This information will be very helpful in planning. ~ Nathan

Family Tree Sleuth said...

Thanks for this article. I am planning a backpacking trip to Chicot this month and this was very helpful. - Becky