Located less than an hour from Fort Polk is one of the more scenic areas of a state that prides itself on being known as "Sportsman's Paradise."
Meandering through Kisatchie National Forest between La. 117 and 119 is Longleaf Vista Scenic Byway, a 17-mile stretch of two-lane, paved road that follows a high ridge through the rugged Kisatchie Hills area of the forest.
"Because of its unusual terrain, the Kisatchie Ranger District is considered by local residents to be the 'crown jewel' of the more than 600,000 acre Kisatchie National Forest," said park ranger Matt Hughes.
Hughes said visitors can expect a topography that ranges from level land to very steep bluffs.
"The highest point on the Kisatchie National Forest is 410 feet above sea level," the transplant from Wisconsin said. "Elevations of 360 feet are numerous and afford views of more than 20 miles."
The Longleaf Trail, now designated as a scenic byway, has long been recognized as one of the most scenic drives in Louisiana. The terrain is exceptionally rugged for Louisiana, ranging from 120 to 400 feet in elevation. Vistas along the road include mesas, buttes and sandstone outcrops, backdropped by longleaf pines. The trail crosses Kisatchie Bayou, a state natural and scenic stream. It then traverses the National Red Dirt Wildlife Management Preserve that includes the Kisatchie Hills Wilderness for about half its length. It provides numerous opportunities for viewing the wilderness.
Hughes said Kisatchie Hills consists of sediments that were deposited many years ago.
"These horizontal layers of silts, sands and clay were then uplifted in association with coastal subsidence," he said. "The narrow valleys were produced by stream action eroding the softer sediments"
Hughes said the Kisatchie Hills landscape is composed of pine ridges and narrow hardwood bottomlands.
"The rugged rocky hills are predominately covered with strands of longleaf pine and associated shrub species of yaupon and wax myrtle," he said. "Other tree species such as oak, hickory, beech, magnolia and gum are found in the stream bottoms. The terrain of Kisatchie Hills consists of flat-topped ridges with relatively steep slopes. The soils are shallow, poor in organic material and nutrients, and highly unstable, which results in the patchy appearance of vegetation."
While most Louisiana residents are aware of the thriving timber industry in the state, Hughes said many are surprised to learn it was turpentine that predated logging as an important part of the area's economy.
"Turpentine and resin, also called gum naval stores, were for some time extracted from longleaf pines," Hughes said. "There was once a large turpentine camp in Kisatchie Hills. They would tap the pines for their sap, and then convert the sap into turpentine. The trees were later harvested during the early 1900s, leaving a landscape that looked like the surface of the moon. In the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps replanted the area with pine trees."
Page 2 of 2 - Today, all that is left of a massive turpentine mill is a plateau, reached by a stone path and steps located in the Longleaf Vista complex, located near the east end of the byway. A 1.5 mile trail takes visitors to the plateau and through the surrounding valleys.
There are numerous marked trails located throughout the Red Dirt National Wildlife Management Preserve and Kisatchie Hills Wilderness Area, both located in Kisatchie National Forest and bordering Longleaf Vista Scenic Byway. Among them are the Backbone Trail, Sandstone Multiple-Use Trail, Wild Azalea Trail and the Caroline Dormon Trailhead.
The Backbone Trail - with its high ridges and Longleaf pine trees - has been called the most beautiful trail in Louisiana. The trek offers expansive views from its ridges. The trail can be hiked as an end-to-end hike in a day (7.6 miles).
Another option if you are only in one car is to park at the Caroline Dormon Trailhead, and then walk the road to the northwest trailhead (2.5 miles). You can then hike the trail back to your car for a daily total of 10 miles. Water is available on the trail in only a couple of spots - so be sure to take enough water for the day. Also be aware that this trail can be tough in hot weather due to less shade than the Wild Azalea Trail. Ideal months are October through April.
The most popular spot along the byway is the Kisatchie Bayou campground. There are more than 20 campsites located along a stretch of the bayou that includes white water rapids, cool, deep pools and sand bars to whet the appetite of every outdoors fan. The rapids area is a favorite haunt of visitors wanting to escape the hot Louisiana summers, while the sandbars make a perfect spot to relax with a book, let the kids play in the shallows or try your hand at landing a perch, bass or catfish.
To reach Longleaf Vista Scenic Byway from Fort Polk take U.S. 171 north, turn right on La. 28, left on La. 117 and then right onto the byway. There is a National Forest Service sign located on La. 117 that marks the entrance to the byway and lists areas of interest.
For more information about the area visit www.usda.gov/kisatchie or call the Kisatchie Ranger District headquarters at (318) 472-1840.