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Louisiana’s Longleaf Trail Scenic Byway
By Maxye and Lou Henry
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, which includes the Kisatchie Hills Wilderness for about half its length. It provides numerous opportunities for viewing the wilderness. The area through which Longleaf Trail passes was prized for its beauty in the 1700s. The trail was originally constructed as a single-lane road by the Civilian Conservation Corps about 1935. Its reconstruction and modernization began in 1972.
Sights along the scenic byway
Roughly two miles of the Longleaf Trail are located on the original route of the historic Opelousas-to-Fort Jessup Military Road. Government Land Office maps from 1832 show it as the "Road from Opelousas to Natchitoches." At that time it was the primary route to Fort Jessup, Louisiana, a military outpost known in the early 1800s as the "Gateway to the Western Frontier." During the spring of 1864, the historic route played an important part in the Red River Campaign of the Civil War. In March 1864, it served as the main thoroughfare of retreat for Confederate forces fleeing the Union troups under General Nathaniel Banks. One month later, Confederate troops led by General Richard Taylor used it to defeat Banks' Union troops at the Battle of Mansfield.
The Longleaf Vista is surrounded on three sides by the Kisatchie Hills Wilderness and provides excellent views of the wilderness and the country beyond it. Easily seen from the vista are several mesas, buttes and sandstone outcrops. Small fossils and petrified wood have been found scattered in the hills. A short walk along the nature trail offers interesting information about native plants. A shaded picnic area provides a pleasant place for visitors to enjoy an outdoor lunch. Modern restroom facilities and a small visitor center are provided.
Occasionally the early loggers would leave a fine tree as a seed source or another purpose. This large, overmature tree was 248 years old. It sprouted from a pine seed around 1750 and was typical of trees that covered the Kisatchie Hills for centuries. A few years ago, it was struck by lightening and died, but a large segment of it was preserved and is displayed at the new Welcome Center just north of Alexandria, Louisiana, on I-49. Nearby where the tree used to stand are smaller trees that are around 60 years old.
Caroline Dormon Hiking and Horse Trail:
This 12-mile trail extends from Longleaf Trail to Kisatchie Bayou Campground. It is named in memory of Miss Caroline Dormon. "Miss Carrie" as she was known, is credited with tenaciously encouraging much of the enabling legislation that resulted in the establishment of the Kisatchie National Forest.
Red Dirt Fire Tower Site: Now, as in the past, an essential job in forest management is protection from wildfires. Old-timers often would spike trees so they could climb them quickly and look for fires. Later, fire towers were built to replace these early crows’ nests. This tower site, which dates back to 1936, got its name from a settlement known as "Red Dirt." Red Dirt Tower was removed in 1983 because it was no longer needed. It was replaced with a forest-wide system of aerial detection.
Kisatchie Hills Wilderness:
The Kisatchie Hills were formed millions of years ago. Known locally as the "Little Grand Canyon," this area was designated a wilderness in 1980. Its terrain is exceptionally rugged for Louisiana. Steep slopes, rock outcrops and mesas provide a vivid contrast to the surrounding highly productive, heavily timbered forest. Kisatchie Hills is popular with hikers and sightseers for its unusual topographic features and scenic vistas. The Longleaf Trail Scenic Byway skirts the wilderness boundary for about seven miles from FS Road 339 to its intersection with Louisiana Highway 119, affording many opportunities to see across the wilderness.
Early Logging History:
A visible portion of a historic timber or naval stores narrow-gauge tram bed lies adjacent to the Longleaf Trail Scenic Byway. The Longleaf Vista Nature Trail passes near a late 19th/early 20th century turpentine still.
National Red Dirt Wildlife Management Preserve:
The 38,450-acre preserve was established in 1941. The U.S. Forest Service and the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries cooperate in its management.
Red-Cockaded Woodpecker Trees:
As loggers moved through the virgin forests, they left small or deformed trees. Two 135-year-old trees adjacent to the trail are reminders of past logging operations. They are infected with red-heart decay, a disease common to overmature pines. Pines such as these are favored roosting and nesting habitat of the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker.
Superior Longleaf Pine:
Forest genetics promises professional foresters the ability to grow more wood on less land. It requires locating trees with superior characteristics of growth, quality, and resistance to disease. These are called "super trees." Only one in 350,000 will qualify. Through cross-breeding, a superior seed supply is being developed for tomorrow's forests.
Old Lotus School Site:
An old well is all that remains of the first school in this area. A historic stagecoach route from the south intersected the Longleaf Trail near here.
Kisatchie Bayou State Natural and Scenic Stream: To protect its natural beauty, Kisatchie Bayou was included in the Louisiana Natural and Scenic Stream System. Kisatchie Bayou has changed over time. Indians referred to it as the "Kisatchie," meaning "Cane Country," because of cane patches along the stream. The cane patches washed away in destructive floods of the early 1900s.
Today's professional forest management, however, provides a protective cover for the soil. This helps slow water flow and minimizes the possibility of serious flooding.
Prehistoric Indian Sites:
The general vicinity of the Kisatchie Ranger District is within the traditional range of the late prehistoric Caddo Indians. Several sites of that time period are within a mile of Longleaf Trail.
Kisatchie Work Center:
More than 100 years ago Bellwood Academy was located here. It was on the edge of the western frontier and offered advanced study in several fields. Newton C. Blanchard, Governor of Louisiana from 1905 to 1908, was an alumnus of the school. The Academy closed its doors in 1863. Little use was made of the site until 1935, when a Civilian Conservation Corps camp was built there. After the Kisatchie National Forest was established and the CCCs were disbanded, this location entered its current use as a field office and equipment depot for the Kisatchie Ranger District.
Within a short driving distance of the Longleaf Scenic Byway there are several camp and picnic sites. Camping and picnicking areas offering facilities include: Kisatchie Bayou and Dogwood. Primitive camping is available at: Lotus, Red Bluff, Cane, Corral, Oak, Coyote and Custis, and picnicking at Longleaf Vista.
Additional information about recreational opportunities or answers to other questions can be obtained by calling (318) 352-2568, or write to District Ranger, USDA Forest Service, P.O. Box 2128, Natchitoches, LA 71457.