Hikers can find a hint of fall color by heading to the wetlands of Bayou Castine at the edge of the 400-acre Northlake Nature Center, (NNC) just east of the Mandeville, LA city limits. These pond swamps are one of the four different ecosystems in the park--hardwood forest, pine-hardwood forest and pine savanna are the other three--and are the most likely to have trees and shrubs with leaves that change color and fall in autumn.
Take the South Loop (Yellow Trail) and the North Loop (Green Trail) to several scenic spots on the east bank of Bayou Castine. Here deciduous trees in the bottomland hardwood forest flanking the wetland are changing color. The color change from green to red, orange, yellow and brown is muted and subtle, mostly changing from green to brown.
But from the lookouts near Savanna Lake hikers can see clumps of leaves in the brighter, intense hues more commonly found on trees growing north of the Deep South. Adding to the pleasure of the view is the absence of traffic noise from busy highway U.S. 190 to the south.
These lookouts are about a mile north of the parking lot off U.S. 190. (Driving east the NNC parking lot is an IMMEDIATE left turn after crossing the short bridge crossing Bayou Castine on U.S. 190. Blink and you will miss it. Use turn signals to warn following traffic of your intention to turn well in advance of the turn. If you miss the turn, continue to the entrance to Pelican Park, Castine Center and turn around there.)
The terrain is flat and there are raised wooden boardwalks where the trail passes over wet areas. Off-road cycling is permitted on the park's trails and hikers may encounter a few riders on the trail. Pets are also permitted. The numerous crisscross trails near the parking lot and the bridge over the beaver pond make this a great place to bring children for a day in the woods.
But signage on the trails is confusing or missing altogether. If hikers in a group have to be at the same place at the same time, stay together and take a head count after every trail intersection. This is especially important when hiking with children who tend to disperse quickly once on the trail. The trail intersections closest to the parking lot are the most confusing. Admission to the park is free.
The entrance to the trails is at the eastern edge of the gravel parking lot. A big informational sign is there. The trail is a boardwalk at the entrance and is suitable for wheelchair use. There is no drinking water available at the parking lot or in the park but there is a single portable toilet. A trail to a canoe/kayak launch exits the parking lot to the west.
Despite having about eight miles of trails, the park is compact so you are never far from the boundaries at the perimeter of the park: Pelican Park to the east, U.S. 190 to the south or Bayou Castine to the west. But take one of the maps available at the entrance anyway even though trying to use it, not all trails are shown, can be frustrating. On the other side of the map is valuable information about the park and how to join the NNC.
The trail leading from the rough unimproved gravel parking lot to the bridge over the pond behind the beaver dam is boardwalk and suitable for wheelchairs. Clustered in this area of the park are shelters with tables and a pavilion used for group meetings, social events and outdoor instruction.
Weekends with nice, crisp weather are popular times to visit the park so parking is can get tight. So if you have a choice try to hike in the preserve early in the morning or later in the afternoon. The park is open from dawn to dusk, 365 days a year.
NNC borders Pelican Park, a recreation complex with numerous outdoor playing fields and ball diamonds to the east. In Pelican Park there are restrooms, soft drink machines and drinking fountains to refill water bottles. A paved spur from the Tammany Trace, a bicycle and pedestrian path, crosses U.S. 190 and the NNC to a parking lot in Pelican Park.
Guided hikes led by local naturalists are available by appointment. The NNC has a year-around schedule of recreational activities for kids and adults including yoga, mountain biking on the trails, kayaking on Bayou Castine and campfire programs. Some of these programs charge fees with discounts to NNC members. Hands-on nature walks for school groups, summer camps and clubs are also available by appointment.
There is also an on-going campaign to recruit workers for volunteer tree plantings to restore the longleaf pines, trail building and park maintenance, aka, "titivation." For more information phone 985-626-1238 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. The website is www.northlakenature.org.
NNC is also ground zero for the Great Louisiana BirdFest, an annual event held each spring highlighting the best birding locations in St. Tammany Parish.