Fueled by my first cup of steaming hot coffee at the break of dawn, I finally stopped shivering. It had been a cold November night, but the weather report promised a sunny and warm day; perfect for gliding a canoe through the Big Cypress Bayou.
Listening to birds singing their hearts out a few feet from my tent, I watch the splendor of Caddo Lake State Park slowly wake up.
My past trips to Caddo Lake were during spring, but on this fall morning, it is obvious that Caddo is a park of all seasons. Soft moss hanging precariously from dark green cypress trees in the warmer months was now mud brown clinging to spectacular burnt orange cypress trees.
Henry Ford used the same moss as stuffing for the seats in early Model Ts, until customers complained of annoying insects escaping from the seats. The Caddo Indians probably could have warned Mr. Ford, for they lived in the area for 12,000 years. Settling in permanent villages along the bayou, they built ceremonial centers and maintained far-reaching trade routes long before the dams were built. These early Texans disappeared sometime in the 19th century.
The depth of the Big Cypress Bayou is between 8 and 20 feet and never has rushing water or strong currents to wash away the bounty of the surrounding forest. The slowness of the flow results in the water becoming dark with nutrients as it fills with decaying matter falling into the water and staying in place. Caddo’s nutritious bayous support plankton, 71 species of freshwater fish and a large array of reptile and mammal wildlife.
The bayou's Saw Mill Pond is an unspoiled habitat for American lotus flowers and lily pads, the pond is an ideal sunny napping spot for frogs or turtles and a breakfast hot spot for shorebirds such as great white egrets and blue herons; which can all be spied upon from a long, safe pier. Alligators and snakes roam the bayou, but are rarely seen and have learned to stay close to the shore away from motorized fishing boats cruising through the water.
Caddo Lake State Park is a grand maze of small lakes, entangled by bayous that change shape with the rain. Nearby towns of Karnack and Uncertain were flooded in 2015, forcing evacuations and enduring damage to most structures.
Canoes are available for rent at the park, ranging from $10 for the first hour to $50 for a full 24 hours. The canoes hold three people easily, with life jackets and paddles included. During check-in into the park, the rangers distribute a list of guided bayou and swamp tours and information about nearby areas that can be reached by raft, pontoon or fishing boats.
Maybe I should just sit back, relax and let someone else do all the rowing while I watch the scenic bayou float by. It is tempting. Fishing trips are also available.
Several hiking trails are also around Caddo Lake. Most are short and easy to walk and take you by interesting Great Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps structures in the area, including a rock picnic pavilion, boat house, concession (currently the group recreation hall), a well house and latrines. CCC workers also built roads and converted 15 U.S. Army barracks and mess halls into log cabins still used today.
Rustic boardwalk bridges cross over small creeks that leak slowly from the bayou throughout the forest. Due to the richness of the bayou, insect eating birds are everywhere. Keep an eye on tree trunks for the beautiful and busy Pileated woodpecker. Along the hike, it is possible for armadillos, raccoons, minks, nutrias or white-tailed deer to cross your path.
The park hosts over 50 campsites ranging from primitive to full-hookup sites with electricity and water. The sites are shaded by a wide variety of trees and brush with plenty of space between neighbors. Recently updated bathrooms near the campgrounds include showers and are scattered throughout the park.
If camping outdoors is not your style, Caddo Lake State Park offers nine rustic cabins with grills and screened areas. The Shady Glade Resort in Uncertain offers a marina, fishing pier, RV park, lodge and a café known for their fried catfish.
Caddo Lake State Park is located just 5 miles from the Louisiana border, making the park an interesting family day trip option for east Texans. Restaurants placed along the bayou outside the park offer serene views of graceful white egrets and delicious food for all ages.
The Big Pines Lodge in Karnack received rave reviews of their peach cobbler. The off-the-beaten-path Riverbend Restaurant in Uncertain is worth the drive for their BBQ and delicious home-made coleslaw. The Aseret Mexican Restaurant with a Cajun twist located on Highway 134 grills unique street tacos with goat or beef brisket meat. If you don’t mind a bar atmosphere, the Lighthouse in Uncertain makes yummy hamburgers.
My favorite memory of Caddo Lake is slowly floating down the bayou with my friends in kayaks at night, scanning the shore with flashlights for the red eyes of alligators while listening to country music and laughter flowing from cafes and private home decks along the way. Every day is a good day to visit Caddo Lake State Park.
The Caddo Lake area has over 50 miles of canoe and kayak trails for paddlers. Follow the trail markers posted along each trail to explore the mysterious maze of sloughs, swamps and bayous.
These trails were made possible through a partnership between Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, Backwater Jack’s RV Park, Greater Caddo Lake Association, Cypress Basin Chapter-Texas Master Naturalist, Friends of Caddo Lake National Wildlife Refuge, and TPWD-Caddo Lake Wildlife Management Area.
CADDO PADDLING TRAILS
Benton Lake Paddling Trail: Begin and end at Backwater Jack's RV Park; length is 2.4 miles; float time is 1 to 2 hours. Follow a passage of tall, moss draped bald cypress trees into an awe-inspiring sunken forest.
Clear Lake Paddling Trail: Begin and end at Backwater Jack's RV Park; length is 2.9 miles; float time is 1.5 to 3 hours. Wind through a tight, narrow, and twisting water trail, which opens into large hidden pond of tall, moss-draped bald cypress surroundings and then delves back into a hidden pocket trail. The charm of this trail is seclusion.
Haggerty Creek Paddling Trail: Begin and end at Backwater Jack's RV Park; length is 5 miles; float time is 2 to 3 hours. This route travels down Big Cypress Bayou and into Haggerty Creek where it empties into the bayou and bald cypress thickets.
Mill Pond Paddling Trail: Begin and end at Backwater Jack's RV Park; length is 7.2 miles; float time is 3 to 4 hours. This loop trail follows the Big Cypress Bayou downstream to the Caddo Lake State Park and entrance to Mill Pond before returning upstream.
Old River II Paddling Trail: Begin and end at Backwater Jack's RV Park; length is 3 miles; float time is 1 to 2 hours. The trail heads upstream to an old oxbow of the bayou. It has still, shallow waters and along the bank is a beautiful bottomland floodplain forest.
Carter's Chute Paddling Trail: Begin and end at Caddo Lake Wildlife Management Area's canoe/kayak launch on FM 805 (entry is by permit only); length is 7.6 miles; float time is 3 to 4 hours. Launch directly into the swamp and tall towering bald cypress trees. Follow the markers to Boat Road C, marker pole 19 and merge into the Hell's Half Acre Trail.
Cathedral Paddling Trail: Begin and end at Shady Glade Resort boat launch; length is 3.8 miles; float time is about 2 hours. Travel along the Boat Road U passing charming residences and B&Bs. Marvel at some of the older trees that stand alone in the water.
Hell's Half Acre Paddling Trail: Begin and end at Mill Pond canoe/kayak launch in Caddo Lake State Park; length is 8.8 miles; float time is 3 to 4 hours. Paddlers launch into the Big Cypress Bayou and Caddo Lake. The northern shore is the Caddo Lake Wildlife Management Area. Paddle downstream to Carney Canal. Enjoy the tight pass through the bald cypress trees.
Old Folks Playground Paddling Trail: Begin and end at Crip's Camp boat launch. This trail starts in Goose Prairie, an area known for its abundance of white water lilies. Other areas along this trail have large stands of American Lotus. Paddlers pass by a portion of the Caddo Lake National Wildlife Refuge.
Turtle Shell Paddling Trail: Begin and end at Johnson's Ranch boat launch; length is 4.6 miles; float time is 2 to 3 hours. The trail takes paddlers through a well marked maze of boat roads where they see a beautiful, mystical and almost primeval cypress swamp.
Source: Texas Parks and Wildlife Department
Besides the murky waters and the cypress trees of Caddo Lake and its bayous, the area has plenty of places to see and places to explore.
Uncertain: The small town of Uncertain on the shore of Caddo Lake offers many accommodations and restaurants. Services are available to help you enjoy the lake by fishing, hunting, paddling, touring, or photography. cityofuncertain.com, 903-789-3443.
Backwater Jack’s R.V. Park: Located on the banks of Big Cypress Bayou between Karnack and Jefferson on Highway 134, visitors to Backwater Jack's can enjoy RVing, camping, boating, canoeing, fishing, and wildlife and bird watching. backwaterjacksrv.com, 903-679-3427
Jefferson: Just off Highway 59 north or Marshall, Jefferson is located about seven miles from the bayou. The small town is known for its museums and many antique stores and beautifully preserved historical homes. Legend has it that ghosts haunt its downtown hotels. Jefferson Visitor Center, 903-665-7220.
Caddo Lake State Park: Thick bald cypress and a tangle of aquatic plants thrive in the waters at Caddo Lake State Park, which consists of 484 acres on Caddo Lake down the bayou from Backwater Jack’s. Because the vegetation is so lush, much of the lake is really a maze of sloughs, bayous, and ponds. Activities enjoyed by visitors include camping, hiking, canoeing and kayaking, picnicking, nature study, and fishing. state.tx.us/state-parks/caddo-lake, 903-679-3351.
Caddo Lake Wildlife Management Area: The Caddo Lake Wildlife Management area has 8,005 acres in Marion and Harrison counties. On the Caddo Lake side, visitors will see bottomland hardwood forests, upland pine-oak-hickory forests, and mature hardwood forests. Visitors will also see flooded bald cypress forests and a very diverse collection of aquatic vegetation. Entry is by permit only and Caddo Lake WMA offers primitive overnight camping, hunting, fishing, hiking, bird watching, photography, canoeing, and kayaking. tpwd.state.tx.us/huntwild/hunt/wma/find_a_wma/list/?id=104, 903-679-9817.
Caddo Lake National Wildlife Refuge: Caddo Lake National Wildlife Refuge contains some of the best examples of mature flooded bald cypress forest in the United States and includes cypress trees nearly 400 years old. Nature and wildlife can be viewed on the Refuge from hiking, biking and equestrian trails, and an auto driving route. The refuge also has hunting opportunities. fws.gov/refuge/caddo_lake/, 903-679-9144.
Source: Texas Parks & Wildlife Department
IF YOU GO
Check out the Caddo Lake State Park programs on the Texas Parks and Wildlife website at texasstateparks.org. Family fun programs are offered pretty much year around in the park. Fishing rules and regulations can also be found on their website.
Ann Bush is a freelance writer and eco-traveler who explores the beauty and uniqueness of Texas every chance she gets.