PHOTO BY JASON COHEN
In 2014, the fifty-five-mile section of the levee-top road from Henderson to the Wax Lake Outlet West Flood Gate was designated as the Atchafalaya Basin Wilderness Bike Trail.
I’ve taken my bicycle up and down the loess hills of Mississippi, through the dark abandoned rail tunnels of Idaho’s Hiawatha Trail, and over the farmland of Vietnam; but these days, I’m mostly an urban cyclist tooling around my hometown of Lafayette. Cycling in the commotion of traffic, my stomach in my mouth after a close call, I long for a simple ride with no stop signs or too-cozy cars and the beauty of unfettered skies. I find this nearby in the Atchafalaya Basin.
In 2014, the fifty-five-mile section of the levee-top road from Henderson to the Wax Lake Outlet West Flood Gate was designated as the Atchafalaya Basin Wilderness Bike Trail. Phil Barnidge, a Lafayette cyclist who rides the trail regularly, described it as a great way to start down the “gravel grinding” path. A new trend in cycling, gravel grinding is guided by the notion of “exploring” on your bicycle—often on gravel or dirt roads little used by motorized traffic. “The more remote and self-reliant the better!” noted Barnidge. “This trail offers all of the riding experience without the threat of getting lost. If things get too rocky, too muddy, too hot, there is always the option to drop down to the paved road and turn around.”
I LONG FOR A SIMPLE RIDE WITH NO STOP SIGNS OR TOO-COZY CARS AND THE BEAUTY OF UNFETTERED SKIES. I FIND THIS NEARBY IN THE ATCHAFALAYA BASIN.
Having biked a section of the trail as part of an Atchafalaya Adventure Race several years ago, I know its pitfalls: It is a rough ride, and there’s no shade. But these concerns are canceled out by the peacefulness of the basin, with its trees and cool muddy waters flanking either side of the levee coupled with the absence of traffic.
I convince a friend to come along for a ride—she’s a lover of the levees who, yearly, makes a three-day Holy Week hike along the Mississippi River levee system. Also along for the jaunt is my father, an active man who’s spent most of his seventy-seven years in the wilds of South Louisiana. As a Scoutmaster, he has led bike trips on this levee for over thirty years; and, as president of the Delta Chapter of the Sierra Club, he spearheaded the effort to designate the trail for biking and hiking.
We arrive in the early morning at our starting point, the Bayou Benoit Boat Landing near mile twenty of the trail. As I wait for my riding companions to complete the shuttling of vehicles, I hear egrets squawk overhead as a fisherman pulls again and again on his outboard with no luck. It roars to life just as the three of us head up the levee bank to begin our ride southward. My father, who prefers to lead without looking to see who’s following, heads directly down the levee to the paved road below. I do not follow; having come for a traffic-free experience, I intend to have it. I watch him cruise along as fast-moving trucks pulling boats slide by him. He’s eating dust. I’m thankful I chose to stay on the high road until the gravel becomes veritable basin boulders, kicking me around and challenging my ability to balance my borrowed mountain bike. I study the gravel, looking for the sweet spots while my friend pedals ahead on her comfy cruiser with its low, wide seat enjoying the scenery. We catch up with my father as he’s resting under the oak trees at the entrance to Lake Fausse Pointe State Park, historically a part of the Atchafalaya Basin, but separated from it since the 1930s by the levees. With uncanny timing, he rejoins us up top just as the gravel lies down and forms a respectable pathway.
The persistent greenness of the swamp’s tree line sets the backdrop for the ride as we pedal along, with dramatic cumulus clouds promising shade but delivering only brief moments of cooling cloudiness. It’s warm but not unbearable. The sound of birds and frogs commingles with the rhythm of gravel rolling under tires. Sweaty, I imagine traveling the trail by night. Barnidge, who’s ridden the trail by the light of the moon, had explained, “The night is cut by an array of wildlife sounds. But it’s those quiet moments in between that you feel vulnerable. Combined with the vastness of the trail and the lack of people, it is profound.” He also offered a few pointers for enjoying a nighttime ride: “Absolutely bring a light. If it is dark with no moon, this light is your only hope. What your light picks up is all that you can see. Now that is an experience—combined with the movement of the bike—things get really heart-pounding.”
THE PERSISTENT GREENNESS OF THE SWAMP’S TREE LINE SETS THE BACKDROP FOR THE RIDE AS WE PEDAL ALONG, WITH DRAMATIC CUMULUS CLOUDS PROMISING SHADE BUT DELIVERING ONLY BRIEF MOMENTS OF COOLING CLOUDINESS. IT’S WARM BUT NOT UNBEARABLE.
Near mile thirty-two, as the shoreline of Lake Fausse Pointe opens to a wide levee vista with cypress trees silhouetting the scene, my friend calls out, “Hey, maybe it’s time to head down to the road,” as she motions to a sign reading, “NO TRESPASSING.” Rolling up behind us, my father pauses ever so briefly to continue on with a gruff, “That doesn’t apply to us!” We weigh the probability of being thrown into jail or getting fined $1,000 against the likelihood of getting whacked by a fisherman on his cell phone speeding the lower road. We follow my dad’s lead this time and thankfully escape any run-ins with officials. (A call to the St. Mary Levee District Executive Director Tim Matte confirmed my father’s snap judgment. The levee board recognizes the Atchafalaya Basin Wilderness Bike Trail and does not penalize persons hiking or using non-motorized bicycles on the levee road, though it may take some time for the signage to reflect this situation.)
The levee continues to roll southward with a barely perceptible drop in elevation. This slight dip, combined with a mild tailwind and kinder gravel, eases the ride towards Grand Avoille Cove. Noted as a flyway for migratory birds, the cove is an excellent spot for canoeing with its cypress-lined pathways and a Native American midden on its southern shore. With three miles until our finish point, my father heads down to the shade of a willow tree for a quick nap with directives to retrieve him on our return with the vehicle.
As the sun nears its noonday peak at the end of our eighteen-mile ride, we drop down to the Charenton Beach boat landing, our vehicle waiting for us in the shade. With its mossy live oaks and grassy spans, this spot would be a great place for cracking open the iced watermelon in the cooler, but we’ve left my dad under a willow tree and it’s his watermelon.
I would have to agree with Barnidge who, reflecting on the future of the Atchafalaya Wilderness Bike Trail, said, “The gravel thing is great, but what we are really missing is a safe haven for cyclists in this area. I think the trail could be most beneficial to the greatest number of cyclists and hikers if it was paved, at least from Henderson to Lake Fausse Pointe. It would open the levee up to a wider variety of enthusiasts.” Until then, the Atchafalaya Basin Wilderness Bike Trail is calling all adventurers and lovers of open spaces who don’t mind a bit of a rough ride in exchange for a long stretch through the peaceful beauty of the Basin.
• Prepare properly for a trip to the basin. Inform someone of your estimated time of return and bring water, food, sunscreen, and bike-repair equipment (spare tubing, pump, etc).
• At night, a headlamp of at least 250 lumens and insect repellent is recommended.
• The boat launches with their ample parking are good places to begin a ride, but be mindful of not blocking boat trailers. Bayou Amy Boat Launch, near Henderson, and Myette Point Boat Launch, near mile 42, both offer restroom facilities; otherwise, be sure to stop in one of the levee communities for supplies and a bathroom break before heading out on the trail.
• Henderson, the community closest to the trail, offers a bakery, restaurants, and grocery stores.
• The Atchafalaya National Heritage Area’s website, atchafalaya.org, offers information and maps of the entire basin region.
• For detailed information about the trail, visit louisianatravel.com/bike/atchafalaya-basin-wilderness-trail.
For maps of the bike trail, follow the link Bike Trail Maps