New Orleans: A city famous for music, food, festivals, and history. Though its population is not especially large by national standards, it is one of the most culturally diverse cities in the South and one of the top top tourist cities in the country. Built on fertile floodplain where America's greatest river meets the sea, New Orleans is at the heart of Delta Country. It is the cradle of Cajun culture, the birthplace of jazz, and the scene of significant events dating before the Revolutionary War.
Clearly, the multitudes who visit each year need no further convincing to come to Louisiana's poster city, but most miss out on yet another layer to the New Orleans narrative—one that is familiar to anyone "born on the bayou" but often overlooked by others. That is the outdoors.
New Orleans is surrounded by lakes, marshes, and lazy rivers called bayous. Their banks are studded with cypress trees, accented with palmetto fronds, and draped in flowering vines. The wetlands teem above and below with wildlife. This bounty is already known to locals who take to the water for relaxation or livelihood every day. Boating and fishing are household pastimes for many residents, and others enjoy getting out on paddle craft, bicycle, or foot, but the natural beauty and recreation opportunities surrounding New Orleans are usually lost on visitors.
For those who love the outdoors, no trip to NOLA should be considered complete without leaving the city for the swamps. Here are some ideas of what to do outside, packaged in a sample 3-day itinerary for adventure around New Orleans.
Explore its natural and historical setting
Make your first day a combination of sightseeing and adventure around the city. Of course you should see the French Quarter, where the best of NOLA's sights, sounds, and tastes are on colorful display. To gain the insight of historical context, stop by the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park's visitor center on Decatur Street. There you'll learn about French pirates, Cajun culture, and more that led to the city's founding.
Jean Lafitte is a National Park Service unit with multiple sites, and some of them are nature parks just outside of town. Barataria Preserve has a particularly scenic network of trails and boardwalks through typical southern Louisiana swamp and forest ecosystems, where you can spot a variety of wildlife like birds, deer, armadillos, turtles, fish, and alligators (from a safe distance).
Camp and mountain bike trails alongside the Mississippi
Venture a bit farther from the city to Bonnet Carre Spillway, a flood control system on the Mississippi River that doubles as a recreation area. Hiking and biking trails twist through forest and among the levees, and a primitive campground sits near a boat launch on a wide canal.
Dip in Lake Pontchartrain and paddle on the bayou
Fontainebleau State Park is on the far side of Lake Pontchartrain, across the famously long Causeway Bridge, from New Orleans. The park is most popular for day trips to picnic areas and a sandy swimming beach, but also has a campground, nature trails, and a nearby bayou that is prime for a paddling adventure.