The Wild Azalea Trail
At 26 miles, the Wild Azalea Trail is Louisiana's longest footpath. What it lacks in length, it makes up in beauty and biodiversity. Located in the Kisatchie National Forest, the trail runs from southeast to northwest. The trail was built in the early 1970s by Forest Service personnel and volunteer groups. No less than five ecosystems thrive here among the rolling pine-covered hills and lush bottomlands where clear waters flow over sandy streambeds beneath rich hardwoods. Also in these bottoms are wetlands, or bogs, locally known as bayous, where the elegant cypress tree reigns. Hickory and oak forests thrive in transitional zones, along with some of the largest dogwoods in the land. Don't let the Bayou State's reputation for flatness cloud your mind; the Wild Azalea Trail features plenty of vertical variation. Your legs will attest to this fact at the end of the day. Another surprise will be the wild character of the trail. The forest cover exudes a real sense of being "out there." And you really are. Only the beginning and end are developed.
The trail begins at the Woodworth Municipal Building, which offers safe parking, and follows along a quiet residential area before entering rich woods. From there, the path stays in heavily wooded-country, occasionally crossing forest roads. It continues through the bottomland along Clear Creek before climbing the first of many piney hills. Begin a series of surprisingly frequent ups and downs, culminating with the plunge into Castor Creek Scenic Area, where big trees form a cathedral hovering over the shady flats along the translucent waterway. A few more ascents and descents take you to LA 488 highway. The trail then winds beneath towering pines where the tap, tap, tap of the red-cockaded woodpecker is never far away. The often sparse understory of these pinelands contrasts greatly with the thick bottomlands. Pass the primitive Evangeline Camp, accessible only by foot, before dropping into another scenic area, the Wild Azalea Seep. This north-facing valley is on the Louisiana Natural Area Registry, and is home to several species of orchids and other plants. Return to drier terrain before dipping into the Valentine Creek Valley, rife with wetlands. The trail makes one last special climb, up to the hill where Gardner Lookout Tower stands, offering a 360° view of the surrounding national forest and beyond. Just a mile further the Wild Azalea Trail ends at Valentine Lake Recreation Area.
Backpackers have many campsite options. The bottomlands of the streamsheds have flat tent sites, as well as water. Previously used campsites are located at 8.7, 12.7, 28.4, and 23.6 miles. Mosquitoes will be present at certain times of the year. They will be most numerous mid-spring through early summer, and following heavy rains during the warm season. But spring is a great time to visit, to see the trail's namesake azaleas in bloom, as well as the dogwoods and numerous wildflowers. Summer can be hot, but intrepid hikers can occasionally be spotted, trying to stay cool along the shady streambanks. Fall is highly recommended, as the mosquitoes have died down and the many deciduous trees put on a color show. Winter brings the most solitude. It isnt unusual to have mild, even spring-like weather in winter, and most of the larger streams are bridged, eliminating wet-footed crossings. This path will offer solitude any time of the year during the week, and on many weekends too. Be apprised that bicycles are allowed on the trail. Also, an Air Force training area is within earshot and sometimes jets can be heard and seen, streaking across the sky.
This yellow-blazed path is best hiked from southeast to northwest. The sun will mostly be at your back and the parking is very secure at Woodworth. The Wild Azalea Trail can be backpacked in its entirety in three daysa full weekend, if you start early on Friday. There is no need to resupply here. If the one-way distance is not long enough, consider making an out-and-back trek, doubling your distance and eliminating the necessity of bringing two cars or arranging a shuttle. There is no shuttle-for-pay operation here. The campground at Valentine Lake makes for a great turnaround spot, with its waterside campsites, potable water, showers, lake, and swimming area. Come to this swath of the Kisatchie National Forest with high expectations and you will not be disappointed, as the Wild Azalea Trail truly does show the wilder side of Louisiana.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication