Only In Natchitoches: 22 Must-Do Experiences In Louisiana's Oldest City!

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ONLY IN NATCHITOCHES: 22 MUST-DO EXPERIENCES IN LOUISIANA’S OLDEST CITY!
By Lisa D. Smith and Nancy J. Reid, full-time travelers on the Love Your Parks Tour

ON BIG BLEND RADIO: Arlene Gould and Kelli West of Natchitoches Convention & Visitors Bureau share what to experience in Natchitoches, Louisiana. Watch in the YouTube player below or download/listen to the podcast on Spreaker, Podbean, SoundCloud.

 

Founded in 1714 by Louis Juchereau de St. Denis, Natchitoches (pronounced Nack-a-tish) is the original French Colony and oldest city in Louisiana. Celebrating a vibrant blend of French, Spanish, African, Native American, and Creole cultures, this charming city is part of the Cane River National Heritage Area and Louisiana’s No Man’s Land. It’s naturally beautiful with sprawling oak trees, flowers, and waterways, rich with historic and architectural points of interest, and offers a fantastic array of shopping and dining opportunities, all sealed with the warm embrace of true southern hospitality.


We first visited Natchitoches in 2014 and return every chance we get. To whet your travel appetite, here’s our round-up of 22 must-do experiences that you’ll only find in Natchitoches Parish. 

NATCHITOCHES HISTORIC LANDMARK DISTRICT
We recommend starting your Natchitoches adventure in the downtown district. This 33-block area runs along the beautiful banks of Cane River Lake, welcoming visitors into a mecca of historic sites and museums, art galleries and specialty shops, restaurants, and boutique lodgings. It’s also the venue for many of the city’s special events and festivals.

  1. Walking Tour: One of the best ways to explore the district is on foot, whether self-guided (maps are available at Natchitoches Convention & Visitors Bureau), or on one of the tours hosted by the Cane River National Heritage Area. Buildings in the district are constructed in several architectural styles that range from French Creole to Queen Anne, Italianate to Spanish Revival, Art Deco to Victorian.
  2. Riverfront Fun: The large amphitheater and riverfront are host to many seasonal events, including weddings at Beau Jardin Water Park & Garden. It’s a beautiful place to stroll with waterfalls, majestic live oak trees, seasonal flowers, and the historic Roque House. If you want to experience Cane River Lake, you can rent kayaks and paddleboards or go cruising on the Cane River Queen paddleboat.
  3. Sports & Local History: Get your Louisiana sports fix on at the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame that showcases the achievements of over 300 legendary Louisiana athletes, coaches, and sports figures. This spectacular $23-million museum complex is also home to the Northwest Louisiana History Museum, a fantastic introduction to all the history and cultural heritage you can experience in Natchitoches Parish.
  4. Shopping: If you’re looking for a one-of-a-kind shopping experience, downtown Natchitoches has a lovely collection of boutiques, antique shops, and specialty stores. You won’t want to miss all the colorful sugary goodness at the Cane River Candy Company, nor the iconic Kaffie-Frederick General Mercantile. Established in 1863, Kaffie-Frederick is the oldest general store in Louisiana and the oldest business in downtown Natchitoches. From hardware to kitchenware, folk art to toys and holiday décor, this general store truly has something for everyone! The Art Guild is another downtown highlight offering all kinds of art pieces from local artists including paintings, jewelry, gift cards, glassware, and pottery.
  5. American Cemetery & Historic Sites: Established around 1737, the American Cemetery is said to be the oldest cemetery in the Louisiana Purchase. Legend has it, that St. Denis, is buried somewhere on the grounds. Here you take a self-guided tour or go on the American Cemetery Walking Tour which is held the first Friday of each month. Other historic highlights include the Fort St. Jean Baptiste State Historic Site, Natchitoches Genealogy Library, Dr. John Sibley Historical Marker, and Jefferson Street Park that honors the historic Jefferson Highway that was built around 1910 for travelers to cross the heart of the country from Winnipeg, Canada to New Orleans, Louisiana.

HISTORIC PARKS, SITES & MUSEUMS
From plantation living to military history and cultural traditions, Natchitoches Parish is a hub of history that continues to be honored, preserved, and interpreted at various sites throughout the Cane River National Heritage Area.

  1. Cane River Creole National Historical Park:  Home to Oakland Plantation, and just a few miles down the road Magnolia Plantation, these two French Creole cotton plantations are National Historic Landmarks. The 65 historic structures and over a million artifacts in this park have survived for 7-8 generations through good times, poverty, and war, and tell the stories of the plantation agriculture through the perspective of the landowners, enslaved workers, overseers, skilled workers, and tenant farmers who resided along the Cane River for over two hundred years.
  2. Melrose Plantation: This National Historic Landmark shares the story of slave Marie Thérèse Coincoin and her ten Franco-African children with Thomas Pierre Metoyer, as well as the Isle Brevelle Creole community, the Civil War, plantation history, and Louisiana folk art. After 1884, under the ownership of John Hampton Henry and Miss Cammie Garrett Henry, Melrose Plantation became a haven for writers and artists, including famous folk artist Clementine Hunter, who was once a field hand and cook at the plantation.
  3. State Historic Sites: Showcasing life in Louisiana’s No Man’s Land (Neutral Strip), regional state historic sites to visit include Fort St. Jean Baptiste, Los Adaes, Fort Jesup, and the Louisiana Country Museum which is part of Rebel State Historic Site.
    Today’s Fort St. Jean Baptiste is a replication of the original Fort, which was set up a few hundred yards away by Natchitoches founder Louis Antoine Juchereau de St. Denis in 1714. Get a sense of French Colonial life on a guided tour which is often led by costumed interpreters. Fort Jessup was built in 1822 to protect the U.S. border with New Spain and to return order to the Neutral Strip. Los Adaes was the capital of Tejas (Texas) on the northeastern frontier of New Spain from 1729 -1770.
  4. Northwestern State University: Founded in 1884 as the Louisiana State Normal School, NSU was the first school in the state to offer degree programs in nursing and business education. It is the venue for the popular Natchitoches-NSU Folk Festival which celebrated 40 years in 2019. (The festival is currently a virtual event due to the pandemic). The campus is also home to the Creole Heritage Center which is a central hub for the research, documentation, and preservation of the Creole Culture. The onsite Williamson Museum is the official repository for state and federal archaeological collections, and holds over half a million artifacts, with the exhibits prepared by student-faculty teams.


HISTORIC, CULTURAL & SCENIC ROUTES
One of the best ways to see the region’s historic sites, attractions, and cultural highlights, is by following its historic trails and scenic byways.

10. Natchitoches Film Trail: Natchitoches hit the big screen when the 1989 movie “Steel Magnolias” was filmed in and around the city. The story comes from local Robert Harling who lost his sister to diabetes in 1985. He turned that experience into the iconic stage play “Steel Magnolias,” which was the adapted into the famous film directed by Herbert Ross, starring A-list actors Sally Field, Julia  Roberts, Shirley MacLaine, Dolly Parton, Olympia Dukakis, and Daryl Hannah. The Natchitoches Film Trail incorporates the already established Steel Magnolias Tour of Filming Sites, as well as locations featured in other locally filmed movies such as “The Horse Soldiers” starring John Wayne (1959), “The Man in the Moon” starring Reese Witherspoon (1991), “The Year Without a Santa Claus” starring John Goodman (2006), “The Garden Club” based on the book by former Natchitoches Mayor Robert “Bobby” DeBlieux (2008), “For Sale By Owner” starring Kris Kristofferson (2009), and the 2016 artist documentary “Clementine Hunter’s World.”

11. El Camino Real de los Tejas National Historic Trail: “The Royal Road of the Tejas” (Indians), is a trail that runs from Laredo, Texas to Natchitoches, Louisiana, and will take you to over 30 historic sites and lead you through over 300 years of Louisiana and Texas frontier settlement and development. Local highlights include Fort Jesup State Historic Site, Los Adaes State Historic Site, Fort St. Jean Baptiste State Historic Site, plus, the Annual Sale on the Trail, a 111-mile yard sale shopping extravaganza along the El Camino between Natchitoches and Nacogdoches, Texas.

12. Cane River National Heritage Trail: This Louisiana Scenic Byway runs along Cane River Lake, and links to the Isle Brevelle Trail, and El Camino Real de los Tejas National Historic Trail, with Longleaf Trail and Kisatchie National Forest on the outskirts. The trail encompasses numerous historic sites including Melrose Plantation, Cane River Creole National Historical Park, and St. Augustine Church which is recognized for being America’s first Roman Catholic Church and the second oldest created by and for the people of color in Louisiana.

13. Longleaf Trail Scenic Byway: Known for being one of the most scenic drives in Louisiana, this beautiful byway takes travelers through the unique and diverse scenery of Kisatchie National Forest, offering direct and indirect access to several popular recreation spots and trailheads.

NATURE & OUTDOOR ADVENTURE
From bird watching, wildflower walks, and forest hiking, to boating, kayaking, and canoeing, Natchitoches offers some of Louisiana’s finest places to reconnect with nature and get outdoors for fresh air, sunshine, and adventure.

  1. Kisatchie National Forest: Encompassing 604, 000, acres, Kisatchie is the only National Forest in Louisiana. A mecca for outdoor enthusiasts, there are 40 recreation sites and over 100 miles of trails. The beautiful and diverse landscape is made up of ancient caves and rock formations, longleaf pine forest and flatwoods, bogs and prairies, lakes, and rivers. The forest is home to approximately 155 species of resident and migrant birds, 48 mammal species, 56 reptile species, and 30 amphibian species, and plant species that range from orchids to carnivorous plants, azaleas, and wildflowers.
  2. Caroline Dorman Briarwood Reserve: Visit the birthplace and home of Caroline Dorman, a world-renowned naturalist, author, artist, and the first woman to be hired by the US Forest Service. This beautiful preserve continues the work she started by preserving wildflowers native to the south and educating the public on how natural forest ecosystems work. People from all over the world visit Briarwood to enjoy the birds and wildflower meadows, forest trails, Louisiana iris bog, and the iconic ancient longleaf pine “Grandpappy.”
  3. Grady Erwin Nature Area: If you’re looking for an easy-to-reach nature fix in Natchitoches, this lovely forested tract of preserved land has three different trails to walk, run, or bike. It’s also an NSU Biology Department study area, so if you see what may look like debris (sheets of tin, etc.) near a trail, please do not disturb it as it may be part of a study.

TASTE NATCHITOCHES
All that exploring and adventuring is bound to work up an appetite and Natchitoches sure has something for everyone, along with some regional specialties.

  1. Natchitoches Meat Pie: The life of the Natchitoches Meat Pie evolved from its Native American roots back in the 1700s, to the Spanish adding some spice, and then local families adapting this empanada-style recipe into their own. It’s Louisiana’s State Meat Pie and it is celebrated with an annual festival, and served at numerous restaurants and eateries, most notably Lasyone’s Meat Pie Restaurant, an authentic soulful Creole Cuisine experience not to be missed!
  2. Dining Destinations: With Natchitoches being such a culturally diverse community, it shines as a culinary destination and there’s something for everyone’s palate. Along with Lasyone’s, some of our recommendations include Merci Beaucoup Restaurant for their flavorful Cajun and Creole fixings, Maglieaux’s Riverfront Restaurant that serves up a delicious blend of Italian and Creole cuisine, El Patio Mexican Grill that cooks up fabulous south-of-the-border fare, and nearby Grayson’s BBQ for some downhome southern pit barbecue. Serving freshly made-from-scratch meals, Legacy Café is part of the Ben D. Johnson Educational Center’s Workforce Development Program that focuses on transforming lives and building community through food.
  3. Gas Station Eats Food Trail: Yes, gas stations! The Trail includes an introductory 21 stops in the seven parishes that make up Louisiana’s No Man’s Land. Delicacies in these roadside stops include meat pies, tamales, salads, burgers, pies, cookies, boudin, smoked meats, ice cream, and much more. One of our favorites stops is the French Market Express which is conveniently located next to many of the area’s brand hotels and serves traditional Natchitoches Meat Pies, plate lunches, and their famous yam cakes.
  4. Sip It Up! If you love craft brews, be sure to stop by Cane River Craft Brewery that’s housed in a refurbished cotton gin building that is nearly a century old. There’s also the annual fall TappedTober Craft Beer & Wine Festival that raises funds for local charity. And, Natchitoches has drive-thru daiquiri shops, the perfect frozen treat for those warm summer days.

FAMILY FUN
Natchitoches is most certainly a family destination. While the historical parks are educational, they also put fun into the mix for kids to enjoy their experience. Plus, there are the outdoor activities, family-friendly shops, restaurants, hotels, and some awesome attractions and events not to be missed!

  1. Dark Woods’ Lost Treasure Mining Company: Here kids (and parents) can become treasure hunters and experience the fun and excitement of mining for lost treasure including crystals, gemstones, shark’s teeth, and fossils from around the world.
  2. Celebrate Natchitoches! Any reason to celebrate and Natchitoches will make it happen! From car shows and music festivals to the annual Christmas Festival of Lights, Mardi Gras, and the Dark Woods Haunted Experience, there’s always a fun and festive event to enjoy with the whole family. See the full calendar at Natchitoches.com.

PLAN YOUR VISIT
Centrally located in Northwest Louisiana, Natchitoches is just than 300 miles from New Orleans, Dallas, Texas, and Little Rock. Lodgings run the gamut from RV and camping resorts to brand hotels, quaint bed & breakfasts, boutique inns, and vacation rentals. Some of our recommended accommodations include Sweet Cane Inn, Holiday Inn Express & Suites, Best Western Inn, and Hampton Inn.

To learn more about the area’s attractions and events, lodging establishments, shops, and restaurants, visit www.Natchitoches.com and be sure to get maps and guides at their Visitors Center in downtown.

For more about the Cane River National Heritage Area, visit https://www.canerivernha.org/ and go to their Grand Ecore Visitor Center that offers beautiful views of the Red River and has great exhibits showcasing the region’s history.

Learn more about Louisiana’s No Man’s Land, the Neutral Strip, see https://visitnomansland.com/

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