Lake Charles is best known to Houstonians as the home of flashing lights and big paydays, but the Lake Charles area has grown to be a family friendly destination offering all sorts of attractions including several museums, art galleries, dozens of annual festivals, family friendly Mardi Gras, and a popular jumping-off point for the Creole Nature Trail.

The Creole Nature Trail () is a 180-mile loop around Calcasieu Lake near Lake Charles. It runs all the way from I-10 to the Gulf of Mexico and offers stops in several wildlife refuges. To help navigate the trail, you can download an interactive map from Apple’s iOS store or from Google’s Google Play store. However, what I did was check out a GPS Ranger from the Lake Charles Visitors Bureau (). It is located right along I-10 on Lake Charles and they can provide you with local dining choices and anything else you need. It is highly recommended to stop by even if you don’t need to check out the interactive GPS Ranger.

The freshwater marsh, Lacassine pool, is located in the Lacassine National Wildlife Refuge along the Creole Nature Trail. Photo by Brenda LaFleur.

I ended up at the Seafood Palace restaurant in Lake Charles before my drive and they made sure that I wouldn’t have any cravings before I got back later that afternoon from the drive. It is affordable and the gumbo and pistolettes were out of this world. Once out on the trail, the interactive guide is completely self-paced. By using GPS, it gives you the information as you arrive at different checkpoints. This allows you to attack the region in whatever way you want. My first stop was at the Cameron Prairie National Wildlife Refuge Visitors Center where you can walk out on a boardwalk/pier to get a better look at the numerous waterfowl that pass through the region. Check out the Creole Nature Trail Wikipedia page for specifics on the seasonal waterfowl ().

The visitors center itself has several great exhibits including some fun talking dioramas. The center also makes a good pit stop as the region is not heavily populated. Next it was off to the Pintail Wildlife Drive, which is a three-mile, one-way drive that lets you get a close view right from your car of local wildlife. Even with it being a little gray and rainy during my drive, I was still able to spot a few small alligators lurking in the water. Depending on the time of the year, large numbers of migratory birds travel through the area. An almost 3,000-foot boardwalk is here as well, providing some prime viewing locations. Also along the Creole Nature Trail are a series of beaches that are perfect for a picnic or just splashing around in the surf. Also note, that if you make the full loop, then you have to cross a very short (1000 ft.) ferry crossing. It is always worth checking with the Lake Charles Visitors Bureau before you embark to make sure everything is running () or by calling 337-436-9588.

The numerous boardwalks and viewing piers allow excellent vantage points into the marshes of southern Louisiana.

By starting in Lake Charles and running the loop clockwise, I ended up in Sulphur, La., which is just a few miles to the west of Lake Charles. I spent the night in Sulphur at the Wingate by Wyndham (337-527-5151) and had a great experience. They offer a complimentary happy hour with beer and pizza. Louisiana doesn’t claim to be fancy and the ‘realness’ is refreshing. Even when staying in Sulphur, the casino action in Lake Charles is just a few minutes up I-10 and you’ll be making points at the craps tables in no time. Lake Charles is such a great destination for any type of trip you want to take, and being so close to Houston it helps save on the gas bill as well. Being only about 2.5 hours away, you could be eating that fresh seafood for dinner.

The Lake Charles Visitors Bureau has an incredible website that I’ve listed twice above that is absolutely worth a look at. Their calendar is completely full of all sorts of fun, and they were all extremely friendly when helping put together my trip. Between the incredible food, tons of fun, and the unique ecosystem of southern Louisiana, Lake Charles has to be on the top of your list for your next weekend getaway.

Photos courtesy of the Lake Charles Visitors Center.