Adrift on Caddo Lake
Gorgeous, placid, and unlike anyplace else, Caddo Lake State Park contains the largest naturally formed lake in Texas and the largest cypress forest in the world. We spied the wildlife, paddled the shallows, and soaked up the splendor of a one-of-a-kind environment.
Straddling the boundary between Texas and Louisiana, Caddo Lake State Park bears an almost gothic natural beauty. Spire-like cypress trees dripping with Spanish moss rise from its shallows, while ponds and sloughs create winding labyrinths. But there’s more than soggy scenery here; in our two-day visit, we soaked up the charm of the state’s most brilliant bog.
Paddling the Bayou
Depending on rainfall, the lake spans 26,000 acres, with its depth varying between eight and 20 feet. The bayou’s shallowness, slow-moving current, uncanny sights, and abundance of fish make it a hit with boaters, naturalists, and anglers.
We stopped at park headquarters in the afternoon to get the lay of the swamp. We secured boating maps, a rental canoe, and directions to Mill Pond Campground and proceeded to settle in.
Once our camp was set up, we wasted no time hitting the water. At Saw Mill Pond, families with fishing rods angled for some of the lake’s 71-plus varieties of fish. It looked like fun, but we paddled on, toward the Big Cypress Bayou, a winding channel that initiates visitors into the lake’s wonders.
And oh, what wonders! Towering bald cypress trees, their trunks bulging at the lake’s surface, their canopies covered in dangling moss, create a feeling of insularity—of being far removed from the everyday. Paddling through the world’s largest cypress forest tends to have that effect.
Sightings of great blue herons, beavers, and huge snapping turtles kept us waiting for what was next around every bend. Occasionally we’d pass other visitors, either fellow canoeists or fishermen angling for bass from their johnboats. We’d exchange a friendly wave, then get back to nature.
The swamp’s mystique extends to its origins, which seem uncertain. According to a legend of the Caddo Indians, for whom the lake is named, it was formed after an 1811 earthquake, but scientists attribute its origins to a logjam in the Red River. The factual murkiness only adds to the ambience.
Hours passed, and the feeling hadn’t worn off, but our arms grew tired from paddling, so we called it a day and headed back toward camp.
The campsites at Mill Pond Campground are spare but more than adequate, offering a suite of amenities that can expand depending on how much you pay. For electricity, sewer, and water hookup, the fee is a mere $20 per night.
After a peaceful sleep and an early-morning shower, we decided to take advantage of the nearby hiking trails. The Caddo Forest Trail, starting near Saw Mill Pond, winds eastward through thickets rife with wildlife and landmarks.
We spotted a surprising number of animals on the short trail, which extends only six-tenths of a mile. A pair of raccoons, an armadillo, woodpeckers, and even a white-tailed deer made brief appearances, nonchalantly going about their lives. We stopped for a moment and took photos in a pawpaw patch that was created after a tree fell, letting sunlight into the forest.
Detouring south on the Pine Ridge Loop, we passed cabins that had been converted from 1930s-era barracks. The lodgings were built by, and had been home to, workers employed by the government during the Great Depression to help fashion the parks into what they are today.
Cabins of various sizes can hold anywhere from two to six people and promise air-conditioning, heating, electricity, water, and beds; priced-up units have their own restrooms. While we have zero regrets about the spartan appeal of our campsite, we might try a cabin on the next go-round.
And since we explored just a fraction of the park’s full spate of treasures, we’re sure there will be a next go-round.
The Caddo Lake “Pearl Rush” of 1909 occurred upon the discovery of pearls inside freshwater mussels. People rushed to the lake, but the fortune hunting was short lived as the building of a dam in Louisiana caused the lake levels to rise and placed mussels in deep waters. Many of the same pearl-producing mussels still live in Caddo Lake today.