My father’s first trip to Europe was not long after being drafted into the Army following his college graduation in 1968. Later he told me that he expected it to look very different than the United States – that the trees, specifically, would look different. Like another world.
Since moving to East Texas a number of years ago, I’ve heard that Caddo Lake has an “otherworldly” quality. I’d seen pictures of the cedar trees, in particular, that stand tall and impressive in the lake. No picture I’d seen prior to my visit adequately prepared me for its majesty, though. Otherworldly is a perfect term to describe Caddo Lake
Caddo Lake State Park was built by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). The CCC was made up of men between the ages of 17 and 25 who qualified for public assistance. Members of the CCC were compensated with food, clothing and medical care plus a $30/month stipend in exchange for their work building parks and other public works. Caddo Lake State Park was completed in 1937.
Many of the original buildings are still in use today, including nine log cabins and the group recreation hall, all of which were converted from 25 U.S. Army barracks and a mess hall. Improvements over time include extensive campsites – some with screened shelters and full hookups – and a new bathroom and shower project under construction.
The road leading from the park headquarters to the portion of the lake known as Saw Mill Pond is heavily wooded. Several access points along the road lead to the nearly two miles of hiking trails in the park, which include a one-quarter mile stretch that is ADA accessible along the Caddo Forest Trail.
Enjoying the lake itself is the highlight of a visit to the park. The view from the fishing pier is breathtaking. The day I visited, small fish were skipping across the surface of the lake, begging for me to throw a line in.
Canoes are available to rent at the park, or you may bring your own canoe or kayak to launch from the boat ramp. There are more than 50 miles of paddling trails on Caddo Lake.
Another gem is the Caddo Lake National Wildlife Refuge operated by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. The park is just a few miles down the road from Caddo Lake State Park and serves as home to one of the largest populations of wood ducks and prothonotary warblers in the country. In addition, the area is home to approximately 216 bird, 47 mammal and 90 reptile and amphibian species.
The Refuge Headquarters at the entrance of the park is worth a stop. If you are a birdwatcher, there is a log to note the species, location and time of day observed; I was amazed at how many sightings had already been logged on a random Thursday morning. Kids will get a kick out of the “PLEASE TOUCH” table, which holds turtle shells, skulls, teeth, snake skins and other interesting finds from the refuge.
The refuge includes a 6-mile paved driving tour, as well as a 9-mile wildlife observation trail and birdblinds for the birdwatchers.
Private lake tours are popular as well, and there are many to choose from. I visited Captain Ron’s Swamp Tours directly across from Big Pines Lodge. Captain Ron has a long history in the maritime industry, and has been conducting pontoon boat tours at Caddo Lake since 2009.
The rangers at Caddo Lake State Park directed me to two of their favorite local restaurants, both directly on the lake. River Bend Restaurant won rave reviews for their catfish and hush puppies, Big Pines Lodge for catfish and fried alligator! You can’t go wrong with either as both treat diners to amazing views of the 400-year-old cypress trees draped in Spanish moss.
Caddo Lake State Park would be first on my list of places to stay. If camping isn’t your thing, make a reservation in advance for one of the original historical cabins on the property. The cabins have private bathrooms as well as heat and air conditioning, and some are equipped with a kitchen.
If you would like to stay near the parks, but in the lap of luxury, try Carriage House Bed & Breakfast, just 13 miles away in Jefferson. This quaint inn is in the heart of town and near a variety of restaurants and nightlife.