New Orleans, LA, is infamous for many things: Mardi Gras, the Sazerac, blues, beignets, and jazz. It is a city rich in history, art, music, food, and a diversity of cultures. It is also a city that is defined by its unique natural environment. The city rests at the mouth of the vast Mississippi-Missouri River system, making it one of the country's most important port cities. And while its placement was economically and politically strategic, the city has has both contributed to and been a victim of drastic environmental change over the years: flooding, erosion, hurricanes, shifting tributaries, subsidence, habitat destruction, and more. The bayous, swamps, and parks in and around New Orleans are defining parts of the city. If you visit, take some time to wander away from the restaurants and bars to experience some of the city's natural beauty and history.
1. City Park
City Park is a vast expanse of outdoor fun. The Park, which covers approximately 1,300 acres and is one of the oldest urban parks in the country (founded in 1854), offers something for everyone: jogging trails, ponds, tennis courts, a golf course, gardens, an amusement park...you name it, City Park has got it. After visiting the Sculpture Garden and the Botanical Garden, we found a bench swing and watched a number of krewes practicing their pieces for the Mardi Gras parades. For a picnic or people-watching, City Park is your spot.
2. New Orleans Botanical Garden
Located within the boundaries of City Park, the New Orleans Botanical Garden offers a peaceful, informative, ten-acre retreat from the hustle and bustle of the city. Since the 1930s, the Botanical Garden has given visitors the opportunity to view and learn about more than 2,000 varieties of plants from all around the world. We spent a full afternoon wandering around the Garden, smelling the flowers and stopping in the shade of the old trees, and a friendly gardener helped me identify the glorious fragrance I'd been smelling all around town: the sweet olive, an evergreen shrub or tree that produces tiny blossoms with the most heavenly scent. The Botanical Garden does cost money to enter: $8 per adult; $4 per child age 3-12 years; children under 3 years are free. The Garden is also free for Louisiana residents on Wednesdays.
3. Audubon Park
If you find yourself across town and craving a break from the heat and noise of the city, take a walk through Audubon Park. The park is filled with old, majestic oaks that provide plenty of shade and quiet nooks for a picnic or midday nap. Ducks paddle around the little ponds and families play games on the grass. And don't miss the much-talked about highlight of Audubon Park: the Tree of Life. The grand old oak is estimated to be around 300 years old and has a circumference of approximately 35 feet. It's an awe-inspiring sight. Plus, you can crawl up on its gnarled old branches and feel just like a kid again. What's not to love about that?
4. Bayou Bienvenue
For a fascinating example of environmental change in New Orleans, head to the Lower Ninth Ward for a visit to Bayou Bienvenue. The Bayou was once a flourishing freshwater swamp, full of cypress trees and wildlife. Over the past few decades, however, saltwater intrusion and invasive species have turned the Bayou into a 'ghost swamp.' Today, birds swim amongst the old, spindly trunks of dead cypress trees. Restoration efforts are underway but it's a slow process to restore the Bayou to its previous state. As salinity levels drop, local community groups are starting to attempt to replant cypress trees in hopes of revitalizing the habitat. Visit the Bayou Bienvenue Wetland Platform for a glimpse of the bayou and some bird-watching.
5. Crescent Park
Looking to get a bit of exercise after your third plate of beignets? Take a nice long walk or jog through Crescent Park. The park runs along the shore of the Mississippi River and stretches from the French Quarter to the Bywater district. The path along the river offers sweeping views of downtown, as well as an up-close-and-personal experience of the massive tankers moving along the river. If you start in the French Quarter and walk away from downtown, you'll eventually end up at the very cool, industrial-style, crescent-shaped bridge. Climb to the top for some neat views.