story and photography by David Bell
[Louisiana Motorcycle Rides: Nothing Like Natchitoches was originally published as a Favorite Ride in the June 2009 issue of Rider magazine]
Natchitoches, Louisiana—It’s not Natchez, as in the Natchez Trace; it’s not Nacogdoches, the town in east Texas. It’s pronounced “Nackatish.” It’s the oldest settlement in the Louisiana Purchase and a great destination for riders.
There are a lot of things to love about the Natchitoches, Louisiana, area—its beautiful setting along the Cane River Lake, gorgeous Creole plantations and live oak trees hanging thick with Spanish moss. I loved the “City of Lights” when I lived 45 miles away, and 20 years later, I still love the city today even though I live 450 miles away in northern Arkansas. There’s no better way to get back there than on my beloved old, but dependable, sun-faded red Honda PC800.
I live in the heart of the Ozarks, and 30 miles east of my house lies Arkansas Scenic 7. It runs from the Ozarks, through the Ouachitas, and down into the piney woods of Arkansas and Louisiana. The road is serpentine through gorgeous scenery. This route takes me through Hot Springs, a gem nestled in the Ouachita Mountains and a great destination itself. As I motor on south the terrain flattens out, but the woods remain dense all the way into Louisiana.
The Old French Settlement
When one wheels into Natchitoches, it’s easy to see that the architecture in the city reflects its French Colonial roots. In 1714, four years before the founding of New Orleans, a dashing young French-Canadian Lieutenant named Louis Juchereau de St. Denis traveled from the Gulf of Mexico up the Red River and established a settlement on the western frontier of French Louisiana. St. Denis located his fort on the French border with the Tejas—aka Texas—region of Spanish Colonial America.
He named his settlement Natchitoches after the local Native American tribe he befriended, a gentle people whose name means “Chinquapin Eaters.” The local pronunciation is “Nack-a-tish,” though you would never get it from the spelling.
Today, Natchitoches sits on a beautiful oxbow of the Red River called the Cane River Lake. In earlier days, when the lake was a river, it served as a de facto super highway of commerce for early settlers.
The Plantation Ride
The narrow, 35-mile-long lake winds through the Cane River National Heritage Area, which is home to numerous magnificent Creole Plantations. Most are private residences, but two are open for public tours. Melrose Plantation is owned by a Natchitoches preservation group. Oakland Plantation, however, is operated by the National Park Service and has the distinction of having played a staring role in the 1959 John Wayne movie The Horse Soldiers.
State highways and parish roads meander along both sides of the lake, playing tag with the dark, slowly moving waters of the old river-way. It’s here that the beautiful, ancient Spanish-moss-covered live oaks can be most interesting and scenic as they overhang the highways and frame views of the plantations. Early one morning I stopped in front of the Oakland Plantation to photograph the dozens of live oaks on the grounds in that magic light that occurs right after sunrise. As I framed my shot, I heard the soft, unmistakable “swoosh” that I recognized as bicycle chains. I turned and caught sight of four of those other two-wheeled riders pedaling down LA 494, also enjoying the cool morning and beauty of the area.
Additional fine riding is found on Longleaf Trail Scenic Byway winding through the woods of the Kisatchie National Forest, just due south of Natchitoches.
I live near the Victorian resort town of Eureka Springs, Arkansas, and often describe Natchitoches to my friends as “the Eureka Springs of Louisiana.” Both cities share the distinction of having been named to the list of “Top 12 Distinctive Destinations” by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Natchitoches is a magnet for riders from across the south for good reason. Besides the great riding around the lake, the downtown is a beautiful destination. Rue Beauport Street runs along the water’s edge and the parklike area is a gorgeous setting for a wide variety of city events, like the annual Christmas Festival and holiday fireworks display—hence the moniker “City of Lights.”
One Saturday morning I had just finished having coffee and a cinnamon roll at Mr. Johnny’s Coffee Shoppe and walked across to the lakeside of Front Street. I saw four riders coming up the steps from where they had just parked their bikes at the water’s edge, under a huge live oak. I asked where they were from. “Different parts of Texas,” one of them replied. “I love riding to Natchitoches. It’s a great place to visit,” another one added. And he’s right. When you can combine nice riding, a charming downtown and historic architecture, what’s not to enjoy?
In the Ozarks, we have clear, fast-moving streams and rivers. In Louisiana, it’s often slow-moving, dark water bayous, many of which are home to “live handbags with big teeth”—alligators. On my last trip to Louisiana I cruised up to Alligator Park, eight miles north of Natchitoches on LA 1. This unusual “theme” park is home to more gators than I could count and their staff puts on a way-cool feeding show.
But let’s get down to the proverbial brass tacks of what helps make a good ride great. Food! Lasyone’s Meat Pie Kitchen is a favorite with locals and visitors alike due to its special creation, the Natchitoches Meat Pie. The tasty concoction is a half-moon-shaped pie filled with a spicy beef and pork mixture and then fried. “My father worked for over a year back in the 1960s to get both the filling and crust just right,” says daughter and current owner Angie Lasyone.
I never make a trip to Louisiana without a visit to my favorite catfish place, Country Boy Foods, 40 miles west in Many (pronounced Man-E). Rita DuBoise owns Country Boy and uses her own cornmeal recipe to coat the generous portions of catfish filets. A bite of the great tasting fish tingles the tongue, leaving it begging for the next piece. The restaurant isn’t fancy, just great.
I usually stay at area motels, but this trip I stayed five miles north of town at a great place on Bayou Pierre with the unusual name of Blind Faith Ranch and Cabins. David and Teryn Levy were gracious hosts and the accommodations were outstanding.
All too soon my allotted days in Natchitoches were over and I headed home. A short ride east on LA 6 and north on U.S. 71 took me all the way to Fayetteville, Arkansas, 50 miles from home, back to familiar territory. But no matter how long it is between visits, a trip back to the old French settlement is always like a homecoming, as comfortable as a well-fitting pair of old jeans.
A large collection of toothy reptiles in various displays. Great feeding show.
(877) 354-7001 • www.alligatorpark.net
Antoon’s Riverfront Restaurant
Retired school teacher Johnny Antoon gave
up the classroom to prepare wonderful local favorites and great steaks. The beautiful deck off the bar overlooks Cane River Lake, a great place to relax after a day’s riding.
805 Washington Street, Natchitoches, Louisiana 71457; (318) 354-7767
Blind Faith Ranch and Cabins
These beautiful, two-story log cabins are set high above Bayou Pierre, six miles north of Natchitoches. They’re very quiet and conveniently located at the end of the road. Guests from Arkansas are apt to be assigned to the LSU Tiger cabin.
(318) 352-2920 • www.blindfaithranch.com
Cane River National Heritage Area
This area is up and down the Cane River Lake and home to numerous historic plantations, some open to the public, some privately owned.
(318) 356-5555 • www.caneriverheritage.org
Country Boy Foods
If I’m within 100 miles of Many, Louisiana, I’ll go out of my way to stop in for the catfish at Country Boy. It’s that good. If you like fried catfish, you’ll love this place.
890 Highway 171 South, Many, Louisiana 71449; (318) 256-3953
Kisatchie National Forest
(318) 473-7160 • www.fs.fed.us/r8/kisatchie
Lasyones Meat Pie Kitchen
Home of a local favorite—the Natchitoches Meat Pie. A must-do when visiting Natchitoches.
622 Second Street, Natchitoches, Louisiana 71457; (318) 352-3353
This wonderful example of a Creole plantation is owned and operated by the Association for the Preservation of Historic Natchitoches.
(318) 379-0055 • www.preservenatchitoches.org
Mr. Johnny’s 1714 Nakatosh Coffee & Bistro
This Coffee shop and bistro is located in the old Nakatosh Hotel. It serves great coffee drinks and home-made pastries.
101 Front Street, Natchitoches, Louisiana 71457; (318) 238-3030
Natchitoches Convention and Visitors Bureau
(800) 259-1714 • www.natchitoches.net
The Pioneer Pub is not just a bar, but also serves a mean burger and pizza. It’s one
of several places downtown that have live music, all the way from jazz and blues to Creole. It’s a favorite place for local riders to gather after a day on the road.
812 Washington Street, Natchitoches, Louisiana 71457, (318) 352-4884