“It’s Victoria. She only has three legs,” said a lady who stopped by me as I was taking a photo of the female alligator lying on the juicy green marsh vegetation a mere meter away from me. “She lost her leg in a fight over prey with a larger male.” I couldn’t see the alligator’s legs as they were buried in the greenery. “They’re so motionless. We were wondering if they were real or artificial,” I joked about the vicious-looking, stone-still lizards. “They are very much alive. I know them. My mom used to work here. I grew up in this area,” said the lady. To confirm her words, the alligator blinked and moved her belly slightly while taking in a deep breath.
“Isn’t it dangerous to be so close to wild alligators?” I asked. “No, no worries. We hunt them here and keep their population in a normal range. They have enough food. They don’t hunt them in Florida, that’s why there are more attacks on humans,” said the local lady and her words relieved the nightmarish worries I had in the back of my head about alligators ambushing my kids (small stature = easy prey) as we walked on the boardwalk trail through the dense swamp.
Barataria Preserve Alligators
I had this conversation towards the end of our walk. For the most part of the hike we were super alert. As foreigners from far away, we were fascinated, but totally clueless about the local wildlife. All we knew about alligators and crocodiles was that they were fast, hard-biting predators and we should avoid them. So, when we came to the Barataria Preserve in the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and saw the open boardwalk through the swamp, we trusted that the park administration knows what they are doing, letting people walk so close to dangerous animals.
It was a weekday and the trails weren’t very busy. Not far away from the entrance, we saw the first of the Barataria Preserve alligators. We all froze, mesmerized, not knowing what to expect from the reptile. I grabbed my kids’ hands. We were all in a fight-or-flight mode. The animal wasn’t very large, under 1.5 m (5 ft), but was lying very close to the boardwalk. We observed it quietly from a safe distance, took some photos and waited whether the alligator would do anything as he saw us. He didn’t move, just watched us as we slowly passed by him, still ready to run. I kept watching him until we were out of sight to make sure he wasn’t after us.
Easy to shut, hard to open
Did you know that alligators have better developed jaw muscles that close the mouth and are used for biting and gripping prey? Alligators and crocodiles have the strongest bite force of all animals (stronger than sharks). But the muscles they use for opening the jaw are small, underdeveloped and weak. So, that’s why an adult human can keep an alligator’s mouth shut with bare hands and a few layers of duct tape can do the same job.
A bit further ahead another one. A big one this time, also too close to the path. In awe and fear, we walked by him. Nothing happened. In total, we saw four alligators just along the Palmetto Trail. All stretched on the lush greenery very close to the trail. Except the big toothy lizards, we saw numerous snakes in grey, black and brown colours, with stripes or plain, small and longer ones, curled on logs and leaves or swimming along. Not just the wildlife caught our eyes. The vegetation was delightful, too. We all loved the view of majestic bald cypress trees covered in hanging Spanish moss alternating with densely growing dwarf palmetto trees.
Did you know that alligators are timid and shy away from people? Crocodiles are the exact opposite. Alligators are more dangerous in water than on dry land. They are not likely to attack you on dry land (if you don’t provoke or threaten them) and you can outrun them if you sprint faster than 18 kph (11 mph). They are also lethargic, cannot chew, so they prefer smaller prey they can swallow in one bite.
The second half of the hike included the Bayou Coquille and the Marsh Overlook Trails which lead partially on packed gravel and then on boardwalk. Visitors frequent these two more and the boardwalk is a bit further from the wildlife compared to the Palmetto Trail. This 1.5 km scenic walk (0.9 miles) will guide you around a 600-year-old bald cypress tree called ‘Monarch of the Swamp’, on bridges over waterways and view point platforms. We saw plenty of alligators (we stopped counting at 20) as well as various wading birds, snakes and squirrels.
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If you go
Barataria Preserve Trails are part of the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve located approx. 30 min south of New Orleans.
Download the map from their website and save it to your cell phone. Bring plenty of water to drink as heat and humidity will be challenging. Eat before you enter the trails or after you get to your car. Bring no pets as they cannot go with you on the hike and you certainly won’t leave them in the car. From the parking lot by the visitor’s centre to the Marsh Overlook it takes about an hour of easy walk on flat surface. You’ll walk the same trail back to your car, so expect around 6 km (4 miles) of distance and 2 hours of time in total for this hike.
Hiking with children and elderly
The trails are suitable for hiking with children and elderly. The surface is flat with some bridge steps towards the end. Keep babies and toddlers in a stroller. Always keep your kids close to you, never leave them out of your sight. It’s better to walk behind them so you can see them all the time. Stay in the centre of the pathway and don’t let them step on the marsh. Some Barataria Preserve alligators vegetate very close to the boardwalk and children are an easy prey due to their one-bite size. The marsh is also densely populated with various snakes, some poisonous.
-> Download a detailed 5-day trip plan to New Orleans.
A must-do! You’ll never get so close to wild alligators in open nature. They are literally a meter away form you. The rangers say you’ll be safe if you stay on the boardwalk and don’t bother any animals. Stay alert with no food on you, don’t step on the marsh, don’t go close to any animals and don’t dangle your arms above any alligators. Keep kids close to you and in sight. And by the way, it’s free. Observing Barataria Preserve alligators might be the most adventurous free activity in or around New Orleans.
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