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This 1200-Year-Old Tree Stands Tall in the Louisiana Swamps

Deep within the Cat Island Wildlife Refuge is an age-old cypress tree. It was there long before Europeans arrived on America’s shores and has witnessed the march of time. 

You’d be mistaken if you think ancient relics are only in the Old World. But can you visit this archaic site?

Today, we’re exploring the Louisiana swamplands to tell you everything you need to know about the Cat Island bald cypress.

Let’s get growing!

Old tree in wildlife refugee in Louisiana
Visit a centuries-old cypress tree in Cat Island National Wildlife Refuge.

Tourists Flock to Cat Island to Visit Centuries-Old Cypress Tree

As water levels in the Mississippi River drop, visitors are turning out in record numbers to see the country’s largest bald cypress. Measuring a whopping 17 feet wide, 57 feet around, and 83 feet high, it’s no wonder the monolith is drawing such a crowd.

Although it appears to be many trees growing together, the specimen is a single individual. The long roots drape down the sides of its trunk like the ruffles of a flowing gown. If you didn’t know any better, you might think you’re deep in a tropical jungle instead of the swamps of Louisiana. 

This ancient cypress tree sits in the Cat Island National Wildlife Refuge in St. Francisville, about 30 miles north of Baton Rouge. While it isn’t actually an island, the area tends to flood from December to June, as it’s flanked on either side by the Mississippi River and Bayou Sara. During this time of year, visitors can only reach it by boat. 

However, despite frequent flooding, the tree is more accessible than ever. The wildlife refuge created a trail to the site, giving visitors easy access to this historic cypress. 

About Cat Island National Wildlife Refuge

Initially purchased by the Nature Conservancy of Louisiana in 200, the US Fish and Wildlife Service later acquired the land. Now a part of the National Wildlife Refuge System, the Cat Island Wildlife Refuge spans 10,473 acres and preserves some of the last native hardwood forests of its kind. 

Because this part of the Mississippi doesn’t have dams, the area floods regularly during rainy seasons. In fact, parts of the refuge may sometimes have 15 to 20 feet of standing water. Due to these fluctuating water levels, you won’t find any facilities at the wildlife refuge. However, there are still plenty of good reasons to visit the preserve. 

Aside from the famous Cat Island cypress, the region is home to a wide range of wildlife. It’s a waypoint for many neotropical migratory birds, like the swallow-tailed kite. Bird watchers will also enjoy seeing prothonotary warblers, blue-winged teal, and black-crowned night herons.

According to legend, the area was once a haven for large cats. Mammals such as mink, river otters, and bobcats reside here. While there’s no proof they’re still around, some swear they’ve seen them lurking through the forest. 

Pro Tip: Before you feed the animals at a wildlife refuge, make sure you know Can You Feed Birds & Animals on Federal Land?

How Old is the Cat Island Cypress?

It’s hard to nail down an exact age for the Cat Island cypress because the tree itself is hollow. While some estimates put it at around 1,200 years old, the refuge claims it’s closer to 1,500 years old. 

To put that into perspective, this ancient plant probably sprouted when Charlemagne, the first Holy Roman Emperor, died. 

Interestingly, its lack of complete rings is why it’s still alive today. As a hollow tree, it held no commercial value for the loggers who decimated the area over 100 years ago. Ironically, it’s brought tourism and revenue to the state. 

Best Hikes Near Cat Island

You can find some great hikes in this part of Louisiana when water levels have receded. Check out one of these trails if you want to stretch your legs. 

Cat Island Bald Cypress Trail

Of course, we can’t leave the Cat Island Bald Cypress Trail off our list. The 0.75-mile loop will get you up close and personal with the ancient behemoth. It’s a pretty easy hike and takes less than 20 minutes to complete from the primitive parking area.

Be sure to watch out for signage, as the surrounding wilderness is massive, and it’s easy to get disoriented. It’s also one of two trails that’s limited to hikers. Other areas allow hunters, so you won’t want to go off-trail.

Tunica Hills C Trail

The Tunica Hills C Trail should fit the bill for a more challenging trek. This 3.6-mile loop takes about an hour and a half to complete and includes towering bluffs, steep gulleys, and rugged terrain. 

But the effort will be worth it to see many unique local species. Towering hardwood trees, such as Osage orange, flowering magnolia, and eastern hophornbeam, shade out an understory of hydrangea, pawpaw, and blackberries. 

Be aware that the area is open for hunting during the fall. You’ll need to stay on marked trails and wear bright colors for safety.

Pro Tip: Add these Best National Forests to Visit this Summer to your bucket list to search for wildlife.

Old tree in wildlife refugee
Nature lovers will love exploring Cat Island.

Best Camping Near Cat Island

A trip to the area wouldn’t be complete without a night under the stars. Here are two of the best campgrounds near Cat Island.

Peaceful Pines RV Park

Peaceful Pines RV Park is a family-owned establishment about ten miles from the Cat Island Wildlife Refuge. Visitors say the staff is friendly and helpful, and the amenities, like the pool and laundry room, are top-notch. 

The park has 42 full-hookup sites, as well as rental cabins. There’s also WiFi, a dump station, and a pet-friendly area. 

Shelby J’s RV Park

New ownership is bringing new life to Shelby J’s RV Park. Improvements include full hookups, a laundry center, and RV rentals, with more to come.

Reviewers note that it’s safe, quiet, and comfortable. Shelby J’s is a 20-minute drive from Cat Island and close to great restaurants and other sites in St. Francisville.

For History Buffs: Cat Island: The History of a Mississippi Gulf Coast Barrier Island.

This Ancient Tree is Living History

The Cat Island bald cypress offers a chance to step back in time. As you stare up at its towering branches, imagine the monumental changes it’s lived through. And yet, its roots still keep the mighty tree standing tall.

Don’t miss an opportunity to visit this natural attraction. But check the water levels and pack your galoshes just in case.

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