Far East Texas, straddling with border with Louisiana, Caddo lake covers 225,400 acres of Cypress swamp. It doesn’t look like Texas: tall, old cypress trees kneeling in the water, Spanish moss trailing down to still waterways. The lake isn’t like the ones around the DFW metroplex. It’s not wide or speedboat-friendly, and wasn’t built for Fourth of July celebrations and kids learning to ski. Instead, it’s a twisted pasta bowl of bayous, ponds, canals and creeks. Only the people who live on the shores in remote, half-flooded towns like Uncertain, Texas, know how to navigate it.
If you’d like to find a swamp thing, stay in a historic cabin, lose cell service, fish over 70 species, and paddle along 50 miles of waterways, there’s simply no place on earth like Caddo Lake. It’s only three hours away, so a friend and I took off over a weekend, pooling our money for a stay at a nearby La Quinta Inn—so very classy—just because.
We spent the first part of a dreary Saturday nearby in Jefferson, Texas, one of those quiet, charming small towns built on the merit of a general store with famous five-cent hot coffee, pre-Civil War history and legends of Bigfoot.
A quick note on Bigfoot and other associated cryptids: the shores of Caddo Lake are so ethereal and uncharted, so un-touristy that it seems like the perfect spot for a Bigfoot to remain undiscovered. There are 12 million acres of forestland in East Texas and Caddo Lake itself is known to cryptozoologists as the land of Bigfoot. Jefferson, therefore, is a logical headquarters for the Texas Bigfoot Research Center. There’s even a Bigfoot statue prowling at a trail entrance near Jefferson’s Convention and Visitors Center. In the same area, visitors can find “Bigfoot Alley,” where four more Bigfoots hide, waiting to be discovered.
Jefferson is a great place to recharge after a drive. There’s Auntie Skinner’s Riverboat Club, housed in a 19th century warehouse, so you literally can’t miss it. Kitt’s Kornbread Sandwich and Pie Bar serves a famous, secret recipe kornbread sandwiches ranging from “The Original,” ham or turkey with American cheese, “The Redneck,” fried bologna and American cheese, to “The Texan,” which has chili and cheese and comes with a fork. Or, if that’s not your thing, the polished Austin Street Bistro has flowered tablecloths, sedate salads, classic soups and an elegant chocolate pecan tart.
It’s basically required to stop in the Jefferson General Store to browse retro candy, toys, local goods, and various Don’t-Mess-With-Texas paraphernalia, and get a cup of basic drip coffee for a nickel. Nearby, there’s an antique store where we browse vintage cameras we can’t afford, lovely wingback chairs we can’t afford, and a creepy porcelain clown that we could have afforded, but that’s definitely haunted.
We spend the rest of the day and most of Sunday at the lake itself. It’s full of small, swampy towns, the swampiest and smallest of which is Uncertain, Texas, where the Caddo Lake State Park can be found and where people can cruise their boats right up to the little cafes that can be found there. We try the Shady Glade Cafe first, after reading many reviews that stated it was “about what you’d expect” and “a typical small town diner”. It’s the sort of place that boasts locals gathering out front, cornmeal-crusted catfish–a true Southern delicacy–fried okra and a 16-oz chicken fried steak. It sounded like ideal waterfront dining.
It appears off the side of the one-lane highway, only recognizable because of the ice machine out front.
“There it is,” I say.
“Where?” my friend, the driver, asks, coasting straight past it.
“You’re kidding. I thought that was a boat ramp.”
We stop, three-point turn around and idle in the road. The parking lot is inaccessible. It’s not just near the water; today the little cafe is in the water, flooded almost all the way up to the street.
“Let’s try RiverBend Restaurant on Caddo Lake,” I suggest.
We wheel around, startling a family who live across the street from the Shady Glade Cafe and clearly can’t figure out what two twenty-somethings are doing out here during the rainiest month of the year.
.The RiverBend Restaurant is in Karnack, Texas technically another small town. On the way, we pass Lighthouse Grocery Store, which isn’t a grocery store, but a hole-in-the-wall bar.
The RiverBend Restaurant is flooded too.
Our last chance was Big Pines Lodge, also in Karnack, a big, sprawling two-story building with a deck and a porch, and a vintage riverboat parked outside. Though water threatens the outer edge of the parking lot, it’s full of cars, and kids playing on the lawn. A couple of them catch a frog and gleefully run to show/scare their younger sister with it.
We settle in on the canal, watching for alligators, and our waitress brings hushpuppies, coleslaw, fries, fried chicken, fried catfish, fried shrimp and fried okra. We talk to her about the other flooded restaurants and she nods, unsurprised. The lake can expand from 26,800 acres to over 35,000 acres, so seasonal flooding and temporary closures are just natural parts of life. Shady Glade Cafe has been closed for about two weeks, and she and the others at Big Pines Lodge expect that any day, they’ll be flooded too.
The best way to see the water is by boat, and tours are offered all over the lake. The 50 miles of paddling trails are famous, wooded and beautiful. The Hell’s Half Acre Trail trails through the Big Cypress Bayou and Caddo Lake, passing the Caddo Lake Wildlife Management Area. It carves a slender trail through the bald cypress trees, and takes you by the Sandbar, sandy banks were boaters often get out to stretch their legs.
Or, Old Folks’ Playground, is famous for the water lilies, floating white flowers that bloom in the mornings and close in the afternoon. It’s also resplendent with American Lotus, large pads that can rise up to three feet out of the water.
The Cathedral Trail on Caddo Lake loops, starting and ending at Shady Glade Resort, which is also the boarding dock for The Graceful Ghost Steamboat. The Cathedral Trail winds past little lakeside houses and B&Bs. It started as a local shortcut to the best fishing holes, but now it’s a route through some of the tallest, oldest of the cypress trees, one of the most famous ways to see the lake.
Caddo Lake is precious, a protected spot of primordial swampland with long, mysterious history. It’s been a haven for outlaws, home of saloons and brothels. In the early 1900s, it was the site of a huge, brief “pearl rush,” wealth from the bellies of freshwater mussels. If Bigfoot lives anywhere in Texas, it’s definitely there. (If you’re at Bigfoot Alley and you see more than four Bigfoots, then you might want to run.)
It’s not the kind of lake where you swim—because of the risk of alligators and Bigfoots. Don’t bring water wings and don’t expect to come back with a tan. In short, it isn’t recreational. It’s a place to see, to be in awe of, a place where you should listen quietly for small, watery sounds and imagine what could be making them.