If the natural world beckons you this year, take Highway 171 north to Hodges Gardens, a veritable emerald among Louisiana’s state parks, where beauty and serenity blend on a 900-acre slice of tranquility.
Tucked away amid Florien’s forests, midway between Lake Charles and Shreveport, Hodges Gardens is the former estate of oil and timber magnate A.J. Hodges and his wife, Nona. Recognizing their home’s sprawling beauty, the Hodges opened it to the public in 1956.
When A.J Hodges died in 1966, 4,700 acres of his 100,000-acre property were turned over to the A.J. and Nona Trigg Hodges Foundation. In 2007, the Hodges family donated the interior 900 acres to the state of Louisiana for the purpose of adding it to the state's park system.
Today, visitors can tour and photograph 25 acres of plants, flowers and trees on walking trails that meander through the gardens' three levels. Camellias currently dot the park’s landscape in vibrant red, pink, and white. In early spring, azaleas bloom through mid April. Springtime is also the blooming season for the park’s roses, tulip trees, Loropetalums, Bridalwreaths, redbuds, and the pink and white dogwood trees. Hodges Gardens is also home to crape myrtles and eucalyptus trees.
As the weather begins to cool off in October, the park's roses flower once more; the nandinas and Camellia sasanqua are also in bloom.
Situated atop the park’s highest point is its most prominent feature – the observation deck, a circle of brickwork topped by a towering spire. Constructed in the early 1950s, the spire fans out into a canopy under which visitors can sit and enjoy a 360-degree view of the area. The spire's design, like the park’s visitor’s center, typifies the futuristic, space age architecture that dominated mid-century America.
It is from the observation deck where visitors get a sight of something they cannot see from the ground. On Hodges Gardens' second level sits a large boxwood hedge into which a yellow viburnum shrub was planted. When these plants are viewed from the observation deck, the boxwood's green leaves and viburnum's yellow flowers combine to spell out the initials HG.
For outdoorsmen, Hodges Gardens offers a 225-acre lake in which visitors can fish for bass, bream, and white perch. Visitors can also rent one of the park's canoes for an excursion around the lake area. Runners, walkers, and cyclists can tackle the park's challenging 5.3-mile loop. Those who attempt the trek are known as "loopers"; those who complete it are "super loopers."
Hodges Gardens is also home to beautiful camping grounds. Visitors can make camp in the park's tent camping area or in its big group camp, a new facility that provides room for 54 people.
For weekend guests who prefer a bed to a sleeping bag, the park offers 13 rustic one or two bedroom cabins.
Hodges Gardens is worth a visit. If you’re lucky, you might get a glimpse of a bald eagle nesting in a pine.