The largest city in Southwest Louisiana, Lake Charles is at the head of a string of lakes on the course of the Calcasieu River before it flows into the Gulf Coast.
Sitting at the waterfront in Lake Charles, it’s easy to imagine the schooners that helped bring commerce to the region via Texan and Mexican Ports.
Modern Lake Charles is a fun-loving city, with close to 80 festivals each year, and a hub for Louisiana’s gaming industry, with two Vegas-style casino resorts side-by-side on the riverfront.
You couldn’t pick a better spot if you want to discover the remote and watery wilds of southwestern Louisiana, on the Creole Nature Trail, or along the waterways just upriver from the city.
1. Annual Events
One of the largest gatherings in Louisiana takes place in the first two weeks of May in Lake Charles.
Contraband Days, or the Louisiana Pirate Festival, goes back to 1957 and attracts upwards of 200,000 people to the city.
The whole thing kicks off a pirate ship arriving at the lakeshore to take control of the city, and this sets the tone for 12 days of live entertainment, a carnival midway, parades, Cajun food, fireworks shows, sports competitions and crazy contests.
Lake Charles also has one of Louisiana’s largest Mardi Gras celebrations, with a family-friendly season packed with parades, gumbo cook-offs and lots of King Cake in the build-up to Fat Tuesday.
On that day the Krewe of Krewes Parade takes over the city, featuring more than 60 krewes.
2. Creole Nature Trail
One of the great experiences to learn about at Lake Charles/Southwest Louisiana Convention & Visitors Bureau at 1205 N Lakeshore Dr is this 180-mile adventure into one of America’s last great wildernesses.
The Creole Nature Trail All-American Road was designated in 2002 and presents an opportunity to discover a sparsely populated corner of the state, often described as Louisiana’s Outback.
One of the important stops along this route is the Cameron Prairie National Wildlife Refuge, an immense expanse of marshland on former rice fields, flocked by migratory waterbirds including more than 45,000 ducks and 10,000 geese during the winter peak.
Another wonder is the Sabine National Wildlife Refuge, a 125,000-acre coastal marsh abounding with wildlife, from American alligators to turtles, river otters and more than 200 bird species.
3. Casinos & Gaming
The largest casino market in the state can be found in Lake Charles, with two major casino resorts here on the Calcasieu River, and with three more within a half-hour radius.
The first to open in Lake Charles was L’Auberge du Lac Resort in 2005, built on a floating structure to comply with Louisiana’s riverboat casino laws.
The casino at L’Auberge has 1,600 up-to-date slots, 75 table games, the new Barstool Sportsbook and tons of bigtime live entertainment at the L’Auberge Event Center. This is all combined with 999 rooms, restaurants, shops and an 18-hole golf course.
Golden Nugget Lake Charles opened next door to L’Auberge in 2013, and also has 1,600 slots, 87 table games, seven live-action poker tables, pulsating nightlife at six different bars, and the Draftkings Sportsbook.
The hotel has 1038 rooms, and comes with a private beach on Lake Charles, a marina and its own 18-hole golf course.
The coast has a big influence on the cuisine in Lake Charles, and the city makes up the entire southern portion of Louisiana’s Seafood Sensation Trail.
Think ultra-fresh shrimp, oysters and crabs. A delicious intro is the fried oyster po’boy, a real local specialty (try Seafood Palace, Leonard’s Food Quarters or Darrell’s).
Crawfish season is from late winter to early summer, and at this time of year one of the best spots is Steamboat Bill’s, famed for its crawfish boils.
Lake Charles is also on the Southwest Louisiana Boudin Trail, set along I-10. Typically made with pork, rice, Cajun seasonings, onions and parsley, this is sausage specific to the region, with more than two dozen restaurants, meat shops and grocery stores on the trail in the Lake Charles area.
5. Sam Houston Jones State Park
North of Lake Charles, at the confluence of the Calcasieu River and Indian Bayou, is more than 1,000 acres of wilderness made up of pine and hardwood forest, and lagoons strewn with lofty cypress trees.
Primed for camping, hiking, birding and paddling, this park is named for Sam Houston Jones(1897-1878), the 46th Governor of Louisiana, who helped safeguard this naturally important space.
Something special here is a rare, 70+ acre stand of longleaf pines, the oldest living southern pine species.
The navigable rivers in the park make this a paradise for water activities, especially kayaking and canoeing, and you can paddle as far as Calcasieu Lake, 20 miles to the south.
This landscape is on the northern edge of a region renowned for its birdwatching, with close to 200 bird species recorded in the park and its immediate area.
6. Imperial Calcasieu Museum
The largest museum in Lake Charles is dedicated to the history of Southwest Louisiana, specifically the five-parish area made up of Allen, Beauregard, Calcasieu, Cameron and Jeff Davis.
The museum presents a chronology of this region, from the time of the Native Americans to the present day.
Look out for the exhibit about the fire of 1910, which claimed much of downtown Lake Charles, and take some to admire the museum’s fantastic collection of period furniture.
At the time of writing there was also a wonderful Mardi Gras exhibit, with items on loan from the Lake Charles’ Mardi Gras Museum, which was temporarily closed.
The Imperial Calcasieu Museum also has a strong art collection, with works by Boyd Cruise, John James Audubon, Angel Gregory and Lynda Benglis, to name a handful.
7. Millennium Park
You can easily stroll from downtown to this huge all-abilities playground on the Lake Charles waterfront, designed for families with younger children.
If you have kids up to the age of 12, then this is one of the best free attractions in the region, and has been brought back to its best following hurricane damage.
As well as a splash park, which is a real hit in the summer months, you’ve got a fossil sand pit, a treehouse, a pirate ship, the Arthur Stillwell trail, Hazel the Steamer, a tunnel, tot lot and much more.
The whole park is paved with safe rubberized material and is completely fenced in. Millennium Park is also home to the Arcade Amphitheatre, and has expansive lawns and a lakefront path next to Bord du Lac Dr.
8. Charpentier Historic District
Northeast of downtown Lake Charles is a sumptuous collection of residences, dating between 1880 and 1939.
The architecture in the Charpentier Historic District is specific to southwestern Louisiana. Charpentier is the French word for carpenter, the district is named for the carpenter architects of the turn-of-the-century who fashioned their own style of architecture in Lake Charles.
A uniting feature of these fine residences is the highly ornamented fretwork produced by those carpenters, and you could spend an hour or two discovering the district on foot.
There are more than 281 contributing buildings over 160 acres, encompassing the Imperial Calcasieu Museum. The district has an irregular footprint, roughly south of Belden St, west of Enterprise Blvd and east of Bilbo St.
9. 1911 Historic City Hall & Cultural Center
Facing off against the Calcasieu Courthouse, an anchor for the Downtown Historic District is the palatial old city hall, constructed in the aftermath of the devastating fire of 1910.
Built from red brick and white limestone for its many qoins, this highly ornamented landmark is crowned with a tower that has a loggia, a clock surrounded by cartouches, above exaggerated eaves supported by decorative corbels.
Since 2004, the 1911 Historic City Hall has served as a one-of-a-kind gallery space, hosting exhibitions from all over the world, along with shows by regional and local artists. On Saturday mornings the Charlestown Farmers’ Market sets up on the lawn just behind this building.
10. Prien Lake Park
Next to Indian Bay on the eastern shore of Prien Lake is another place to appreciate the waterfront scenery in Lake Charles.
Embroidered with trees, flower beds, fountains, streams and lawns, Prien Lake Park gets a refreshing breeze off the water, and is perfect for a walk, bike ride or jog.
For amenities you’ve a boat and canoe launch with a dock, and elsewhere there’s an amphitheater, several picnic areas, a rentable pavilion, playground, SprayGround splash pad and free Wi-Fi throughout these 29 acres.
If you’re coming to these shores for fishing, there are good numbers of speckled trout, croaker, redfish, flounder and black drum in Prien Lake.
11. Sallier Oak
A marvelous sight on the grounds of the Imperial Calcasieu Museum is a southern live oak thought to be as old as 375 years. You can see this magnificent tree, with its tangle of limbs at the back right side of the museum.
The Sallier Oak is registered with the Live Oak Society of the Louisiana Garden Club Federation, Inc. and is named for Lake Charles’ first European settler, whose original land grant was at this exact spot.
Charles Sallier is believed to have taken shelter and romanced his future wife under its branches. Remarkably, this tree has weathered the litany of storms that have been thrown at it, most recently Hurricanes Laura and Delta.
12. Bayou Rum Distillery
A little way east of Lake Charles is the distillery for the Bayou Rum brand, which is a craft operation steeped in South Louisiana.
Bayou Rum’s signature recipe comes from 100% single estate molasses, produced by the oldest family-run sugar mill in the country.
Every batch of rum is then in copper pot stills, and then aged in 200L bourbon and sherry barrels.
If you’re an aficionado, this is a process that you need to see with your own eyes, and Tuesday through Sunday you can come for a General Distillery Tour or an in-depth VIP Distillery Tour.
As you’d hope, you’ll get to taste the range at the end of the tour, while the gift shop sells a delicious rum cake.
13. Crying Eagle Brewing Company
This craft brewery opened at a modern, purpose-built facility near the McNeese State University campus in 2016.
There’s a taproom and brewery here, open Tuesday through Sunday, and if you’re wondering how Crying Eagle makes its beer, tours are offered Wednesday through Sunday.
A fine starting point are the flagships: Louisiana Lager, Ready to Mingle (Belgian Single), Pistol, Bridge Porter, Hop Blooded IPA and the new Things Unsettled Hazy IPA.
The bistro has lots of bites that go well with beer, like a popular homemade pizza, sandwiches, burgers, boudin, loaded fries, nachos and much more.
One thing you may have noticed about Lake Charles and its environs is that there’s water almost everywhere, and it brims with life.
Naturally, kayaking or canoeing allows you to see much more of the nature around the city, and get even closer to wildlife like alligators, turtles and the endless bird varieties that inhabit this region.
Lake Area Adventures, Paddle Up Lake Charles and Lloyd’s Country Store all offer kayak and canoe rentals.
The ideal places to paddle in the area include Prien Lake Park, Bayou d’Inde and the Calcasieu River and Indian Bayou, both of which can be accessed from Sam Houston Jones State Park.
15. North Beach
Something that might catch you by surprise on the shore of Lake Charles is the only white sandy beach to be found inland on the Gulf Coast.
Given the refineries in the area, North Beach isn’t so much a place to go for a swim, but more somewhere to enjoy the scenery, relax on the sand, take picnics and take part in classic beach activities like volleyball.
The beach is directly off Interstate 10, Exits 29 (Eastbound) and 30A (westbound), which is both a blessing and a drawback.