Written by Julian Rankin
“A lot of people will tell you, ‘I never knew LeFleur’s Bluff was here. I never knew what was behind this gate,'” says Brad Rogers, special projects coordinator with the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks.
LeFleur’s Bluff State Park in LeFleur East sits at the crux of present and past; of urban development and beckoning wild. With 305 picturesque acres of trails, forest, lakes, museums, and fairways, LeFleur’s Bluff is a cloistered refuge from the chaos of modern existence. Those gates, within earshot of busy Lakeland Drive, is not a barrier, but a portal. The multi-use public spaces of LeFleur’s Bluff compose a metaphorical frontier. Anyone who crosses the threshold can choose to be an explorer of his or her own making.
The park is managed by the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks. Opened in 1988, it takes its name from Louis LeFleur, an explorer and trader of French-Canadian ancestry, who made his livelihood on the developing economies of the land and water in pre-statehood Mississippi. LeFleur noted the functionality of the bluff and it’s position along the Pearl River, making his home there around the turn of the 19th century. This was before the formulation of the city of Jackson when what would become Mississippi’s largest urban center was still a relative wilderness.
A modern LeFleur’s Bluff visitor at the trailhead of the park’s nature trails can squint through the forest and see landscape preserved, not so different in fauna, flora, and feel as it was in the 1800s when flatboatmen were obeisant to the currents of the Pearl. If not for the periodic ambulance sirens from the nearby hospitals, hikers may lose their modern bearings entirely, hypnotized by nature, right next door and yet worlds away from the bustle of the city.
“It doesn’t get any more unique than that,” laughs Karl Vriesen, LeFleur’s Bluff Park manager. “Three hundred and five acres of this in the heart of Jackson; it’s unheard of.”
Mayes Lake – which is actually made up of several bodies of water – provides fishing, boating, and peaceful Spanish-moss accented ambiance. On one side of the lake, visitors can engage in everything from primitive overnight camping along the lakeside, to picnics shared at the park’s variety of pavilions, to exuberant play on the swing sets and slides and with holes of disc golf. Across the lake, twenty-eight RV campsites are outfitted with water and electrical hookups, plus a bathhouse and hot showers. Others come to the park by water, making the eight-mile journey by kayak from upriver on the Pearl. All of these travelers get the best of both worlds: accessibility to the metro’s myriad cultural and entertainment amenities and proximity to Mississippi’s pristine natural resources.
A wildlife roll call features birds of every feather, including egrets, geese, ducks, owls, and the yellow warbler; squirrels and deer and beavers; families of foxes; alligators and turtles. “The herpetology classes from Millsaps and Belhaven come and study,” Vriesen adds. “They catch turtles and tag them.” And the Garden Club of Jackson plans to plant milkweed and sunflower to attract magisterial monarch butterflies.
From the lakeside, explorers can choose their own adventure. The trail winds through the forest, echoing birdsong. A slough bordering the trail catches floodwater during heavy rains, becoming an evocative cypress swamp where egrets descend and perch in the vaulted limbs. A brief two-thirds of a mile trek through the forest and along the Pearl River deposits you atop the bluff at the entrance to the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science. The museum – also under the umbrella of the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks – studies, exhibits, and celebrates all the mysteries of the surrounding natural world.
Submerge yourself with the fishes at their 100,000-gallon network of aquariums. Safely explore “The Swamp,” a lush greenhouse complete with sunning alligators and log-sitting turtles. Marvel at the fossilized history of the ageless land. These exhibits speak directly to the park outside, where scientists conduct fieldwork and museum educators use unadulterated nature to make the lessons real for schoolchildren and families.
Up here on the bluff adjacent to the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science, visitors will find open fields of green bordering the Riverside Drive park entrance, dotted with more disc golf baskets, a playground, and sites for barbecues. The beloved Mississippi Children’s Museum is also located within the confines of the park. On fair-weather days, the parking lot is full with families. Large events throughout the year, hosted by both the natural science and children’s museums, bring a critical mass of patrons from surrounding counties and beyond. On less hectic days, visitors lounge on the grass and beneath the trees, reveling in the freedom of these open spaces. Looking down from the path connecting the two museums, observers see groups of golfers teeing off on the park’s nine-hole course.
“People, in general, are not getting out in the outdoors like they used to,” says Brad Rogers. “They’ll tell you, ‘Well, I don’t have a place to go.’ I think it would be worthwhile to anybody who has any shape, form, or fashion of interest – go see what we have to offer at LeFleur’s Bluff. It is absolutely one of the most beautiful, pristine settings that you will go to anywhere around. You get in there, you think you’re in the middle of the forest somewhere way out away, and you’re actually right there in the city.”
“We have people who come every day,” Vriesen says from his office in the park gatehouse. “Every day, this is their peace.”
LeFleur’s Bluff unique positioning is, once again, in the context of Jackson’s wider offerings. The Mississippi Agriculture and Forestry Museum and the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum sit just across Lakeland Drive. The shopping and dining of the Fondren neighborhood and The District at Eastover are but a mile away. Downtown Jackson, with its fairgrounds and collection of museums and attractions, is three exits down Interstate 55.
At any moment, a LeFleur’s Bluff visitor can decide to change course, moving freely between the charms of the natural world and the 21st-century accommodations of the state capital. There is no one map. Come here and become your own cultural cartographer.
Brad Rogers recently observed the harmony between primeval nature and modern convenience. He happened upon a bird watcher, camera in hand, who was searching for the park’s yellow warbler. With a speaker and an app on his phone, the man released a pitch-perfect warbler call. “When he pushed the go button on that phone and it began to call,” says Rogers, “those birds came from everywhere. And he had some beautiful pictures.”
At LeFleur’s Bluff, there’s a path for everyone – young and old, novice and naturalist. And isn’t that a beautiful picture?