From its majestic cypress and tupelo covered swamps to the egrets and alligators that fill its skies and endless waterways, the Atchafalaya Swamp has come to symbolize life in Louisiana. Pronounced “uh-CHA-fuh-LIE-uh,” the Atchafalaya gets its name from the Choctaw phrase for “Long River.” An unmatched American wilderness, the Atchafalaya Swamp encompasses 1.4 million acres—an area bigger than the state of Rhode Island—between Lafayette and Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
The Atchafalaya is as diverse as it is large. The northern Atchafalaya is comprised of bottomland hardwood forests with a multitude of plant and animal species, the central area of the Atchafalaya features Louisiana’s iconic cypress-tupelo swamps, and the southern area blends fresh water with the brackish and salt marshes of the Gulf of Mexico. The Atchafalaya’s size and diversity make it the most dynamic swamp environment in the United States.
This diversity includes large populations of wetland wildlife. The Atchafalaya supports half of America’s migratory fowl—more than 270 bird species, including wood storks, spoonbills, osprey, and the highest nesting concentration of bald eagles in the south central United States. Its waterways are home to nearly 100 species of fish and 65 species of reptiles and amphibians, including thousands of American alligators.
In truth, no mere description captures the experience of being in the Atchafalaya Swamp. You have to paddle its waters, spot its wildlife, and sleep amongst its ancient trees in order to truly understand its opportunities for adventure.
With an abundance of nutrient rich water flowing through the swamp from the Mississippi River, the Atchafalaya is one of the richest areas in the country in regard to diversity of wildlife.
This perfect habitat is home to over 100 species of fish and crustaceans. These large populations of fish and the vast stands of trees across the swamp also support more than 270 bird species that flock to the area. In fact, the Atchafalaya supports half of America’s migratory waterfowl and provides the most important habitat for Neotropical migratory land birds and other birds of the Mississippi Flyway.
More so than any other animal, the American alligator has come to represent the swamp. Once endangered, nearly 2 million alligators now live in the wild across Louisiana. These apex predators can grow up to 14 feet in length and have between 74 and 80 teeth in their mouth at any given time.
The Mississippi River has helped to shape America’s history. The Mississippi River Valley is the third largest drainage basin in the world, covering more than 1,245,000 square miles. The river drains 41% of the contiguous United States, and includes all or parts of 31 states. Waters from as east as New York and as west as Montana contribute to the flow of the river, while nearly 100 million people reside within the watershed. Major tributaries to the river include the Missouri, Ohio, Arkansas–Red–White, and Tennessee Rivers.
The Atchafalaya River serves as an important distributary of the Mississippi River diverting some 30% of the river’s flood waters before they reach critical ports in Baton Rouge and New Orleans. The water that is directed down the Atchafalaya River flows through an ever changing landscape of hardwood forests, farmlands, swamps, and marshes on its way to the Gulf of Mexico.