J.C. “Sonny” Gilbert WMA Features Water Falls, Steep Terrain Rarely Observed In Louisiana
story by TRey Iles, LDWF Public Information
photos by Joel Courtney, LDWF Public Information
The image of Louisiana is that of primarily flat land, lots of marsh in the coastal part of the state and maybe some gentle rolling hills in the north. J.C. “Sonny’’ Gilbert Wildlife Management Area doesn’t, at all, fit that narrative.
Envision waterfalls and rugged steep terrain that sharply drops anywhere from 35 to 245 feet. Sounds more like north Alabama, maybe even Tennessee.
But that best describes J.C. “Sonny” Gilbert WMA, made up of 7,500 acres located in east central Louisiana in Catahoula Parish, about six miles west of Sicily Island.
“It’s a unique spot in Louisiana,’’ said Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries biologist supervisor Mitch McGee, who oversees the WMA. “It’s tucked into Catahoula Parish by the Ouachita River to the west. Most people are amazed that they’re even standing in Louisiana. They think hills like this don’t exist in Louisiana nor waterfalls unless you’re looking at water coming through a dam.
“The water is crystal clear spring water coming from the ground, quite different from the typical slow moving muddy waters we see in most of our flatlands. It’s just not a typical sight you see in Louisiana.’’
Gilbert features a 17-foot waterfall located on the Rock Falls Trail, a few hundred yards from the road and main entrance of the trail. It’s certainly not Niagara Falls but is impressive considering most people don’t associate waterfalls with the Bayou State.
There are some other waterfalls in the WMA worth exploring and the terrain is inviting for hikers, with three trails located on the WMA that can accommodate novice to experienced hikers.
As eye-catching as the terrain and waterfalls can be, the WMA offers much more than hiking and scenery. It provides ample opportunity for deer and small game hunting as well as excellent opportunity for turkey hunting through a limited lottery.
The unique habitat supports a diversity of plants and animals, including rare and endangered species. The Louisiana black bear and bald eagles have been spotted in and around the WMA. Birding enthusiasts have the chance to observe many species associated with closed canopy and riparian forests.
It’s a lush, green area with a mixture of loblolly-shortleaf pine and upland hardwoods. Four small streams meander through the WMA. Big Creek, the longest of the streams, flows rapidly with a sand, gravel and sandstone bottom.
Quite a Hike
Though most people may not be aware of the WMA’s distinctive features, many in the hiking community have experienced the beauty of this WMA. The three hiking trails offer various levels of difficulty.
The primary trail is the Big Creek Hiking Trail, located on the north end of the area. It is seven miles long, winding through stands of mature mixed pine hardwoods. It passes many scenic points of interest, including several waterfalls. This trail is for the most experienced and physically fit hikers and not for novices.
The St. Mary’s Falls Trail is also located on the north end of the WMA. It is a 1.75- mile trail through upland mixed pine hardwoods and passes several smaller waterfalls and scenic views.
Finally, there is Rock Falls Trail, which features the 17-foot waterfall. Rock Falls Trail is 1.5 miles long through mature stands of mixed pine hardwoods. Though novice hikers can navigate Rock Falls Trail, it should be noted that there are steep elevation changes, including the route approaching the 17-foot waterfall.
McGee said the best time of the year to hike is in the spring and fall. Though the WMA provides plenty of shade, it can still get very hot in the summer, making hiking a bit tougher. Insect repellent is recommended, as the gnats can be pesky and there are also ticks among other biting insects.
The WMA features two primitive camping sites, one on the north end and another on the south end. There is no running water or electricity at either site.
“There are people who hike it every year and they’ll make it a family vacation,’’ McGee said. “We get a lot of participation from different hiking groups. A lot of people will use our primitive camping sites, camp for the weekend and go on all three hiking trails.’’
As you might expect, there are many species of snakes on the WMA, including rattlesnakes and copperheads.
LDWF keeps the trails marked and a map is posted at the entrance of each one.
“We mark the trails every year,’’ McGee said. “So if you get lost on the trail, following the paint will lead you out.’’
Hunting, fishing and Discovery
The hiking is great but so is the hunting.
Deer hunting is available and chasing a bushy tail (squirrel) can be quite exhilarating on these slopes. But the wild turkey is what the WMA is known for in terms of hunting.
“Gilbert is known for the turkey lottery,’’ McGee said. “We typically draw 30 applicants for a three-day hunt, with several of these hunts each spring. We also provide a youth turkey hunt that has been very successful.’’
The Ouachita and Boeuf rivers provide boating access to the western portion of Gilbert, while there is an impounded five-acre gravel pit which offers fishing opportunities for bass, sunfish and catfish. A small boat launch is available at the impoundment.
The habitat on this WMA makes for an impressive diversity of animal and plant species that are uncommon across most of the flatter Louisiana landscape.
How to Get There
J.C. “Sonny” Gilbert WMA is fairly easy to access. It’s located about six miles west of Sicily Island, 30 miles west of Natchez, Mississippi, about an hour-and-a-half east of Alexandria and an hour-and-a-half south of Monroe.
Major access routes to the WMA are Louisiana Highway 8 and 915. LDWF maintains a system of all-weather gravel roads and several seasonal ATV trails that provide access.
There are three self-clearing permit stations located at the WMA’s main entrances. To utilize the WMA, you simply fill out the permit available at the station kiosk and return the permit at the end of your day there. Also, users are reminded that you must have a valid Louisiana hunting or fishing license or a valid Wild Louisiana Stamp to utilize a WMA. You can purchase these at all LDWF license vendors. A Wild Louisiana Stamp is $2 for one day or $9.50 for the year.
For more information about J.C. “Sonny” Gilbert WMA, go to www.wlf.la.gov/wma/2762.
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