Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Kayaking Lake Pontchartrain's South Shore - New Orleans

This will be a very simple post about kayaking in Lake Pontchartrain along the south shore. It will be less of a trip or route description, and more about some launch options, and what you can expect to encounter once on the water. Unless you're crossing the lake, pretty much any paddling trip you make on the lake from New Orleans is going to be an out-and-back, so you can make your own distance. My trips are typically between 8 and 10 miles. 

I have to qualify paddling Lake Pontchartrain as not being beginner friendly. Sometimes it's as smooth as glass, but this is a pretty big lake, and you have to respect it. I would not even consider going out on the lake in my original 9' kayak if I still had it. Even when I moved up to a 14' kayak, but had very little lake experience, I had some nervous times and usually came back with water sloshing in the kayak. As I'll say again later, conditions do change quickly--it's a large, but shallow lake. A relatively minor change in the weather can change the feel of the water. Plus, reports of drownings in the lake, within feet or yards of shore, are simply too common. I always wear my life vest and use a spray skirt on the lake. Every time. Interestingly, my friend Chris Brooks loves white water, and when our fall and spring fronts bring strong winds, he'll get out there and surf in his playboat.

But, I have to say, when conditions are right, a trip from my Breakwater Drive launch (see below) out to one of the beaches by UNO, and back, is a great day trip, within minutes of most parts of the city. Pack a lunch, paddle 4 or so miles, take a break, eat, stretch your legs, and then head back when you're ready.

I have launched from three spots on the south shore of the lake, but surely there are more options. In June of 2020, I finally launched from the Bonnabel launch, and I'm guessing the launch near the Pontchartrain Center in Kenner would be similar.

There are concrete steps leading into the lake along most of Lakeshore Drive, but I very strongly discourage you from launching from these. They're typically covered with algae and very slippery, and the shoreline under the steps has eroded away. Sadly, there have been episodes of people slipping under the steps and drowning. When conditions get rough, the water is splashing and smashing against these steps. 

My preferred launch is actually just a sandy/rocky spot on Breakwater Drive, across from Southern Yacht Club. Locally, this general area is known as "West End", 

kayak lake pontchartrain

I like this spot because it's within the sheltered marina, so it allows for a nice controllable launch, and gives you the chance to paddle around the marina and get settled in before heading out onto the lake itself. I just park on the left side of Breakwater Dr, and launch from the right side. This is simply an undeveloped (as of August 2017) spot, just past a series of houses. This is a pretty rocky launch, and you need to watch for glass, but it's easy, and I've done it in my semi-fragile "racing" kayak.
It may be worth noting that this is a nice, sheltered marina, great for a quick warm-up tour. But since it's a marina with homes and house boats, sanitation concerns should dispel any temptation to do roll or rescue practice sessions here. 

***UPDATE Fall 2021:
The above launch has been inaccessible due to road and shoreline work since 2019. And apparently part of that project was a new public launch associated with Breakwater Park. I have not used this launch yet, but apparently the launch is completed and open. My friend Nick Napoda recently commented on how nice it is. Here's a Google Maps link to this new launch:

It is because of the road work that I finally launched from the Bonnabel launch:
Google Maps Link to Bonnabel Launch

This is actually a very nice, large public launch with a lot of parking, adjacent picnic areas, and dog park, right along the lakefront foot/bike trail. There are 4 concrete ramps, and this is the heart of Metairie, so you can expect traffic before and after you launch. This launch is nicely sheltered, and when you first enter the lake, there is an area to your right, along the foot/bike trail, where you can get settled in and read the water.
By the way, I launched my surfski here, and it has a fixed rudder underneath that makes sloping launches hard. Each of the four ramps here has walkways/docks on both sides, so we staged our boats and gear on those, and launched easily.

I have to say, any time I've paddled west of The Point on Breakwater Drive, any energy in the water seems a little elevated here.  Launching from Bonnabel reinforced that feeling. Looking at the topography, I'm (only) guessing there's more fetch for a north or west wind to move the water, and then that energy will reflect back from the hard, c-shaped shoreline immediately to the east of the launch, and since it's shallow water, it bounces more here.

By the way, as of June 2020, I still haven't paddled west of Bonnabel on the south shore.

My third go-to launch is the Seabrook Boat Launch, on the eastern end of Lakeshore Drive:

This spot is nice because you do have a sandy beach, and a no wake zone, so it's also a nice spot for a controlled launch in any kayak.

Obviously, on the lake you always need to be aware of motorized traffic. But with the Breakwater Drive and Seabrook launches, you are launching from a different spot than motorboats, and you will have to cross or interact with their routes out to the lake.  At Bonnabel, you launch alongside the motorized traffic. With these other two spots, you will have to pay attention as recreational boats come and go, possibly crossing your path. I enjoy sunset and full moon paddles out on the lake, but crossing the entrance to the West End marina at dark, without proper lighting is simply dangerous. Make yourself very visible. A small horn would be good also. There are traditional "sail nights" on the lake each week, leaving from the West End spot. You have to cross the entrance/exit of the marina, and even though it's a controlled no wake zone, it usually has some bounce,  and you do have to cross 100 yards or so. So be visible and pay attention, and the other boaters will work with you. 

My kayak trips on this side of the lake are typically just very simple out-and-back trips along Lakeshore drive, usually to the beaches at UNO, though sometimes I'll continue past UNO to the Seabrook launch, and then return.

kayak lake pontchartrain

kayak lake pontchartrain
kayak lake pontchartrain
These beaches are actually located on the site of the old Pontchartrain Beach Amusement Park, which closed in the early 1980s, and where the Research and Technology Park is currently located.

There are plans in the works to develop these beaches into public beaches, with facilities and lifeguards. Currently, these are undeveloped and officially closed to the public due to an alarmingly high number of drownings. The water is very shallow, but there are spots where the bottom drops off suddenly, and undertows can occur.

So, conditions:
The lake is very shallow for such a large body of water. This means that waves tend to be short and choppy, and very heavily influenced by the wind, especially when the wind is coming from the north or northwest, giving it more fetch. It also means that if there is a sudden change in the weather, such as in the summer when thunderstorms can blow up almost instantly, things can get pretty exciting out there. That would be my biggest warning: Do not assume that conditions will remain the same for your whole trip. Wear a spray skirt, regardless of conditions,  and ALWAYS wear your PFD.  And to state the semi-obvious: I don't have pictures of choppy conditions out here because I'm usually too pre-occupied to think about taking pictures.
A very common thought that comes to me on the lake is how very different it looks when you're sitting a few inches off the water, versus how it looks from shore.  And the word I use over and over again with the lake is "bouncy". Sometimes I feel more nervous in "1 foot water" on the lake than I do in 2-3 foot water in the Mississippi Sound, where the water tends to "roll" in and out.
kayak lake pontchartrain

kayak lake pontchartrain

kayak lake pontchartrain

kayak lake pontchartrain

kayak lake pontchartrain

kayak lake pontchartrain new orleans

Between West End Park/Southern Yacht Club and the Seabrook launch, the entire shoreline is the concrete steps I mentioned earlier, so there is a lot of reflective energy in the waves. There are 2 canals and an entrance to Bayou St John (though there is a flood control structure that prevents actual entry to the bayou) in this stretch of the lake. The V-shaped inlets are lined with these concrete steps, so these three spots can sometimes have pretty confusing energy also, as the energy reflects back and forth. But when calm, each of these can be nice little diversions or break areas, if you feel like exploring, though the entry to Bayou St John can be very shallow(and again, you can't paddle through the gates). 

With some curves to the shoreline, you can paddle a straight line and go from being a few feet from the steps to being several hundred yards from shore, and then back right next to the steps again. So pay attention if you're not comfortable being that far from land in the current conditions. These curves also tend to make the energy in the water change as the direction of the wind and waves changes relative to the geometry of the shoreline. On my typical paddle from the yacht club, east past UNO, conditions will feel pretty different several different times as I make that out-and-back trip.

As I mentioned earlier, I've only gone west from the West End/Breakwater Drive launch 2 or 3 times, and never past the Causeway, for no particular reason. For some reason, I just like going east, paddling parallel to Lakeshore Drive, chatting with the folks fishing or relaxing on the steps, seeing the runners and cyclists moving along the road. Spending time along Lakeshore Drive is a part of growing up in New Orleans, and it's nice enjoying it from a very different perspective. It's a 3rd person perspective, watching the very familiar scenes just a few feet or yards away, but being in a very different environment, very engaged with the water and weather. And, if you do have any sort of trouble, there is usually someone who can see or hear you.

Lake Pontchartrain is just another example of a great slice of nature and paddling fun, right in the city. This post only refers to paddling along the south shore of the lake, but as you may see in some of my other posts, some of the other routes I've written about involve sections of the lake. And those are very different experiences. For example, when you enter the lake from Cane Bayou, it's all sand and grass, and (usually) very shallow for the first few yards along the shore. This softens the energy, as the marsh absorbs the energy instead of bouncing it back out at you as the south shore steps do.

So, as always, do your homework, be smart and know your limits, and take advantage of this beautiful lake.


  1. Emilie DannenbergMay 28, 2021 at 4:27 PM

    Paddled Bonnabel to Seabrook today , experienced everything you mentioned here. Good info.

  2. Good read. Greetings from Illinois.