Caddo Lake straddles the Texas-Louisiana border in northeast Texas. It’s known for its forest of cypress trees that dominate the shallow murky waters. Folks come to Caddo for its beauty. It covers more than 25,000 acres and is a popular spot for fishing, boating, and photography.
Caddo’s cypress trees are usually draped with wispy Spanish moss and they turn a brilliant green in the spring before becoming rust-colored in the fall. During most of the year, there is a dramatic smoky mist that comes off the water in the morning, much to a photographer’s delight.
Caddo is a protected wetland under the international Ramsar Convention. The Convention on Wetlands is an intergovernmental treaty that provides a framework for national and international cooperation for the conservation of wetlands and their resources. It wasn’t always that way. In the 1920s, gas and oil drilling rigs dotted the lake and the waters were heavily polluted. An effort to preserve the natural beauty of the lake is headed by singer Don Henley, one of the lead singers of the Eagles, who grew up around the lake.
I spent two days on Caddo with guide John Crawford and his dog Mia. John is a retired steelworker and the go-to guide for photographers at the lake. He has guided clients from around the world on this photogenic waterway.
The lake is one of the few naturally occurring lakes in Texas. It was formed by a miles-long raft of dead trees that gathered over centuries and clogged up the Red River. The raft was removed in the 1870s when the Army Corp of Engineers dynamited the trees, allowing the water to flow freely. This drained the lake and allowed riverboats to travel upstream. At that time, the water flowed along the Red River, and then to the Mississippi River, leading to New Orleans. In the late 1800s, steamboats traveled the river and the upstream town of Jefferson, Texas, became a major river port. That ended when the federal government built a dam on the river in the early 1900s. The last riverboat traffic on the lake was recorded in 1903. Historians say the dam was built when oil companies lobbied Congress for a structure that would raise the water enough for them to float equipment into drilling sites on the Louisiana side of the lake.
The world’s first over-water oil well was drilled in Caddo Lake in 1911. Drilling went on into the 1920s when the deposits went dry.
The Army Corps of Engineers built a new, bigger dam in the 1960s, raising the lake to its current level.
Things To Do At Caddo Lake
There are marked water trails around the lake. You can bring your own boat or kayak. But you will find only two public boat ramps — one at the Caddo Lake State Park, and the other at the Mooringsport Dam on the Louisiana side of the lake. There is a private ramp at Backwater Jack’s RV Park and Marina.
Many people take rides with a number of pontoon boat tour outfitters. A Google search will give you lots of options. These rides usually last about 2 hours. Prices are generally about $35 per person. Early mornings or evenings are recommended for the most scenic views, and for spotting wildlife.
Great blue herons, snowy egrets, and osprey are commonly spotted along the lake, especially in the mornings when they are looking for a fishy breakfast. Eagles are more rarely seen. A long telephoto lens is recommended for photographers wanting to shoot these birds up close.
Fishing is one of the lake’s main attractions. There are over 80 species of fish in Caddo’s waters. Anglers can hook into bass, crappies, chain pickerel, catfish, and sunfish. A flathead catfish weighing over 55 pounds has been recorded in the lake. The largemouth bass record is over 16 pounds. There are fishing guides that can put you on the right spot. A Texas fishing license is required.
Unfortunately, in recent years a water-based weed, giant Salvinia, has taken over the lake in the warmer months. The invasive plant grows rapidly, and clogs the waterways, blocking boat traffic. Even the canoe and kayak trails are affected. The State of Texas has tried spraying, but the weed grows so fast it’s hard to keep pace with it. The latest effort is releasing imported bugs that feed on the giant Salvinia. So far, the weed is winning the battle.
Henley is the co-founder of the Caddo Lake Institute, an organization dedicated to preserving the woodlands and waters of the lake. The institute works with the states of Texas and Louisiana, and local communities, on efforts to restore water quality, and preserve the lake’s natural wetlands. It also works with partners on research into invasive species like the giant Salvinia.
Where To Stay At Caddo Lake, Texas
The Caddo Lake State Park has a large campground with hookups for RV’s and tent campers. The campground is nestled in the woods, right along the lake, with access to the boat ramp nearby. There are also cabins available.
The towns of Uncertain and Karnack are located by the lake and have fishing camps and RV parks. The Pine Island RV Park is a small campground in Karnack near the water. It has hookups, showers, and a laundry room.
A popular camping spot is Backwater Jack’s RV Park and Marina in Karnack. It is mainly for RV’ers, but you can also pitch a tent. There are 29 campsites. There are also lakeside cabins for rent.
About 7 miles from the lake is the town of Jefferson, and there are a number of Bed & Breakfast inns and hotels located in the town’s historic district. There are also restaurants nearby in the downtown area.
Caddo Lake Cabins
There are 10 cabins at Caddo Lake State Park. Occupancy ranges from two to six people. The rates range from $75 to $115 per night. One cabin, without a bathroom, rents for $40 per night. Some cabins do not have stoves or refrigerators. You need to bring your own bedding. Check the website for details.
There are cabins available at Cabins On Caddo Lake, a private property in the community of Uncertain. There are three cabins and a cottage. The rates range from $75 to $150 a night, with a two-night minimum.
Places To Eat At Caddo Lake, Texas
Lots of grilled and fried options are on the menu at Riverbend Restaurant in Karnack, including catfish, redfish, and chicken. There is a large, screened dining deck overlooking the bayou.
If you like catfish, Big Pines Lodge Restaurant and Watering Hole is a good place to find it … probably fresh caught the same day. My lunch here was a huge country-fried chicken sandwich, onion rings and a Texas-brewed Shiner Bock beer. My cell phone didn’t have service at the restaurant, so the waitress let me use her phone to make a call. Now that’s service. Big tip.
Aseret Mexican Restaurant is a small, unpretentious spot in Karnack for tacos, burritos, refried beans and rice. The salsa is fresh and homemade. The owner, Jacob, often pulls out his guitar and serenades diners.
The Caddo Outpost in Karnack is open for breakfast and lunch. It also sells produce, groceries, beer, and wine.
The closest thing to fine dining is the Knightlight Theater and Wine Tavern in Jefferson. The restaurant bills itself as a steakhouse, but also offers burgers and pizza. The theater hosts comedies, plays, musicals, and movies. Check the website for details.
Things To See And Do Away From Caddo Lake, Texas
Plan a visit, or even a stay in Jefferson, located on U.S. Highway 59, west of the lake. The town goes back to the 1840s, so just about everything in town is called historic. At one time, Jefferson was one of the busiest river ports in Texas when steamboat traffic would follow the Red River into the lake. After the dam was built in the early 1900s, boat traffic died off.
Today, Jefferson is a popular weekend getaway for folks in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. In addition to the bed and breakfast inns, there are several hotels, restaurants, a general store, a local museum, and even a fudge shop.
Take the electric tram on a one-hour tour of Jefferson’s historic district. There are also bikes for rent if you want to do your own self-guided tour on the brick streets downtown.
Every spring there is the annual Jefferson Pilgrimage, which offers tours of historic homes and gardens. There is a live performance of Diamond Bessie, a play about the victim of a notorious murder in the 1870s.
Another annual event in Jefferson is the Battle of Big Cypress Bayou, a Civil War reenactment. It is usually held in the summer.
The beauty of the cypress trees around Caddo Lake are best enjoyed by boat. Take one of the pontoon boat tours, or bring your own boat. I explored in my kayak, plus took a boat tour with John Crawford.
Spring and fall are the best times to go. In the spring the cypress is a brilliant green. In the fall, the trees turn reddish. Because of the giant Salvinia problem, summers on the lake are difficult for boats to navigate the waters. Giant Salvinia roots float in the water just beneath the surface, and the plants are blown about by the wind. Navigation is based on wind conditions. Some years are worse than others, so call ahead to check on conditions.
If you’re camping, Caddo Lake State Park offers a great campground, with shaded sites nestled in stands of pine and cypress trees. The park has recently renovated its showers and restrooms. I’ve been there in both spring and fall. It truly is one of the best state parks in Texas.
There are some magnificent lakes in Texas that offer a variety of outdoor activities: