Miles away from the chaos of New Orleans' French Quarter, Audubon Park awaits those in search of a more tranquil experience. Roughly 350 acres in total, the layout of the park was designed by John Charles Olmsted of the prestigious Olmsted family, famed for designing public spaces such as Manhattan’s Central Park.
The name of the park stems from the Haitian-born ornithologist John James Audubon, author of one of the most famous ornithology catalogues on earth, "The Birds of America." This catalogue may come in handy while visiting the park, as it is home to a large number of native bird species perched along massive and ancient live oak trees.
Audubon Park is home to Louisiana's famed Audubon Zoo, first established in 1914, and the park also serves as a public haven for joggers and bikers.
The park is located in the Uptown district of New Orleans, six miles to the west of the French Quarter. The northernmost reaches of the park begin on St Charles Avenue, where the park is bordered by two prestigious Louisiana colleges, Loyola University and Tulane University.
The park runs parallel to Walnut Street on its western side and Calhoun Street to its east, with the park’s southern borders ending at the banks of the Mississippi River. Those visiting the park from the French Quarter can take the Number 11 bus from Canal and Magazine, alighting at any one of the five bus stops across the center of the park on Magazine Street. Those wishing to start at the north end of the park can take the Number 12 Streetcar, with stops spanning the length of St Charles Avenue beginning in the French Quarter.
While the park was formally purchased by the government in 1871, the plot of land was originally used for sugar production, known as Plantation de Boré. The area also played a prominent role in the American Civil War, swapping from Confederate rule to Union control and serving as a base for the 9th Cavalry Regiment for the US Army.
The park saw its first major event in the early 1880s as New Orleans was approved to host the 1884 World Cotton Centennial. While the event had a precarious start, with Louisiana state treasurer Edward Burke embezzling a large portion of the fair’s budget and later fleeing permanently to Honduras, the fair was ultimately quite successful.
Shortly after the fair, the city established a council dedicated to the proper development of the park, at which point John Charles Olmsted was hired to breathe life into the unmanaged mass of swamp. Louisiana’s State Act #191 was passed in 1914, establishing the Audubon Commission, a board of trustees tasked with managing all development within the park. To this day, the Audubon Commission continues to take part in all major decisions for the park’s future development.
Activities at Audubon Park
While there are a wealth of activities to experience throughout Audubon Park, one of the simplest is to trek along the Audubon Park Trail. Outlining the perimeter of the park’s northern half, visitors can bike, jog, or walk amongst ancient oak trees, while children can enjoy the twin playgrounds at the two northernmost corners of the park.
Highlights along the Audubon Park Trail include the World War I Louisiana Roll of Honor, a monument displaying the names of state natives who gave their lives in the first world war, and Gumbel Fountain, the centerpiece of Audubon Park’s elegant northern entrance.
Those who are eager to practice their golf game can tee off at Audubon Park Golf Course, an 18-hole course spanning more than 4,000 yards. Designed by famed landscape architect Denis Griffiths, the course is home to regular tournaments, a pro shop, and a clubhouse open to the public.
Just south of the golf course lies the Audubon Zoo. Home to more than 2,000 animals from across the globe, the zoo features elephants, tigers, gorillas, and a wealth of other species. One highlight of the zoo is the swamp exhibit, a largely open-air collection of species native to southern Louisiana, including otters and raccoons, as well as copperhead and cottonmouth snakes.
The zoo also holds a collection of leucistic alligators, having been born with pale white skin and blue eyes. The New Orleans Aquarium and Insectarium are both affiliated with the Audubon Nature Institute as well, but are located on the edge of the French Quarter.
Other attractions around the zoo’s perimeter include the Whitney Young Swimming Pool, along with the Tree of Life, a massive gnarled oak tree that’s centuries old, and a popular destination for wedding photos. Visitors wishing to gaze out across the Mississippi River can move further south to the Butterfly Riverview Park, where picnic spots are plentiful.
Nature at Audubon Park
While the Audubon Zoo draws huge amounts of visitors each year, some may not be aware of the wealth of biodiversity outside of the zoo’s walls. A major rookery for wading bird species lies in the eastern lagoon of the park, located on the aptly-named Bird Island. Egrets, ibises, herons, and ducks call this island their home, as breeding populations return each year to raise future generations.
The park also boasts a huge number of live oak trees. Both Audubon Park and City Park are famed for these massive and long-lived trees, which are meticulously monitored and cared for by park staff.
Where to Eat Nearby
Those who are hungry after a long day of park activities can find refreshment at a number of spots around the park. Audubon Clubhouse Café, located within Audubon Park Golf Course, is open to both members and the public alike.
Zoo guests can choose from restaurants ranging from the Zoofari Café, offering classic dining options such as chicken strips and cheeseburgers, to the Cypress Knee Café, where traditional New Orleans recipes like gumbo and étouffée can be purchased.
Those seeking a meal a short distance outside the park may find themselves at Patois, an upscale restaurant serving Louisiana recipes with French influence, or Tartine, a café offering sandwiches and pastries.