The first thing visitors notice about Lake Pontchartrain is how big it is. That observation often is made as they cross the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway Bridge, a 24-mile-long parallel pair of spans known as the longest bridge (continuous) over water in the world. Some folks -- we call them fraidy cats -- panic as land disappears behind them in the rear view mirror and the bridge seems to go on and on. Others enjoy the ride, and the view of pelicans, cormorants and occasional sailboats gliding by. Sunsets are gorgeous from the bridge.
There are a few things to know about the lake. First off, it’s not a lake. Lake Pontchartrain actually is an estuary, fed by numerous Northshore rivers and bayous, and connected to the Gulf of Mexico by the Rigolets (pronounced Rig-oh-lees) Strait and Lake Borgne.
A large body of water, it encompasses about 630 square miles and is roughly 40 miles wide from west to east, 24 miles north to south. The water, averaging 12-14 feet in depth, is brackish, mostly freshwater on the west but increasing in salinity the farther east you go.
Originally called “Okwata” (meaning “wide water”) by Native American inhabitants of the area, in 1699 it was named Lake Pontchartrain by French explorer Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville for France’s King Louis XIV’s Minister of the Marine. (Iberville’s brother, Jean Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville, would later found the city of New Orleans in 1718.)
There are many ways to enjoy Lake Pontchartrain. Though troubled by pollution in the 1970s, the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation’s Save Our Lake campaign has made huge strides in improving water quality and now encourages recreational use of the lake in all its forms. On the Northshore, many enjoy the lake from Mandeville, where a seawall, restaurants with a view, a marina and parks enhance the experience.
More than a dozen fishing charters operate out of Slidell, taking would be fishers out for a day on the lake and the chance at monster trout, bull reds, and triple-tail. You don’t need a boat to fish, though, as the St. Tammany Parish Fishing Pier in Slidell and the Sunset Point Fishing Pier in Mandeville both offer great access.
Kayak and canoe rentals, flyboarding and more also get you out and into the water. And at day’s end, the lovely built-over-water cabins at Fontainebleau State Park provide the perfect place to lay your head and listen to the waves lap below.
Guided boat rentals out of Fairview-Riverside State Park lead you down the Tchefuncte River to the mouth, where the river and lake meet, of Lake Pontchartrain. Stop at local waterfront restaurants or bring your own meal to enjoy as you can catch an amazing sunset view accented by the Madisonville Lighthouse. (Built in1832, destroyed during the Civil War and rebuilt in 1868 with many of the original bricks.)