Caddo Lake and the town of Jefferson (pop. 2,600) share a curious history. The former owes its origin, and the latter its glory days, to an immense, naturally occurring logjam on the Red River, which was known as the "Great Raft." This logjam existed for centuries and stretched from 80 to 150 miles along the river, raising the water level upstream enough to form Caddo Lake and to make Big Cypress Bayou navigable by steamboat as far as Jefferson. The town became the biggest river port in Texas and the sixth-largest city. In fact, commerce was so good in Jefferson during the mid-19th century that of the Texas ports, only Galveston shipped more tonnage. But this prosperity came to an abrupt end when the Army Corps of Engineers dynamited the raft in 1873, shrinking the lake and isolating the town. The lake is back, owing to an earthen dam built by the Corps in 1914.
The town is back, too, but now its livelihood depends in large part on B&Bs and antiques stores. The return of good times to Jefferson dates from about 1961 with the restoration of the old Excelsior Hotel (now called Excelsior House) by the town's garden club. This sparked a restoration frenzy that has made Jefferson the best-restored town in East Texas. The entire central part of town is listed in the National Register of Historic Places, with a number of antebellum houses (several turned into B&Bs), churches, and commercial buildings listed. It is a pleasant place to visit and stroll about. Weekends are when the town is most lively, with several tours offered; weekdays are when you get the best lodging rates. One of the best attractions is robber baron Jay Gould's personal railroad car, the Atalanta ($2 guided tour): It is in great condition, has a fascinating history, and gives the visitor a wonderful idea of luxury travel in the late 19th century.
Jefferson offers better lodging than what you'll find at Caddo Lake, and when in Jefferson, the place to stay for me is the Excelsior House (tel. 903/665-2513; www.theexcelsiorhouse.com) at 211 W. Austin St. It has been in continuous operation, more or less, since 1850. The 15 rooms are all furnished with antiques, many of which were here before the hotel was purchased by the garden club. Guests are invited to take a fun little tour of the hotel (nonguests $4). Room rates run from $119 to $149. You can also stay at one of the many B&Bs in town. For a list of these as well as information on tours, contact the Marion County Chamber of Commerce at tel. 888/GO-RELAX (467-3529) or 903/665-2672, or visit www.jefferson-texas.com. There are several dining options, including Matt's, 109 N. Polk St. (tel. 903/665-9237), a Tex-Mex joint, and the Bakery Restaurant, 201 W. Austin St. (tel. 903/665-2253), for home cooking, both of which I recommend.
Jefferson is situated between two lakes. To the west is Lake O' the Pines, which is good for swimming and general recreation, but the real point of interest is Caddo Lake, some 10 miles to the east. It is a large lake of 26,800 acres, half of which is in Louisiana; the more interesting half is in Texas, where the lake breaks up into smaller channels removed from most of the boat traffic. The small town of Uncertain (pop. 300) is on the western shore of the lake. Here you can get a tour and find lodging. Near Uncertain is Caddo Lake State Park (tel. 903/679-3351). Like several state parks, it has cabins for rent, which are popular and must be reserved well in advance by calling the central reservation number at tel. 512/389-8900. It also has campsites, which you can reserve by calling the park.
Caddo Lake is for boating or canoeing, not swimming. Instead of being an open expanse of water, it's more like a watery forest broken up into several smaller areas. Cypress trees draped in Spanish moss crowd the lake's broken shore, their roots rising from the murky water in deformed shapes. The lake also harbors abundant wildlife, including alligators, otters, water snakes, and many types of waterfowl.
For a tour, you have several options. You can get a seat on an old-fashioned steamboat that runs from spring to fall. Caddo Lake Steamboat Co. (tel. 903/789-3978) offers a 1-hour trip along the main water channels that costs $15 per person. It's fun, especially for kids, but for a closer look at the lake and its wildlife, try a tour on a pontoon boat (1 1/2 hr.) that takes you beyond the main channel of the lake; contact Caddo Grocery in Uncertain (tel. 903/789-3495). An even closer look can be had by contacting Mystique Tours (tel. 903/679-3690), run by David J. Applebaum, a highly recommended guide. The tour takes 2 to 3 hours on a smaller boat. Your final option is to rent a canoe and paddle into the quiet parts of the lake that see few motorboats because they're too shallow and have too many roots below the surface. Try a couple of places called Carter's Lake and Clinton Lake. Talk to the rangers at the state park. They can point out on a map the canoe routes and put you in touch with the concessionaire.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.