At this time of year traveling The Scenic Route comes with an added bonus, namely discovering many unique holiday celebrations you’d never have otherwise known about. That said, I think it’s a safe bet that none of them are more spectacular than the annual Christmas Eve bonfires atop the Mississippi River levees just upstream from New Orleans.
These are not your typical bonfires, however. Here along this section of Louisiana’s Great River Road scenic byway —a place where folks are known for celebrating just about anything you can name in a truly larger-than-life fashion—these extravagant wooden creations can take weeks to construct and reach the height of a three-story building.
While most of these huge pyres take the form of the traditional tall pyramid, every year a few creative souls put together bonfires in the shape of everything from grand plantation homes and paddlewheel steamboats to monster trucks and even RVs. After the heads of local fire departments give the signal around 7 p.m., the builders set fire to their creations to the delight crowds of family, friends and visitors who come to ooh-and-ahh at the line of more than 100 bonfires—many of which include built-in pyrotechnic displays—that stretch for miles along the river.
The origins of this Christmas Eve bonfire tradition are a little hazy, but folks here have been building and burning these elaborate structures for more than a century. Today the party is centered around the small riverside towns of Gramercy and Lutcher along Highway 44.
To partake of the festivities, you can simply drive along the base of the levees here, or take one of the organized bus tours that depart from New Orleans. The best way to really get into the spirit of the event, though, is to find a place to park alongside the road and climb the levee to mix and mingle with the friendly locals (before you go, check out this Christmas Eve bonfires video and helpful tips).
To learn more about this area and its countless attractions, look for the next installment of our adventures along The Scenic Route in the February 2013 issue of Trailer Life.