Roughly halfway across the state, Ruston (pop. 22,370) calls itself the “Peach City.” It’s best known for two major colleges: Louisiana Tech (where local boy Terry Bradshaw played college football) and smaller Grambling University, one of the nation’s top historically African American schools, six miles west in the town of Grambling (pop. 5,217), just south of I-20.

Considering that it is one of the largest towns in northern Louisiana, Monroe (pop. 49,297) feels strangely abandoned, even though the downtown area has a number of classic commercial buildings dating from the period between the two world wars, and Victorian-era warehouses and hundreds of ancient-looking shotgun shacks line the railroad tracks and US-80. Celtics basketball star Bill Russell, in 2011 awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his role in desegregating professional sports, was born in Monroe, as was Black Panther Huey Newton.

Apart from its photogenic architecture and fading roadside signs, Monroe doesn’t offer much reason to stop, though the gorgeous greenery of the Louisiana Purchase Gardens and Zoo (1405 Bernstein Park Rd., 318/329-2400, daily, $6), south of I-20 off US-165, makes it a great place to stretch your legs, ride a steam train, or go for a boat ride (Mar.-Oct., $3) among the moss-draped oaks and cypress trees.

East of Monroe, it’s an hour’s drive across the bayous before you reach the fascinating city of Vicksburg, across the Mississippi River.