Riding along the water, swooping around the curves, all the while shaded by lush oak and hickory forest, in an area called “The Land Between Two Lakes,” it sounds like something out of a fantasy movie.
There are an additional three miles of connector trails that can be used to either lengthen or shortcut the main trail down to just a couple of miles. If looking to seriously increase the mileage, on the Kentucky lake side, there is the North/South trail that goes 30 miles to the Golden Pond visitor center.
Destination Distance From Downtown
2 of 5 diamonds
There are no serious obstacles or technicality on the trail, it’s mostly smooth and flowy, the total elevation change is about 1,200 feet. A couple of short hills demand attention from beginners.
The Land Between Two Lakes area was formed in the late 1950s when the Army Corps of Engineers dammed the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers, creating Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley, one of the world's largest man-made bodies of water with over 300 miles of shoreline, and the largest inland peninsulas in the United States.
The area was named National Recreation Area by President John F. Kennedy in 1963 to prove that an area with limited timber, agricultural, and commercial viability could be used for recreation that would stimulate the local economy.
It seems to have worked. Today, this 170,000-acre park is one of the most visited attractions in Kentucky and Tennessee, creating a $600 million tourism industry with two million visitors annually.
What Makes It Great
The Canal Loop Trail is the jewel of the mountain biking crown in the Land Between Two Lakes, and an absolute must do if in the area, and indeed, as a standalone destination in and of itself. Beginners and advanced riders alike dig this trail. The sheer beauty of the area and the interesting, varied riding keeps everybody on their toes and entertained.
Most riders agree that going counter-clockwise is the better way to go, the beginning six miles or so on the Lake Barkley side is fast, flowy singletrack with a couple of easy climbs that serve as the appetizer to things yet to come. After passing under the canal bridge, the climbing, difficulty, and fun increases. The descent from the radio tower is a particular highlight and is bound to turn any first-time rider into a lifelong mountain biker.
Riders are treated to panoramas of the water almost the entire way, with a few spectacular viewpoints here and there, perfect for a breather and a snack.
The sheer amount of other things to do keep people coming back, There is also 500 miles of other trails open to hiking and biking. It’s hard to get lost though, the main loop is designated by blue diamonds, connector trails are yellow, the North/South trail uses white diamonds.
Who is Going to Love It
As one of the largest blocks of undeveloped forest in the eastern United States wildlife aficionados have plenty to see. Wild turkeys, deer, coyotes, the majestic, exclusive red wolf, beavers and other small game, and prairie mammals call the area home. And no visit would be complete without a visit to the elk and bison prairie, a 3.5-mile loop road where the animals roam freely in a 700-acre reserve. Though, cycling through it is prohibited.
Bird watchers aren’t left out either, over 240 different species of birds nest in the forest. Every August, there is a festival that celebrates the annual hummingbird migration. The two big winged kings of the area though are the great horned owls and the bald eagles. Just visible off the trail is one of the more popular attractions, a giant nest, home to a mating pair of eagles said to be there for 15 years.
History buffs will enjoy the mid-19th-century Homeplace, a working history farm with original log structures that still produces corn, tobacco, sheep, and hogs, all grown and harvested using period-correct tools and techniques. During the Civil War, the Battle of Fort Henry took place here in 1862. Though most of the earthen fort is under water, the Homeplace has info on it.
Directions, Parking, & Regulations
From the north: From I-24, take Exit 31 to Hwy 453 South, after crossing the canal, the North Welcome Station is three miles on the right.
From Nashville: Take I-24 West into Kentucky to Exit 65 (Cadiz/Hopkinsville). Turn left to Cadiz. Stay on US Hwy 68/80 through Cadiz and across the Lake Barkley bridge. Exit onto Woodlands Trace Scenic Byway and follow the signs to the Golden Pond Visitor Center.
There are numerous campgrounds in the area, and overnight camping is permitted along the Canal Loop Trail. All campsites must be at least 50 feet from the trail. An overnight Backpacking Permit is required; get a free permit at the Welcome Station.