There’s nothing quite like summer in Kentucky—with the gorge, the sunsets, and the warm weather we’ve longed for all winter long, it’s the best season. And with outdoor activities ranging from boating and fishing to hiking and camping, it can be hard to decide what to do. This is exactly why an overnight canoe trip is the perfect option for a summer weekend—you can do it all! Paddling through Kentucky’s rivers and lakes is also one of the best ways to see what the Bluegrass State has to offer. Whether you’ve canoed all your life or plan on picking up this new hobby this summer—we’ve got a spot for you.
1.Kentucky Lake to Lake Barkley
Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area offers something you won’t find anywhere else in America—300 miles of undeveloped shoreline to explore. You’ll weave in and out of Kentucky and Tennessee, and depending on the route you take, this trip can last five days or two weeks. You can start as far south as the Big Sandy Unit Tennessee National Wildlife Refuge or Paris Landing State Park in Tennessee, and then follow the waterway north. At the northern end of the recreation area, take the Barkley Canal to the Cumberland River and follow that around and south to Lake Barkley.
There are plenty of put-ins and campgrounds along the way, but one of the best places to stay for a night is Wildcat Creek Campground. It’s a bit of a side trip off the Blood River, and it’s a quiet and secluded campground with lots of shade, away from the more touristy resorts.
2. Upper Cumberland River
The Upper Cumberland River is a local favorite and a nice little weekend trip—perfect for paddlers of all levels. Most people tackle this as a 17-mile trip, but the entire section to Cumberland Falls is 28 miles. You’ll paddle through the Daniel Boone National Forest and find class I and class II water, but the scenery makes up for any challenges you might come across. Some sections of the river feature rolling hills covered in trees, which are especially beautiful in the fall, while other sections are lined with rocky cliffs.
Pack light for this trip, since the rapids can be more challenging if you have a heavier boat. As far as campsites go, there are many campsite options in the first half, and you can basically camp anywhere. On the second half of this trip, spots are more scarce, but there are still some good options along the river.
3. Green River through Mammoth Cave National Park
About 25 miles of the Green River flows through Mammoth Cave National Park, one of Kentucky’s prettiest sights. It’s also one of the easiest canoeing trips, with almost no waves or currents. This would be the perfect trip for a family with children, or if you’re looking to cast a line during your trip. Green River is also home to wildlife like turkeys, raccoons, deer, and copperhead snakes! Camping is free anywhere along the trail as long as you have a permit, which you can get onsite. Check the water levels before you head out to make sure they are suitable for your canoe or kayak.
4. Station Camp to Blue Heron
Station Camp to Blue Heron on the Big South Fork of the Cumberland River is about a two- to three-day trip with mostly flatwater and one class III drop. This is another good option if you’re looking to fish as well as canoe, but the main attraction here is Devils Jump—the drop with a famous backstory.
Legend has it that back in the 1800s, five brothers came into Lick Creek Valley in southern Kentucky looking for land and money. They got into the salt mining business, but accidentally found oil instead. The brothers feared they had drilled into hell, and when one of them went to explore, his raft overturned and spilled oil into the water. When he got back to the crew he told his friends an exaggerated story about the Devil leaping from one of the large rocks, sinking the raft and taking off up the west side of the river with his property. Whether you believe this story or not—it’s worth checking out the place for yourself. You can portage around Devils Jump, but there are no signs, so pay attention to the landmarks.
These are just four of the many canoe trails worth exploring in Kentucky this summer. While a day trip is super fun, you get to experience so much more of the trail when you spreading it out over the course of a few days. Packing the canoe with all your gear can be tricky—but stick to the essentials when it comes to personal items and small, easy meals for food. Save the big camping meals and gear for a more traditional campout, and you won’t be too weighed down!
Originally written for Kentucky Tourism.