A Guide to Kayaking and Island Camping on Percy Priest Lake

Luau Island on Percy Priest.
Luau Island on Percy Priest. Leah Gray
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Ah, Percy Priest. Your blue waters and limestone-lined shores give we Nashville dwellers a little oasis right outside of the city no matter the season. Oh, it’s cold and the sky is spitting an uncomfortably dreary mist? No problem, you’ve got thickly covered trails for us to run to our hearts' content. Hot, muggy, with water-filled air that makes us sweat the minute we step outside? All the better, you’ve got limestone jutting out to the deep, cool water perfect for cliff jumping.

But your best feature of all (besides your proximity) has to be your islands. They speckle your waters, some with sandy ground and others with thick brush, and give us the perfect day, better yet, weekend trip that we can have in the area.

For anyone who's never had the pleasure of visiting Percy Priest Lake, here’s your guide to kayaking these famous, friendly waters and camping on its islands.

Choose Your Island

Percy Priest Lake on a summer day.
Percy Priest Lake on a summer day. Leah Gray

There are many islands to choose from on Percy Priest Lake. Take a look at the map to pick which one you’re feeling. The islands are marked with a small sign with a tent if they allow camping or not. Some are listed on the map and others you’ll just have to ride out to find out for yourself.

A favorite of ours is Luau Island, and it’s just how it sounds: a tiny, sand-covered island that’s big enough for about 5 tents. Since it's a popular destination for boaters during the day and some campers on weekends, get there early to claim your spot. There are other great, larger, and more covered islands in close vicinity if you’re wanting more of a backcountry feel, just check for signs and always be smart when setting up camp.

Choose Your Put-in Area

Kayaking in late spring on Percy Priest.
Kayaking in late spring on Percy Priest. Leah Gray

The dock you choose will depend on the island you’re trying to get to and how long of a ride you’re wanting. For Luau and surrounding islands, a go-to put-in spot is Elm Hill Marina . There are two entrances, one with the big sign and the second with a yellow gate. During peak summer hours you’ll pay $5-$8 per car. Parking and putting-in are straightforward from there. Choosing this options makes for a shorter ride, about 30 minutes.

Skipping stones on the shore of Percy Priest Lake
Skipping stones on the shore of Percy Priest Lake Leah Gray

If you’re wanting a longer and more scenic ride and/or a free place to park, drive down Bell Road a little farther to Hamilton Creek. A great public park with some good trail running, it’s also the perfect spot to load in your kayak without spending any money. The ride from Hamilton Creek is about an hour give or take some exploration time.

Choose Your Timing

Island camping at sunset on Percy Priest Lake.
Island camping at sunset on Percy Priest Lake. Leah Gray

The best time to leave on this little adventure is after work on Friday (or any day if you have that flexibility!). If you hit the water, paddle in-hand by 6:00 or 7:00pm, you’ll be kayaking your way into the sunset. It's an unreal experience that's totally worth the Friday after-work traffic to get out to the lake.

Choose Your Gear

Setting up camp on Luau Island.
Setting up camp on Luau Island. Leah Gray

You’ll be on a lake, so pack lightly and wisely. Rain jackets, rain flaps, and fire starters are always a smart idea, as mid-summer midnight thunderstorms love to sneak up on you in Tennessee. If you’re heading out in the warmer months, obviously don’t forget that swimsuit! Some of the best swimming on the lake is on Luau thanks to it’s sandy bottom and shallow depths. If you’re trekking out to one of the bigger, bushier islands, don’t forget bug spray and do yourself a favor, watch out for the poison ivy that will inevitably be resting in the brush!

Above all get out there, find your favorite island, and spend as much time there as you can. It really is one of the Nashville area's greatest resources for multi-sport outdoor recreation.

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