How to Explore the Land Between the Lakes: One of the Most Interesting and Adventure-Filled Places in the South

The national recreation area is located between two lakes: Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley.
The national recreation area is located between two lakes: Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley. Land Between the Lakes KY / TN
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For such a narrow piece of land, you’d think exploring the Land between the Lakes National Recreation Area would be fairly straightforward. But coming in at 170,000 acres—not to mention home to one of the largest areas of undeveloped forest in the eastern United States—the area has tons of opportunity for a wide variety of activities. Known as LBL to the locals, Land Between the Lakes spans the Tennessee-Kentucky border in the western corner of Kentucky. It’s defined by two dammed-up rivers that have formed long lakes stretching from north to south: Kentucky Lake and Barkley Lake.

This peninsula is 40 miles long and ranges from one to nine miles across. The area contains more than 500 miles of trails, and 261 of those miles are just for hiking. Other trails are designated for horseback riding, ATVs, and/or mountain biking. There are several boat ramps here for easy access to the water, so boating, fishing, and other water sports are popular here as well.

If you’re heading out to LBL for a weekend (or longer!) it can be tough to figure out where to start and how to make the most of your time. Look no further—we’ve got everything you need to know right here.

Backpacking

Hike along the beautiful Kentucky Lake.
Hike along the beautiful Kentucky Lake. Land Between the Lakes KY / TN

Considering that so many people head to LBL for the water, hitting the trail is one of the best ways to get away from any crowds.

If you’re a backpacker who doesn’t like out-and-back hikes, you can put together an excellent loop in the Fort Henry Trails System. This area hosts several trails that you can connect with for up to 30 miles, and camping is allowed anywhere along the way.

Start one of the Fort Henry loops at the South Welcome Station, and pick up a map marked with reference points. The signs aren’t always present or easily visible on the trail, so make sure you’re paying attention. The area is far from mountainous, but lots of hills and ridges make this a surprisingly challenging hike for backpackers looking to work up a sweat.

Another great option for backpacking is the long North/South Trail. This one stretches the full length of the recreation area for a total of 58 miles. With two cars for shuttling, you could take a few days to hike the whole thing or go for an out-and-back hike of any length. Such a long hike is hard to find outside of a national park, so this trail is a true gem for the area.

Note: If you want to hike north on the North-South Trail from Golden Pond, it’s worth your while to drive to Jenny Ridge Picnic Area and start from there, as the "trail" between those two points is simply the shoulder of a paved road that crosses underneath a busy highway.

Backcountry camping is allowed in most areas of LBL. You’ll need to fill out a brief registration form at the visitor center or one of the welcome stations. Also, take note of your license plate number before walking over to the registration box, because you’ll need to put it on the form!

Day Hiking Options

Explore the many trails in Land Between the Lakes area.
Explore the many trails in Land Between the Lakes area. Land Between the Lakes KY / TN

If you don’t want to set out on a lengthy backpacking trip, there are still plenty of great options that will take up much less of your time. There are a few shorter day hikes that take off from the Fort McHenry trailhead worth checking out:

  • Pickett Loop, with pleasant views of Kentucky Lake along the way;

  • Devil’s Backbone, a unique trip onto a narrow ridge;

  • Artillery, which was used by Ulysses Grant and his troops to march to Fort Donelson; and

  • Tennessee Ridge, an interior trail that’s isolated from any highway noises.

Farther north is the Honker Lake Trail, a 5-mile trek through the forest, past meadows, and along the lake. This easy hike is a favorite of birders, and you may even see the flock of Canadian Geese that the trail is named after! Another good day hike option is the Hematite Trail. Clocking in at just over two miles, this path around Hematite Lake is popular with families. Most of the path consists of planks over the wetlands.

Mountain Biking

Seventy miles at LBL are designated for mountain biking, and some of the best singletrack is found on the Canal Loop Trail. The Canal Loop itself is 11 miles, with four connector trails that add on another three miles. It’s recommended for intermediate to advanced bikers, as the route is very hilly with several creek crossings. If you’re up for the challenge, though, you’ll be rewarded with scenic views of both Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley.

If you’re looking for something a little easier or family-friendly, jump on the Central Hardwoods Scenic Trail. This trail is also 11 miles, crossing the peninsula from east to west, and connecting to the two major lakes. It’s been designed with easy grades and smooth surfaces (the entire ride is on compact stone or asphalt), and is enjoyed by bikers and hikers alike. The hardwood forest is especially beautiful when the wildflowers are blooming in the spring, or in the summer when you’ll likely see quite a bit of wildlife through the lush trees if you go out earlier or later in the day.

On the Water

Getting on the water is a perfect way to explore the lakes.
Getting on the water is a perfect way to explore the lakes. Land Between the Lakes KY / TN

With more than 300 miles of undeveloped shoreline on Kentucky and Barkley Lakes (plus the smaller lakes and streams throughout the area), the water activities are a big reason that people visit LBL.

Some call say you’ll find the best fishing in the Southeast here, and for good reason. The water is packed with everything from largemouth, smallmouth, and Kentucky spotted bass to bream to crappie to channel catfish to panfish. You can fish along the banks almost anywhere, try your luck at one of the floating fishing piers, or rent/launch a boat from a marina. You will need a state fishing license and check with Kentucky Department of Fish & Wildlife or the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) for any limits or regulations before you go.

The lakes are also wonderful to spend a couple hours paddling around in a canoe or on a stand-up paddleboard. If you’re feeling especially adventurous, start your paddle at Paris Landing State Park in the south and make your way up and around to Barkley Lake.

Towards the end of 2016, the National Park Service Rivers, Trails, and Conservation Assistance Program selected Land Between the Lakes Region Water Trail as one of 11 projects that they would support and help plan in 2017. As part of that project, local groups are working together to create a regional "blueway." There are already several smaller water trails, including a calm paddle through Honker Lake (a great spot to catch the sunset!) and Kuttawa Landing Rookery on Lake Barkley near the Cumberland River (an opportunity for more advanced paddlers to see thousands of nesting birds).

Other Activities

LBL is also a popular destination for off-road riding and horseback riding. More than 100 miles of trails are dedicated to equestrian use and another 100 miles are reserved for recreational off-road vehicles at the Turkey Bay Off-Highway Vehicle Area. You’ll find trails and terrain for all levels at Turkey Bay, and a self-service campground, too.

The area’s hardwood forests are home to deer, turkey, and squirrel that can be hunted in season—with proper licensing, of course.

Visitors wanting to learn more about the area, its history, and its ecology should check out the exhibits in the Golden Pond Visitor Center, watch the shows at the Golden Pond Planetarium and Observatory, and tour the Homeplace 1850s Working Farm. Make time to drive through the 700-acre Elk & Bison Prairie and get the chance to see these large mammals up close (but not too close—you can only enter the prairie in an enclosed vehicle!).

**Bonus: LBL is a great place to be for the Aug. 21, 2017 total solar eclipse. The longest duration of the eclipse will occur about 20 miles from the area, and the entire region will be hosting cultural celebrations and viewing parties. LBL’s Planetarium and Observatory has programming related to the eclipse, Woodlands Nature Station will host presentations on various animals’ relationships to the sun and the moon, and the 1850s farmstead will be the setting of several history lessons focused on the local area and how its peoples have interpreted our celestial orbs.

Originally written for Kentucky Tourism.

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