When you think of Kentucky, it’s much more likely that verdant rolling hills with galloping thoroughbreds come to mind than visions of sailboats tacking across wide expanses of mirrored water or kayaks rolling through rapids. But with more miles of navigable water than anywhere in the contiguous United States, that vision of Kentucky may soon change.
With so many rivers and lakes, you’ll find plenty of typical boating outings—like whitewater rafting, kayaking, and canoeing—but also a few other unexpected adventures. Welcome to the best, lesser-known water adventures this landlocked state has to offer.
Whether you're interested in racing or cruising, a skipper wanting to crew, or even just the casual day tripper wanting some time on the water, the welcoming and active sailing scene in Kentucky has something for everyone. Kentucky waters host the widest variety of boats imaginable, from small sailing dinghies to comfortable cruising sailboats.
The most active sailing scene is around the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area, bordered on the west by 184-mile Kentucky Lake and on the east by 134-mile Lake Barkley. Two-thirds of the recreation area is in Kentucky, with the last bit stretching down into Tennessee. Kentucky Lake alone attracts over 17 million visitors a year, and it’s easy to see why: covering 160,300 acres, there is plenty of space for sailors to peacefully tack their way up and down these pristine waters without being crowded by other boaters. Dozens of marinas dot the shore, providing many options for launching or renting a boat.
Some other great places for sailing around the Bluegrass state are on the Ohio River in Louisville, Brookville Lake in the Northeast tri-state area and, of course, the popular and well-known boating destination, Lake Cumberland in the south.
For the true pioneering types out there, consider taking on "America’s Great Loop." Though it’s not just in Kentucky, this trip is worth a mention. The loop refers to the circumnavigation of Eastern North America by water and involves sailing the Atlantic Ocean, the Gulf of Mexico, the Great Lakes, the Canadian Heritage Canals, and several rivers (including a stretch through Kentucky Lake and the Tennessee River).
While scuba diving usually involves traveling to a tropical destination, there are actually some fantastic options much closer to home.
About a half hour from the Louisville in La Grange is a popular summer swimming hole at Falling Rock Park, otherwise known as "the Quarry." This large reservoir is filled only by rainwater, so the tranquil emerald waters are some of the cleanest and clearest in Kentucky. It’s a top-rated choice for learning how to dive and get certified. Highlights include a sunken police car and the iconic underwater pay phone.
You can spot dive flags almost every weekend at the dam reservoir in Lake Cumberland at Jamestown, which considered by many the best diving area in the state. You’ll find diving for all levels, and experienced divers with the proper certifications can swim among the ruins of submerged towns and shoreside caves.
The dam at Laurel River Lake in southeast Kentucky offers deep blue clear waters and unusual submerged rock formations, making it another popular destination for scuba divers.
Greenbo Lake State Resort Park recently opened a 10-acre scuba refuge in northeastern Kentucky. This new attraction is the first of it’s kind in the state since skin and scuba diving are prohibited in all other lakes owned or managed by the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. You must have proper certification and it’s only open April through October.
A relative newcomer to the watersports world is stand up paddleboarding (SUP), and while you can technically do it on just about any body of water, here are a couple of noteworthy options.
One of the best flatwater SUP experience can be found at Grayson Lake, where you can wind their way through caves and along a narrow inlet to a spectacular waterfall.
To learn about the heart-pumping sport of whitewater SUPing, check out the hidden gem of Elkhorn Creek in central Kentucky. With rapids ranging from class I to III, it’s the perfect place to learn how to stay upright while bouncing across the waves. Another great location to find whitewater worthy for SUPing is on the Russell Fork River near Elkhorn City.
For a truly unique SUP experience, book an underground ‘cavern glow’ trip with a local outfitter. Paddle by the light of only a headlamp through an abandoned mine in the Red River Gorge or check out a monthly full moon float.
Sleep on the Water
Love the water but aren’t quite as adventurous as some? Rent one of the world famous houseboats on Lake Cumberland for a weekend (or longer!), and float away in relaxation. Built for maximum comfort and fun, houseboats are a true home away from home. Some even come equipped with hot tubs and personal water slides! With more than 1,200 miles of shoreline, cascading waterfalls, and countless secret coves, a houseboat could be the best way to ‘get away from it all’ and enjoy some serious down time.
These suggestions are organized by activity, but most of the bodies of water mentioned are multipurpose and a wide variety of watersports are available at most of them. The opportunities for water adventure in Kentucky are only limited by your imagination.
Originally written for Kentucky Tourism.