Beginning in Kentucky and ending 40 miles south in Tennessee, the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area (LBL) is the largest inland peninsula in the country. Nestled between Lake Barkley and Kentucky Lake, LBL covers 170,000 acres and is wrapped in 300 miles of undeveloped shoreline. The area is filled with outdoor recreation opportunities, but somehow not filled with tourists. With everything from biking and hiking to paddling and wildlife watching, there’s something for just about everyone who enjoys spending time outside.
As the name implies, LBL is literally the land between two lakes, but was once known as the ‘land between the rivers’ because of its position between the Tennessee and Cumberland. The regular flooding of the Tennessee River towns in Stewart County, Tennessee, and Marshall and Lyon Counties in Kentucky made the ‘land between the rivers’ region a logical choice for the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) to build a dam. The structure was completed in 1944 as part of the New Deal program for flood control and to bring electrical power out to the rural areas. In 1964, another TVA dam was completed on the Cumberland, and the resulting lake was named after local Kentucky hero Alben W. Barkley, who coined the term "Veep" during his term as FDR’s vice president.
With the completion of the second dam, the Federal Government saw the opportunity to develop a national recreation area in the rare peninsula that was now between the lakes. Some of the small towns in the area were effectively shut down and the families had to move. Throughout LBL, you’ll find remnants of their old home sites, cemeteries, and other historical artifacts. While some people believe that the recreation area was forced upon the people, others feel like it was an opportunity for farm families to move out of subsistence farming toward increased income from new employment. In an effort to be sensitive to the 800 families who were displaced from the land, the USDA Forestry Service maintains roads to the 217 documented family cemeteries.
Today, you can learn more about the unique history of the ‘land between the rivers’, at the Golden Pond Visitors Center. While it’s not the site of the former town of Golden Pond, the center was named after the nearby town. Notorious for moonshine operations, local legend has it that an infamous prohibition gangster would send a seaplane to land on the river near Golden Pond to pick up a supply of Kentucky moonshine for his Chicago speakeasies.
On the Tennessee side, the Homeplace 1850s Working Farm depicts the daily life of the area’s farm families using antique tools and raising heritage livestock and crops.
What to Do
On the Water
On any given day you’ll find all kinds of boats out on the water, including river barges. The two lakes are joined via canal at Grand Rivers and there are numerous bays and coves to explore. Twenty-six boat ramps offer lake access for launching kayaks, fishing boats, and houseboats.
It’s easy to spend a couple hours or even a whole day paddling around the lakes, or set out on epic adventure and paddle from Paris Landing State Park all the way around to Barkley Lake. There are also many inland ponds and lakes that are suitable for a relaxing day on the water, and local groups are working together to create a water trail. Several "blueways" already exist, including one to the Kuttawa Landing Rookery on Lake Barkley. The trip is a wonderful opportunity to see thousands of nesting birds, but the route is for more experienced paddlers.
LBL is also popular with the fishing community, drawing anglers from around the country. Crappie and bass are the most prized catches at the lakes (late winter and early spring are the best times to go), but you can also find catfish, bluegill, redear, and sauger. The bays and inland ponds are open to fishing, too.
On the Land
With 261 miles of trails for hiking, 70 miles for mountain biking, 106 miles radiating from the Wrangles Camp for horseback riding, and 100 miles open to riding near the Turkey Bay Off-Highway Vehicle Area, there is something here for every outdoor adventurer.
The Fort Henry Trail System on the Tennessee side of LBL offers almost 30 miles through native woodlands—many following the same paths that were once used by Civil War troops. Camping is allowed anywhere along the trail system, and there are several loops to explore. You’ll hike along streams and over ridges, and the Pickett Loop has wonderful views of Kentucky Lake. Telegraph Trail connects to many other trails in the recreation area, including the North/South Trail, which runs the length of LBL for 58 miles. The south end of the route runs 27 miles from the South Welcome Center in Dover, Tennessee to the Golden Pond Visitor Center.
If you want to explore on two wheels, the Canal Loop Trail is suggested for intermediate to advanced bikers, covering 11 miles of hills and creek crossings, with plenty of views of the lakes. An easier route is the Central Hardwoods Scenic Trail. It’s also 11 miles, but the whole path is compact stone or asphalt and crosses the recreation area from east to west.
There are also nine wildlife refuges in LBL, including the Elk and Bison Prairie. Because the animals roam free around the 700-acre grassland, you can only drive through on the 3.5-mile loop in an enclosed vehicle. Summer is the best time to see young animals, early fall is when the wildflowers burst into bloom, and winter is actually the best time to view the elk and bison as they munch on dried grass and twigs throughout the day.
The LBL also offers in-season hunting for deer, turkey, and squirrel.
Camping is your only overnight option, but with 1,400 campsites at numerous campgrounds around the lakes, you have plenty to choose from. The amenities vary, but there’s something for everyone, so you’ll have no problem finding that perfect spot for a quiet tent site or a multi-family get together.
The Brandon Springs Group Camp in Dover, Tennessee, for example, is a year-round heated, air-conditioned environmental center that offers dormitory-style sleeping quarters and a full-service kitchen. Piney Campground (also in Dover) offers showers as well as cabins and camping shelters. Backcountry camping is also allowed in most places, just make sure you fill out a registration form before you set out.
How to Get There
The LBL is secluded but not remote, and is about 200 miles from Memphis and 90 miles from Nashville. You can find driving directions to LBL from wherever you might be coming from on the recreation area’s website.
Originally written for BCBS of Tennessee.