he Land Between the Lakes region is one of the state’s premier recreation areas, especially for water sports enthusiasts. Encompassing two large lakes—Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley—and the national recreation area that separates them, the Land Between the Lakes area offers excellent waters for fishing as well as lots of wide open space for sailing, skiing, tubing, swimming, and simply cruising. Despite the immense popularity of the lakes, they never feel crowded. On land, recreational opportunities are just as abundant. Hiking, camping, biking, and wildlife-watching are among the most popular pursuits off the water.
The Elk and Bison Prairie (dawn-dusk daily, $5 per car) provides a home for about 50 buffalo and 30 elk, animals that were once native to the region. A 3.5-mile paved road with three interpretive stops loops through the prairie, allowing opportunities for visitors to observe the animals. Although the area is enclosed, this is not a zoo. At 700 acres, there is plenty of space for the animals to roam—and to hide, should they choose. Sightings are not guaranteed. To increase your chances of seeing the elk and buffalo, aim to arrive at dawn or dusk. The route is one-way, but you’re welcome to make as many loops you like. The prairie is located one mile north of the visitors center on The Trace.
Take a loop through the backyard at the Woodlands Nature Station (10am-5pm daily, April-October, Wednesday-Sunday only in March and November, $5 adults, $3 youth 5-12) to encounter wildlife native to the region. Among the animals that live here are deer, coyotes, red wolves, bobcats, groundhogs, wild turkeys, vultures, bald eagles, owls, and hawks. Accompanying the backyard is an indoor learning center with exhibits on plants, reptiles, amphibians, and habitats. A number of hiking trails depart from the Nature Station, allowing for additional opportunities to spot wildlife. Woodlands Nature Station is located on Mulberry Flat Road, which connects to The Trace about eight miles north of the visitors center.
Experience life on an 1850s farm on a visit to The Homeplace (10am-5pm daily, April-October, Wednesday-Sunday only in March and November, $5 adults, $3 youth 5-12), which is located just across the Tennessee border. Sixteen log structures make up the farm, which was built on a Revolutionary War land grant. At the farm, you’ll find animals such as horses, oxen, pigs, and chickens that would have been on such a farm, as well as a vegetable garden, tobacco barn, tool barn, wood shed, smoke house, and family home. Costumed interpreters demonstrate farm tasks from the mid-19th century and help bring the farm to life. The last tickets are sold at 4pm. The Homeplace is located 12 miles south of Golden Pond Visitors Center on The Trace.
Hiking trails are plentiful in Land Between the Lakes, with distances and difficulty levels to suit any taste. The granddaddy of trails is the North/South Trail
, a 58-mile trail that runs the entire length of Land Between the Lakes. The trail is divided into two halves. The northern half (31 miles, from Northern Welcome Station to Golden Pond Visitors Center) stays close to the shore of Kentucky Lake, although it also runs through the forest and up ridges, and is primarily single track. Eight springs and three backcountry shelters are located along this stretch of trail. The southern half (27 miles, from Golden Pond Visitors Center to Southern Welcome Station) remains inland for most of its length, traveling through mature forest and wildlife clearings, and is primarily old logging roads, 11 miles of which are shared with equestrians. An additional eight springs can be accessed on this portion of the trail, and there are two backcountry shelters. Those wishing to do the length of the trail on a multi-day trip need to purchase a backcountry camping permit.
The Fort Henry Trails System, located in southwestern Land Between the Lakes (in Tennessee) offers nearly 30 miles of hiking that can easily be broken down into smaller loops perfect for day hikes. The Devils Backbone Trail, a 1.5-mile stretch that can be accessed from the Telegraph Trail, makes for a popular hike, with the trail following a ridge between two hollows. The 2.2-mile Pickett Loop is a good choice for a short outing, with the trail passing historic home sites and running, in parts, along the shores of Kentucky Lake. History buffs may want to hike the 3.2-mile Artillery Trail, which follows the route General Grant and his Union troops took on his way to Fort Donelson.
The most recent trail to be added to the collection is the Central Hardwoods Scenic Trail, an 11-mile trail spanning the width of Land Between the Lakes, connecting Kentucky Lake with Lake Barkley. It runs just south of U.S. 68. Access is in Fenton on the Kentucky Lake side and in Cumberland on the Lake Barkley side, with multiple other access points on Land Between the Lakes.
Five hiking trails are located in the vicinity of the Nature Station, ranging in distance 0.2-4.5 miles. The 2.2-mile Hematite Trail and the 4.5-mile Honker Trail both circle lakes, allowing for multiple opportunities to spot wildlife, especially waterfowl. The 0.3-mile Center Furnace Trail is an interpretive trail that leads to an old iron furnace. The 0.2-mile Long Creek Trail and the 1-mile Woodland Walk Trail focus on forest habitats.
Although the Canal Loop Trail is also open to hikers, it is mostly known as a mountain biking trail. The trail system is made up of one 11-mile loop and four connector trails ranging in distance 0.5-0.8 mile, allowing bikers to create many different routes. A trailhead is located at the North Welcome Station. Mountain bikers are also welcome to travel the northern 31 miles of the North/South Trail, between the North Welcome Station and the Golden Pond Visitors Center, and the entirety of the Central Hardwoods Scenic Trail. Road bikers are a common site along The Trace, the main paved road that runs the length of Land Between the Lakes and from which multiple side roads lead to campgrounds, picnic areas, beaches, and scenic viewpoints. Adult and youth mountain bikes, hybrid bikes, and cruisers can be rented at the Hillman Ferry and Piney Campgrounds.
Equestrians love Land Between the Lakes thanks to its Wranglers Campground, a beautiful camp designed especially for horses and their riders. More than 70 miles of riding trails radiate out from the campground. The trails run along the shore and through meadows and forest, leading past beautiful wild areas and to historic sites. If you don’t have your own trusty steed, Rocking U Riding Stables (270/924-2211, 9am-4pm daily April-October), which is located at the campground, offers 45- ($18) or 90-minute ($30) guided trail rides that leave on the hour. Wranglers Campground is just south of the visitors center and can be accessed by a five-mile road that runs right from the center. An additional access road is located right at the Kentucky-Tennessee border.
Boat ramps are located up and down Land Between the Lakes, providing access to both Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley. You must have your own boat, as there are no marinas or rental facilities for motorboats in the area. You can, however, rent a canoe or kayak ($10 per hour) from the Nature Station or at Energy Lake Campground.