6 Convincing Reasons to Visit Kentucky If You Like Water Adventures

Kentucky is known for its rolling hills of bluegrass, but it’s not just the land itself that’s remarkable. With nearly 2,000 miles of navigable waterways (that’s more than any other state in the Lower 48) and many dozens of lakes, there’s enough to keep water enthusiasts busy indefinitely. The variety of adventures you’ll find in Kentucky—from stand-up paddleboarding on serene flatwater to world-class whitewater kayaking to camping beside a picturesque lake—bump it to the top of any water-lover’s list. Here are six reasons to make it your next destination:

1. You Can Use Any Kind of Vessel Imaginable

Kentucky River Palisades
Check out Kentucky River Palisades to tour through an ancient ecosystem. Photo courtesy of Clint Midwestwood. 

Because Kentucky has a huge variety of navigable waterways, you can use just about any sort of watercraft that suits your fancy. Looking for a serious core workout? Try your hand (and balance) on a stand-up paddleboard (SUP), a good fit for Kentucky’s countless lakes and reservoirs. Prefer to sit? Take a canoe anywhere you’d paddle a SUP—it’s also a great way to bring along more gear or paddle with two or three people. If you’re looking to rev your adrenaline, a whitewater kayak will get you down most of Kentucky’s real-deal whitewater. If you don’t have the expertise to kayak the big water, there are plenty of options for rafting.

2. Gorgeous Flatwater Paddling

Flatwater paddling is much like hiking: you can travel at your own pace, but you enjoy a unique perspective on your surroundings. It’s a vantage point unlike any other, and gives you time to take it all in. Fortunately, Kentucky is chock-full of incredible flatwater paddling destinations, which are approachable whether you’re on a SUP, in a canoe, or in a touring kayak.

Check out Kentucky River Palisades to tour through an ancient ecosystem, complete with limestone cliffs, steep gorges, and infinite side adventures, like waterfalls and caves. There’s also great flatwater paddling at Mammoth Cave National Park, whose namesake cave system, with its 405 miles of explored passageways, gets all the attention. The park also encompasses a section of the Green River, which is great for multi-day trips and appropriate for newcomers who want to do overnight paddling trips.

3. Adrenaline-Pumping Whitewater Paddling

Make no mistake: the Bluegrass State is home to countless flatwater opportunities, but steep gradients occasionally create gnarly rapids, too, making Kentucky a whitewater paddler’s paradise. Commercial outfitters typically run rafting trips from May through October, primarily on three rivers.

There’s a section of the Cumberland River with Class II and III rapids accessible from Cumberland Falls State Resort Park (also a great destination for water lovers to want to check out the falls). Coursing through southern Kentucky, the Big South Fork River (Class III/IV) is one of state’s most beloved rafting destinations. If you’re looking to really get your heart rate up, there’s also the Big Sandy River. Boasting several Class V+ drops, it’s one of the most serious stretches of whitewater in the U.S. where commercial guided operate.

4. Countless Lakes to Explore

Lake Barkley State Resort Park
Lake Barkley State Resort Park holds the distinction of containing one of the world’s largest manmade lakes. Photo courtesy of W. Brent Price. 

The state may be landlocked, but Kentucky has dozens of named lakes and reservoirs, and thousands of miles of shoreline to explore at your leisure. Beginning on Memorial Day weekend each summer, state parks across Kentucky open their swimming beaches to visitors. This is an especially appealing opportunity for outdoor adventurers, since state parks offer the opportunity to go for a hike first and then cool off with a dip in the lake. In eastern Kentucky, Buckhorn Lake State Park and its 1,200-acre body of water are surrounded by rolling hills, while Natural Bridge State Resort Park offers some of the state’s most scenic hiking, plus 35 acres of lakes. On the state’s west side, Lake Barkley State Resort Park holds the distinction of containing one of the world’s largest manmade lakes.

5. Brag-Worthy Fishing Opportunities

Kentucky is home to more than 62,000 miles of fish-able streams, plus 40 public lakes of 100 acres or more. All this water is set in vastly different ecosystems with streams, lakes, rivers, and reservoirs that support a wide variety of fish, including blue catfish, crappie, walleye, several species of trout, and smallmouth, largemouth, spotted and striped bass. The Commonwealth manages recreational and commercial fishing statewide and stocks 7 million fish each year.

The Cumberland River is a great spot to fish for brown and rainbow trout, and it’s known for producing monster walleye, too. The Kentucky River also boasts plenty of panfish, plus good-size flathead and channel catfish, while Kentucky and Barkley lakes are known for record-setting crappie catches. The Kentucky Boating and Fishing Access Site will help you narrow down the best spot to fish from more than 900 destinations.

6. Campsites with Incredible Vistas

Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area
Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area allows paddlers to access front- and backcountry campsites. Photo courtesy of Roaring Jellyfish Designs/Amy Nelson. 

It’s great to camp in the woods, but it’s even better to wake up with a view. Imagine opening your tent door to watch the sunrise over a scenic lake or river. This is one of Kentucky’s specialties, whether you prefer a developed campsite with amenities or want to wander deep into the wilderness to find your home away from home for the night.

Land Between the Lakes, a 40-mile-long peninsula on the Kentucky-Tennessee border between Kentucky and Barkley Lakes, is an ideal spot for water lovers to plan an adventure, since it also offers access to more than 300 miles of undeveloped shoreline. (There’s also great backpacking here with views of the lakes.) Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area sprawls across 125,000 acres of the Cumberland Plateau and allows paddlers to access front- and backcountry campsites. If you’re looking for a little cushier experience, head to Barren River Lake State Resort Park, where you can rent a cute cottage overlooking the shoreline.

Originally written by Emma Walker for RootsRated Media in partnership with Kentucky Tourism.