A Complete Guide to the Kentucky Section of Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area
In the hustle and bustle of city life, it’s easy to forget that the United States is home to huge tracts of wildlands where we can escape and be surrounded by nature’s tranquility. With 170,000 acres of forests, wetlands and open land, the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area (LBL) in Western Kentucky is massive. The area was dubbed the "land between the lakes" because it occupies a peninsula with 184-mile Kentucky Lake on the west and 118-mile Lake Barkley to the east. The lakes are connected at the northern end by the Barkley canal, so boaters get two for the “price” of one. Named for Alben Barkley (1877-1956), a United States congressman, senator and vice president, the lakes make up the world’s largest man-made body of water.
LBL attracts 1.5 million visitors a year, and it’s easy to see why with 300 miles of undeveloped, undulating shoreline packed with nooks and crannies waiting to be explored. Two-thirds of the recreation area is in Kentucky, with the last bit stretching down into Tennessee. This sprawling park is the perfect destination for recharging the mental batteries with some of the best views in the state. To make planning a getaway a breeze, we’ve selected a handful of the best things to do in the LBL region, as well as great places to eat and rest for the night. The only things left to decide will be the time of year you’ll visit and how long you’ll stay.
STEP BACK IN TIME
The gateway to the peninsula at the northern end of the park is through the tiny town of Grand Rivers (population about 350), where visitors won’t want to miss one of the region's most unique attractions, Patti's 1880's Settlement. While most folks are drawn in for the famous pork chops at Patti’s Restaurant, many stay to check out the recreated historical log cabin village and play a game of mini-golf.
Just a short walk from Patti’s is the Lighthouse Landing Resort and Marina, which has cottages on the water with spectacular views any time of year. And for a little shot of culture, check out the nightlife at the Badgett Playhouse, which hosts a wide variety of musical and theatrical events.
CAMPSITES & OTHER ACCOMMODATIONS
Within the park there are 1,400 campsites (4 developed campgrounds, 3 self-service primitive areas, and 14 designated backcountry camping areas), and many offer lake access. Plus, there are 26 boat ramps to meet the needs of visitors. There are even spots for camping with horses so that equestrians can explore the 106 miles of horse trails with their hooved friends. If you’re looking for a slightly less primitive stay, there are three Kentucky State Park Resorts in the LBL region—Lake Barkley in Cadiz, Kentucky Dam Village in Gilbertsville, and Kenlake in Hardin—all with a wide range of family-friendly activities and amenities.
Not so interested in camping and cabins? For a seriously upscale vacation and pampering in the first order, try one of the packages at the beautifully decorated Victorian-era mansion Maple Hill Bed and Breakfast nestled on the shores of Lake Barkley.
If anyone gets bored during a visit to Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area, then that someone is doing it wrong. Hiking, fishing, biking, boating, wildlife viewing, the planetarium, the nature center and more will keep guests busy for years of repeat visits.
One of the most popular attractions is the Elk and Bison Prairie, a native grassland prairie that resembles what the landscape looked like in Kentucky more than a century ago. For five bucks per car, visitors can drive a paved 3.5-mile loop through the 700-acre enclosure, which contains elk, bison, wild turkeys, butterflies, and a variety of other small mammals and birds. Rangers recommend a visit in the early morning or evening when the animals are likely to be more active and in late September when mating season for the elk begins and their bugle calls can be heard amid the colorful foliage.
If you want more exercise, lace up your sturdy shoes, grab your camera and head out for a hike. In the recreation area there are 261 miles of trails that range from flat, paved paths to rugged, hilly treks. To get started, try the Honker Lake Trail, an easy loop trail that circumnavigates Honker Lake near Kuttawa. All you’ll need are binoculars and a bottle of water to get the most out of this trail, which is great for all skill levels and ages. As you’re walking, keep a look out for the resident bald eagles, and be sure to bring insect repellent to protect against ticks, particularly from March through October.
Boaters will marvel at the unrivalled scenery as they travel along the numerous bays and rugged bluffs of Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley. There are dozens of marinas where you can rent a boat for the day or week and also pick up bait and advice from locals, so you’ll know where to start before exploring all those miles of water. There’s also a lively sailing scene and a growing stand-up paddleboard community. If you want to go swimming, it’s allowed anywhere in the park, so no worries about plunging in when the temps begin to rise.
The park has also been partnering with a variety of state and federal agencies to establish the Land Between the Lakes Water Trail, a regional water trail system for paddlers. Within the system there are a few routes that lead canoers and kayakers to some of the more prominent birding and fossil hunting areas in the park.
A relatively undiscovered part of LBL is the system of mountain bike trails for advanced riders as well as beginners. Seventy miles of trails visit quiet lakefront bays, roll over undulating hillsides, and traverse lush meadows. Before you ride, grab a trail map at any Welcome Station.
In addition to outdoor pursuits, Land Between the Lakes has several other culture attractions sure to please curious minds of all ages. The Golden Pond Planetarium and Observatory offers a variety of entertaining and educational shows that change with the seasons, including laser light shows and "Star Parties." The Homeplace 1850s Working Farm and Living History Museum shows visitors what life in 19th century Kentucky would have looked like, from the garden grown from heirloom seeds to the period costumes and original tools in use and on display. And perhaps the most popular attraction is the Woodlands Nature Station, where there are monthly events for kids and adults to learn more about the flora and fauna of the park. Known for the expertise of its naturalists, the nature center hosts guided programs such as nature hikes, sunset canoe trips, and Sunday Safaris.
WHERE TO EAT
If all of that activity has your stomach growling, maybe it’s time to discuss some of the sites outside of the park. Let's start with the western shore of Kentucky Lake. Locals in the town of Murray recommend the Keg Steakhouse & Bar, Los Portales Mexican Restaurant, Tap 216 for a beer, and the Hungry Bear Pancake & Bar-B-Q for a quick casual bite. For some delicious gluten-free options, try the Catfish Kitchen in Benton, but make a reservation because this place is hopping. The Pond Restaurant in Aurora is famous for its catfish, hush puppies, red pepper relish, and vinegar coleslaw.
On the eastern side of Lake Barkley, a good place to hit up for breakfast after fishing, complete with a lake view, is Echo Charlie's Bayside Restaurant in Eddyville. The Fishin Hole in Cadiz is considered a hidden gem, and some favorites here are the BBQ pulled pork plate and Cowboy Burger. Harper House in Cadiz prides itself on offering "elevated cuisine" off the beaten path, and its menu reflects it. Even with all of these choices, these are just a few of the delicious options in the region to satisfy your cravings and wrap up a day of adventure at the Land Between the Lakes.
Written by Lisa Collard for RootsRated Media in partnership with Kentucky Tourism.