The Magnificent Elk & Bison Prairie at the Land Between the Lakes

At the Elk & Bison Prairie you can watch a 2,000 pound bison walk directly beside your vehicle.

Written by

Jason Barnette

on

September 29, 2017

I came to a full stop on the paved road as I spotted a large herd of bison ahead. They were right in the middle of the road slowly walking toward me. There was nowhere else to go. All I could do was hold my breath as the 2,000-pound animal walked within inches of my van. Welcome to the Elk and Bison Prairie at Land Between the Lakes.

Two elk graze in a large grassy field in the Elk & Bison Prairie in Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area
A wild turkey in a lush grassy field in the Elk & Bison Prairie in Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area
A raccoon crosses the road in the Elk & Bison Prairie in Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area

Elk will frequently graze in the fields just before sunset. You’ll also find wild turkey and raccoons throughout the prairie.

Elk & Bison Prairie

The Elk & Bison Prairie is a 700-acre enclosure at Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area in Kentucky. Inside the enclosure about fifty bison and forty elk roam freely through large open fields, small forested areas, and sometimes across the paved road. Wild turkeys, racoons, and snakes also call the prairie home.

READ MORE: 10 Awesome Things to Do at Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area

Visiting the prairie was almost like taking a safari but instead of spending thousands of dollars it only takes a few gallons of gas. The natural Kentucky landscape was beautiful and any sighting of wildlife was thrilling! The paved road was a very smooth ride and it wasn’t ever really crowded. I could have spent days just riding through the prairie. Oh, wait, that’s exactly what I did!

An enormous deadwood tree standing in a lush green field beneath a deep blue sky in the Elk & Bison Prairie in Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area
The landscape of the Elk & Bison Prairie is just beautiful!

Golden Pond Visitor Center

Admission into the Elk & Bison Prairie is $5 per vehicle. Visitors can use cash or plastic at the gated entrance to the prairie to purchase a one-time entry. Once you’re inside the prairie you have the option of continuously driving the loop road without leaving, but once you leave you’ll have to pay for another entry.

If you head over to the Golden Pond Visitor Center you can purchase entry card packages: 3 entry cards for $10 and 5 entry cards for $15. I strongly recommend this option if you are spending more than a day in the area because you will want to see this again and again.

The Golden Pond Visitor Center is less than a mile south of the Elk & Bison Prairie along Woodlands Trace, just south of US Highway 68.

A large bison stands in a grassy field at the Elk & Bison Prairie in Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area
Bison roam the fields along the loop road, often viewable from the comfort of your vehicle.

Elk & Bison Prairie Loop Road

The 3.5-mile Elk & Bison Prairie Loop Road allows enclosed vehicles to drive through the prairie and get awesome views of the wildlife. The word “enclosed” is important: motorcycles, scooters, bicycles, and pedestrian traffic are not allowed in the prairie.

The gate unlocks for admission at dawn each day and visitors are required to be out by dusk. That’s perfect timing for being able to see the wildlife at its most active during the first and last two hours of sunlight each day.

READ MORE: Everything You Need to Know About Camping at Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area

Inside the prairie a short section of the road for two-way traffic leads to the loop. From that point the wide paved road is for one-way traffic only. The road is two lanes wide, however, giving visiting plenty of room to pull over and allow traffic to pass.

There are three large parking areas and a small pull-off along the loop road. Two of the parking areas have exhibits for you to get out and read (but only if there are no animals nearby).

Take your time! Enjoy the experience. How often do you get a chance to see a 2,000-pound animal that can run 35mph standing right beside your vehicle?

A bison rolls around in the grass in the Elk & Bison Prairie at Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area
A bison with an itch uses his rear hoof to scratch his head in the Elk & Bison Prairie at Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area
A bison calf runs through a grassy field surrounded by adult bison in the Elk & Bison Prairie at Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area

A few more of my photos of the bison. Did you know the adults like to roll around in the grass for fun?

Best Time to Visit

One of the best things about the Elk & Bison Prairie is that its open year-round from dawn till dusk. This gives visitors a chance to see the wildlife in their native habitats in all kinds of weather conditions throughout the year. But when is the best time to visit?

Spring Throughout March and April as the weather begins to warm up the elk and bison will shed their winter coats. Throughout May and June bison and elk calves are born.

Summer During the hottest months of the year the elk and bison will mostly stick to the shade. It’s not impossible to find them during the day, especially the ginormous bison, but your best chances of finding them will be the first and last two hours of daylight.

Fall The autumn months, beginning around September, can be the best time of year to see activity from the elk and bison. The bison mating seasons actually begins in August but extends for a couple of months. The elk rut, or mating season, is a contentious time for bull elk and make for wonderful displays if you can find them.

Winter After the last of the leaves has fallen the barren landscape makes it the easiest time of year to see the wildlife. The elk and bison stay busy throughout the day grazing on grass, twigs, and acorns.

Daily As with all wildlife they will be most active during the first and last two hours of sunlight each day. Elk typically hunker down in the forest during the day so it will be difficult to spot them. However, the bison will roam throughout the day so really you have a chance of seeing them at any time.

Tips for the Best Experience

Although getting to the Elk & Bison Prairie is easy and getting inside is a snap, there are some things you should know to make the most of your experience. Here are a few tips to keep in mind while exploring the loop road.

  • These are wild animals. Do not approach, pet, or feed them.
  • You must remain inside the vehicle if elk or bison are within 200’
  • You must remain within 10’ of your vehicle at all times
  • It takes about thirty minutes to drive the loop road without making any stops
  • The nearest restrooms are at the Golden Pond Visitor Center
  • Bring binoculars for viewing the wildlife in distance fields
  • For photography I recommend at least 200mm focal length to capture great wildlife photos. You can use shorter focal lengths from the comfort of your vehicle when the wildlife is nearby.

I’m not a morning person so my recommendation is to visit the Elk & Bison Prairie in the evening about three hours before sunset. Take some food and water, but keep in mind you can’t throw down a blanket and have a picnic. You’ll have to eat in the car, but what a great view you’ll have! The elk will be the most difficult to spot. If you don’t see any bison the first time around don’t give up; they move around a lot so just wait fifteen minutes and then start the loop again.

Two bison calves play with each other in a grassy field at the South Bison Range in the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area
Two younger bison spotted at the South Bison Range.

South Bison Range

The South Bison Range is another wonderful place to see bison roaming in large fields. The bison range is located about thirteen miles south on Woodlands Trace just past the Homeplace 1850s Working Farm.

The bison range is two 100-acre fields along Woodlands Trace where bison roam freely. There is a large pull-off on the side of the road to watch the bison. The South Bison Range Picnic Area is across the road and has a few picnic tables.

READ MORE: 7 Exciting Hiking Trails at Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area

Getting to the Elk and Bison Prairie

The Elk & Bison Prairie is rather conveniently located just minutes from the intersection of Woodlands Trace and US Highway 68 near the middle of Land Between the Lakes. The gate entrance is just off Woodlands Trace; if you decide at the last minute not to enter there is a turnaround just before the card machine at the gate.

The Elk & Bison Prairie is about 20 miles/30 minutes from Grand Rivers, KY; 36 miles/45 minutes from Hopkinsville, KY; 40 miles/60 minutes from Paducah, KY; and 60 miles/75 minutes from Clarksville, TN.

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