Kentucky Dam is the longest dam operated by the Tennessee Valley Authority and creates the largest artificial lake in the eastern United States. The engineering marvel took decades of planning and building at an astounding price. Eighty years later, the dam stands strong at the center of pristine outdoor recreation in Kentucky and Tennessee.
And you can drive to an unexpected visitor center across the top of the dam.
I was still enamored by three days of camping and hiking in the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area when I drove past the Kentucky Dam. I turned onto a side road that I thought would give me a final parting view of the lake. But instead, I found myself driving across the gargantuan dam.
It’s a rare opportunity to drive across such an impressive dam. And while visiting, I found a few other things to do at Kentucky Dam. Which of these catches your attention the most?
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Construction of Kentucky Dam
The catastrophic flood of 1937 left thousands displaced and entire towns under 50′ of water along the Ohio River. Nearby Paducah, at the confluence of the Ohio, Cumberland, and Tennessee Rivers, sat under 60.8′ of water for nearly two weeks. When the water receded, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began devising a flood control plain.
The Tennessee Valley Authority was established in 1933 as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. The government-owned corporation’s mission was to generate hydroelectricity, develop flood control, and provide navigable access to the Tennessee River. After the Great Flood of 1937, the TVA focused on building a dam 22 miles upstream from the Ohio River.
READ MORE: 16 Things to Do in Paducah, Kentucky
Construction began in 1938. The TVA purchased 320,000 acres of land and relocated 365 miles of roads. The dam used earthen works and concrete stretching 8,422′ – 1.6 miles – making it the longest dam in the TVA system. When construction finished in 1944, the final price tag was $118 – a whopping $2 billion in today’s currency.
Did You Know?
Kentucky Dam is the last dam on the main branch of the Tennessee River. The first is Fort Loudoun Dam near Knoxville. The dam was named after an early British fort made infamous when it was captured by Cherokees – for the only time in history. A recreation of the fort stands above the lake with an impressive view of the Great Smoky Mountains.
Explore the Kentucky Dam Visitor Center
When the dam was completed, U.S. Highway 62 and a railroad crossed the top. When a new lock was built in 2008, the highway and railroad were relocated downstream. The road across the dam remained, providing access to the powerhouse and visitor center.
There are no signs announcing the existence of the visitor center. After spending three days in the Land Between the Lakes asking about things to do, no one had mentioned it. I found it entirely by accident and couldn’t have been happier.
The visitor center is more like a museum than a place for information. Exhibits detail the history of the Tennessee Valley Authority, explain how hydroelectricity is generated in dams, and graphics show how locks allow boats to travel along 352 miles of the Tennessee River.
But what really caught my attention was the control room. Twitching needles on dials and flashing LED panels were mesmerizing. I pressed my smartphone against the plexiglass wall to capture photos. And then I jumped when a person walked into the control room – the operational control room! Not a recreation as I had thought.
The visitor center is open seasonally from April through October. Occasionally, retired engineers volunteer and spend their time answering questions about the overwhelming technology involved. Restrooms outside the visitor center are open year-round.
Go Fishing at Kentucky Dam
When Kentucky Dam impounded the Tennessee River, it created the largest artificial lake in the eastern United States. It’s also one of the region’s best sources of clean water and a haven for wildlife.
Anglers will find various fish in the lake, including largemouth and smallmouth bass, catfish, bluegill, and crappie.
A valid fishing license is required, and there are plenty of nearby supply stores. When you have everything ready, there are two great places to spend a day fishing at Kentucky Dam.
The East Bank Fishing Pier is near the visitor center. Drive across the dam, continue past the buildings, and park at the end of the parking lot beneath the U.S. Highway 62 bridge. Toss a line anywhere along the rocky shore.
The West Bank Fishing Pier is across the river. To get there, drive toward Kentucky Dam Village State Resort Park and exit the highway onto Gilbertsville Highway. Head toward the state park’s campground, turning right at the gatehouse. The parking lot is beneath the U.S. Highway 62 bridge.
Park at the Kentucky Lake Overlook
After turning off U.S. Highway 62 to drive across the dam, the road ascends the earthen dike above the lake. A small parking area immediately on the right offers a place to enjoy the spectacular view of Kentucky Lake.
Kentucky Lake features an astounding 160,000 acres of water surface. On sunny summer days, dozens of boats cut across the lake from nearby marinas.
You can see the state park’s sandy beach and private lakefront homes from the overlook. With a good pair of binoculars, you might be able to make out the small lighthouse at the Lighthouse Landing Resort & Marina.
The old railroad bed was converted into a multi-use trail when the railroad was relocated for the new lock. The trail starts at a parking lot at Kentucky Dam Village State Resort Park, passes the scenic overlook, and ends at the lock.
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Stay at Kentucky Dam Village State Resort Park
Kentucky is known for its impressive state parks like Cumberland Falls State Resort Park, where you can experience the moonbow, Natural Bridge State Resort Park where you can walk beneath a 65′ high natural stone bridge, and Pine Mountain State Park where you can hike to Chain Rock high above Pineville.
But none of all the state parks feature lakeside tranquility better than Kentucky Dam Village State Resort Park.
Opened in 1949, the state park features an 18-hole golf course with a par 72 and 6,704 yards from the back tee. The pro shop is open year-round, where visitors can rent a golf cart and stock up on needed supplies.
Enjoy lake activities at one of the few sandy beaches on Kentucky Lake. The recreation area has a boat ramp and picnic shelters to enjoy a meal with a view. But you’ll also have a spectacular lake view at the Harbor Lights Restaurant with floor-to-ceiling windows and outdoor seating.
Spend a night or two in the park’s lodge with 72 hotel-quality rooms, rent a fully equipped cottage, or park your RV at the 200-site campground.
Rent a Boat at Kentucky Dam Marina
Kentucky Lake features 2,064 miles of shoreline around 160,000 acres of water surface. The lake is so large that it would be impossible to drive from one end to the other and back in a single day.
Much of the shoreline on the eastern side of the lake is undeveloped, part of the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area. Dozens of cozy coves are the perfect place to anchor a boat for the day and enjoy the peacefulness of lake life.
The Kentucky Dam Marina is great for renting a boat, paddleboard, or kayak. They offer an interesting variety of boats that gives you options for daily activities:
- 25′ pontoon boats feature a Bimini top and plenty of lounging space to enjoy a day casually cruising the lake.
- 25′ double-decker pontoons feature an upper deck with a slide, perfect for anchoring near the marina and spending the day in one place.
- 23′ pontoons with a powerful 115hp motor are great for sightseeing on the lake.
- 18′ Bayliners feature fishing rod holders and lots of storage for spending a day fishing on the lake.
Frequently Asked Questions
Yes! You can drive across Kentucky Dam from the western side near Kentucky Dam Village State Resort Park.
Kentucky Dam impounds the Tennessee River about 22 miles from where it meets the Ohio River.
Yes, Kentucky Lake is an artificial lake that was created in 1944 when Kentucky Dam impounded the Tennessee River.
Kentucky Dam is in Grand Rivers in western Kentucky. The dam is 22.4 miles upstream from where the Tennessee River meets the Ohio River.
Kentucky Dam was built from 1938-1944.
The Tennessee Valley Authority built Kentucky Dam to generate hydroelectricity and provide flood control.