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

Scenic drives, wildlife viewing, hiking trails, these are just some of the awesome things to do at Land Between the Lakes.

By Jason Barnette | Travel writer and photographer with 15+ years of road tripping experience

Located on these road trip routes:

This post may contain affiliate links. Read my Affiliate Disclosure here.

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The Land Between the Lakes is a haven for outdoor enthusiasts with 300 miles of undeveloped shoreline, 500 miles of hiking trails, and 1,400 campsites. But it wasn’t always a bastion for wildlife and a destination for weekenders. In the 1800s, it was part of the expanding frontier with small settlements and supportive farms.

The Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area is operated by the U.S. Forest Service. It spans 170,000 acres across the Kentucky and Tennessee state line, one of only three national forests between both states.

Keep reading to learn about the things to do in the Land Between the Lakes, from scenic nature trails to kayaking a blue trail or riding a horse trail. Explore one of the four big attractions, including the Elk & Bison Prairie, one of the top things to do on the east coast.

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Land Between the Lakes Map

How to use this map | Click the icon in the top-left corner to open the Map Legend, then click on any of the legend items to display more information. If you have a Google account, click the (very faint) star at the end of the map’s name to save this map to your account, then access the map from your smartphone during your trip.

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Land Between the Lakes History

The Tennessee Valley Authority is one of the longest-lasting products of Roosevelt’s New Deal during the Great Depression. The TVA was created as a source of jobs and to generate cheap hydroelectricity, which was greatly needed during World War II.

In 1944, the TVA completed Kentucky Dam, impounding the Tennessee River and creating Kentucky Lake. At 160,000 acres, it’s the largest artificial lake east of the Mississippi River and has nearly three times more volume than the second-largest TVA lake. In 1966, the Army Corps of Engineers completed Barkley Dam, impounding the Cumberland River and creating Lake Barkley.

Development began in the 1970s to build recreation facilities on the ridge between the two lakes. The TVA conducted prescribed burns, the states of Tennessee and Kentucky built a two-lane road the length of the ridge, and work began on a visitor center in the abandoned town of Golden Pond. When the TVA decided to withdraw from operating such a large recreation area, the US Congress authorized the purchase and transfer of the land to the U.S. Forest Service in 1998.

And the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area was officially open to the public.

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No. 1

Visit the Woodlands Nature Station

The Woodlands Nature Station is the Land Between the Lake’s best-kept secret. The education center is less than ten minutes off Woodlands Trace on Silver Trail Road. The road ends at the parking lot for the nature station – and the beginning of a small adventure.

The education center hosts public events throughout the year – check their calendar for upcoming events. But the real treat at the Woodlands Nature Station is the Backyard Exhibit Area. Outside, a paved trail meanders around several animal enclosures and a large, grassy lawn. It’s an opportunity to see native wildlife and learn more about the region’s animals.

I visited in early August and found myself surrounded by hundreds of hummingbirds. The annual migration passes across the Land Between the Lakes in early spring and late summer. The staff at the Woodlands Nature Station place dozens of hummingbird feeders around the grassy lawn. Sitting on a bench, the air vibrated from the whooshing of tiny wings fluttering faster than my eye could see. It was a mesmerizing experience.

Admission is $5 per person for anyone age 13 or older, $3 per person between 5-12, and free for anyone 4 and under.

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No. 2

Drive Around the Elk & Bison Prairie

I drifted the car to a slow stop and held my breath. A giant bison, taller than my car, was walking directly toward me. At the last moment, he swung his ginormous head to the right and veered around my bumper and fender. Catastrophe averted, I continued the drive.

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The Elk & Bison Prairie is the central attraction at the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area and one of the best things to do in the country. A 700-acre enclosed prairie is home to herds of American bison, elk, and dozens of other species like raccoons and deer. A 3.5-mile paved road loops through the enclosure, providing visitors a rare opportunity to see the wildlife up close.

Entry into the Elk & Bison Prairie is $5 per vehicle, payable at an automated kiosk at the prairie’s entrance. However, visitors can buy bulk tickets at the nearby Golden Pond Visitor Center – 3 entries for $10 or 5 for $15.

Once inside the Elk & Bison Prairie, vehicles follow the one-lane, one-way paved loop road. Interpretive signs explain the region’s history and more about the species that live there. It’s permissible to get out of the car to read the signs – but whenever wildlife approaches, get back inside.

The bison roam the prairie, dividing their time between lounging in the shade and foraging for food in the fields. Most of the time, the bison are viewable from at least one spot along the road. But, if you don’t find them the first time, just go for another drive around the loop road – you only pay again if you exit through the prairie’s gate!

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No. 3

Watch a Show at the Golden Pond Planetarium

In 2017, the Golden Pond Planetarium was updated with the latest state-of-the-art digital projector – making the shows even more spectacular. Visitors relax in comfortable high-back chairs in the 40′ high domed theater. The shows, each about 40 minutes long, cover a range of topics like natural history, astronomy, and culture.

During the day, shows begin every hour from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. – check the planetarium’s website for the current schedule. At night, laser shows light up the night with spectacular displays.

Admission is $6 for anyone aged 13 and up, $3.50 for anyone between 5-12, and free for anyone 4 and under.

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No. 4

Explore the Homeplace 1850s Working Farm

Settlers began moving into the region shortly after the American Revolution. But living on the frontier hundreds of miles from the nearest city meant these people needed to grow everything they would eat. Have you ever wondered what that life was like?

Homeplace 1850s Working Farm features living history and a chance to see people demonstrating how those settlers made a living on the frontier. But first, visitors pass through a fascinating earthen museum – the roof and walls of the concrete building are covered in dirt and grass.

A primitive trail leads visitors from the rear of the museum to a working farm replicating life on the frontier in the 1850s. Several historic buildings, including a house, barn, and support structures, are open for visitors to explore. Typically, living history reenactors perform various tasks like tending the garden, making soap, or making ice cream!

Admission is $5 per person for anyone age 13 or older, $3 per person between 5-12, and free for anyone 4 and under.

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No. 5

Go Fishing on Lake Barkley or Kentucky Lake

The Land Between the Lakes is a fishing haven with 300 miles of undeveloped shoreline, four lakes, and numerous ponds. Crappie, bass, sauger, catfish, and bluegill are common in Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley.

Anglers must have a valid Tennessee or Kentucky fishing license or purchase one at a visitor center. Fishing from the shoreline is permissible throughout the national recreation area. But if you enjoy fishing from a boat, there are five lakes where you can drop in a boat – Bards, Energy, Honker, Hematite, and Duncan. The latter two lakes only allow boats without gasoline engines.

Although you’re not limited to fishing piers, they are an easy and comfortable place to spend a day with rod in hand. You’ll find fishing piers at the Piney Campground, Energy Lake, and Hillman Ferry Campground.

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No. 6

Spend a Day on a Hiking Trail

Did you know there are over 500 miles of hiking trails in the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area? The trails range from easy walks to stretch your legs to multi-day adventures in the backcountry.

Here are a few of the best trails for hiking adventures:

  • The 59-mile North-South Trail is the longest in the park, traversing the ridge along the entire peninsula through the national recreation area.
  • The 6.6-mile Bear Creek Loop Trail is a local favorite at the South Welcome Station.
  • The 11-mile Central Hardwoods Scenic Trail runs parallel to US Highway 68 through the middle of the national recreation area. The eastern 2.5-mile portion is paved and accessible, while the remaining 8.5-mile western portion is made with compacted stone.
  • The 11-mile Canal Loop Trail at the North Welcome Station offers spectacular views, but it’s also one of the toughest trails in the national recreation area – and a favorite for mountain bikers.

My favorite trail was one of the easiest – the 2.4-mile Hematite Lake Trail. Beginning at the parking area, the trail crosses the concrete dam and loops around the small lake. The trail is a great place to spot wildlife like birds and deer, enjoy the blooming lilies on the lake, and stretch your legs.

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No. 7

Visit a Wildlife Viewing Hotspot

At dawn and dusk every day, wildlife quietly sneaks out of the forested hills into view. Properly equipped with binoculars and telephoto lenses, it’s easy to watch wildlife foraging for food in the grassy fields and calm lakes. But first, you need to know where to go.

Five hotspots in the recreation area are the best for viewing wildlife:

  • Hematite Lake
  • Energy Lake
  • Honker Bay Day Use Area
  • Empire Point
  • South Bison Range

Honker Lake and Energy Lake are perfect opportunities for viewing wildlife from kayaks and canoes. The 2.4-mile Hematite Lake Trail is a great way to spot wildlife around the small lake.

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No. 8

Go Kayaking or Canoeing on a Blue Way Trail

With 300 miles of undeveloped shoreline, the Land Between the Lakes is gorgeous for kayaking or canoeing. There are dozens of places to put your kayak or canoe in the water. But many of those sites required carrying it across rough terrain or sandy beaches – not always easy.

24 boat ramps in the Land Between the Lakes make getting your kayak or canoe into the water easy. Here are the launch sites on Kentucky Lake:

  • Gray’s Landing on US Highway 79
  • Piney Campground – two locations
  • Boswell Landing Camping Area
  • Ginger Bay Camping Area
  • Jones Creek at the end of Forest Service Road 351
  • Redd Hollow Camping Area
  • Fenton Camping Area on US Highway 68
  • Sugar Bay
  • Smith Bay Camping Area
  • Birmingham Ferry Campground
  • Pisgah Point Camping Area
  • Hillman Ferry Campground
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And these are the kayak and canoe launch sites on Lake Barkley:

  • Neville Bay on Forest Service Road 214
  • Devil’s Elbow Day Use Area on US Highway 68
  • Energy Lake Campground
  • Shaw Branch at the end of Forest Service Road 154
  • Taylor Bay Camping Area
  • Honker Bay Day Use Area
  • Cravens Bay Camping Area
  • Eddyville Ferry Landing
  • Kuttawa Landing Camping Area
  • Demumbers Bay Camping Area
  • Nickell Branch Recreation Area

Energy Lake Campground is the only place to rent kayaks and canoes. From May through October, visitors can rent either for $15 per hour, and a life jacket is included.

In 2016, the Land Between the Lakes debuted its Blue Way Trail System. The trails are designated areas in the water for kayaks and canoes to enjoy connecting with nature and spotting wildlife.

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Here are a few of the trails:

  • The Ginger Bay Water Trail includes a large cove off Kentucky Lake. The 1-2 hour trail includes lots of wildlife like white pelicans, herons, egrets, and bald eagles. The trail is accessed at the Ginger Bay Basic Campground at a small boat ramp.
  • The Fulton Bay Water Trail explores both Honker Bay and Fulton Bay. During the summer months, osprey can be seen along this trail with blue herons, egrets, and bald eagers throughout the rest of the year. The trail is accessed at the Honker Bay Day Use Area at a small boat ramp.
  • The Honker Lake Water Trail explores the small 180-acre Honker Lake. The lake is home to beavers, cormorants, and osprey and makes a great place for beginner kayakers. The trail is accessed at the Honker Bay Day Use Area.
  • The Kuttawa Landing Rookery Trail offers a chance to see a rookery up close from the water and get a peek at newly-born birds. Thousands of egrets, herons, and cormorants use this rookery each spring. The trail is accessed at the Kuttawa Landing Camping Area.
  • The Taylor Bay Water Trail is the shortest current trail, exploring the small Taylor Bay off Lake Barkley. There are a couple of islands to explore at the mouth of the bay and, if you are willing to paddle across the Cumberland River, a few more islands in the middle of the lake. This trail is accessed at the Taylor Bay Basic Campground.
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No. 9

Go Horseback Riding on the Wranglers Horse Trails

If you own a horse, bring a horse to the Land Between the Lakes. If not, you can book guided tours.

The Wranglers Campground provides year-round facilities for horseback riders. 198 campsites – most including full hookups – and 12 rustic cabins give you a comfortable place to spend the night. And don’t worry about your horses – the campsites are equipped for full-size horse trailers.

100 miles of horse trails meander around the Wranglers Campground in the central portion of the Land Between the Lakes. The 10 trails pass through the Homeplace 1850s Working Farm, South Bison Range, Tobacco Barn, Blue Hole, and along the shore of Lake Barkley.

Guided trail rides are available with Rocking U Riding Stables. Conveniently located at the campground, the guided rides are $40 for a 45-minute tour and $40 for a 90-minute tour.

National Park Week 2024

Learn about the annual celebration of the National Park System and read my travel guides to national park units across the country.

No. 10

Explore the Iron Industry Ruins

During the Industrial Revolution in the early 1800s, iron furnaces were built throughout the region. Only eight stacks remained after the creation of the Land Between the Lakes – and only two stand today.

The Center Furnace is near the Woodlands Nature Station. A .3-mile loop trail leads to the ruins in the dense woods beside Hematite Lake.

The Great Western Furnace was called the “granddaddy of them all.” The 10′ wide and 35′ tall stack was built in 1854 by Brian, Newell and Company. But the furnace closed just two years later, leaving the most intact iron industry ruins to see today. The Great Western Furnace can be seen from Woodlands Trace near the South Bison Range.

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No. 11

Go Off-Roading at Turkey Bay Off-Highway Vehicle Area

One interesting aspect of the Land Between the Lakes is the variety of recreation. Fishing, kayaking, horseback riding – and off-roading. The Turkey Bay Off-Highway Vehicle Area, or OHV, features 100 miles of off-road trails.

The OHV is divided into four types of trails:

  • Primary trails are unpaved but maintained for a less challenging experience
  • Secondary trails connect many of the primary trails, are narrower, and feature more challenges
  • Tertiary trails are the most challenging type of trail that require specialized vehicles
  • Challenge Areas are washed-out hills or steep landscapes mostly reserved for drivers who want to push their vehicles to the limit

Permits are required for driving in the Turkey Bay OHV and can be purchased as the gatehouse or Golden Pond Visitor Center.

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No. 12

Enjoy a Drive on the Woodlands Trace National Scenic Byway

Woodland Trace National Scenic Byway – locally called The Trace – is a 43-mile scenic byway traveling the length of the Land Between the Lakes. The two-lane highway is the main artery connecting the various sections of the national recreation area.

Some sights along The Trace include the South Bison Range, Colson Overlook Picnic Area, and the Kentucky Lake Scenic Drive. This short road near the North Welcome Station loops around a cliff about 50 feet above Kentucky Lake and includes a picnic area.

It takes about two hours to casually drive the length of The Trace, accounting for a few stops and general traffic.

13 Responses

    1. Denise, thanks for the update. With hundreds of posts, I have found it impossible to keep information like that updated anymore. At least it was only a $1 increase!

  1. I saw a Kentucky tourism commercial that had a car driving between two bodies of water where in Kentucky is this? There was no bridge it was just water on both sides of the road?

    1. Kathy, that would most likely be the Land Between the Lakes – but I’m not entirely sure of the specific location without seeing the commercial.

  2. Hello and thank you for your post. I found it very informative and there are several things I am interested in doing with my husband that you’ve listed. The one question I do have is are dogs allowed on any of the tours? We have one dog, she is not a service dog but is very well behaved and I hate to leave her in the camper.

    1. It makes me happy you found this informative, Susan. I cannot be 100% certain, but since it’s a National Forest property and mostly outdoors I believe dogs are allowed anywhere if kept on a leash. I saw dogs on many of the hiking trails and each of the campgrounds I used. However, dogs were not allowed inside the buildings. Enjoy your visit to one of my favorite destinations in the country!

  3. I did the highway lay-out and some of the design on the Tennessee section of the Trace highway. I am glad to have contributed to a better scenic driving experience.

    1. The Trace was an AWESOME scenic drive! I wasn’t expecting it to be one of the attractions of the LBL. Thanks for working on that so everyone else could enjoy it!

  4. Hi Jason,
    We are going camping with our children and grandchildren at Land Between the Lakes in April. We are staying at Hillman Ferry Campground.
    I really enjoyed reading all your blog posts about LBL. They were helpful and to the point yet interesting and entertaining. Thank you so much for sharing your interests, recommendations and beautiful photography. I am even more excited about our trip after reading your posts!

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Do you have a question about travel or road trips? Are you a CVB or DMO interested in working with me? I typically respond to emails within 24 hours. Quicker if you include a good riddle.
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