The Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area is one of the most awesome hidden gems in the country. Regional travelers know about it, locals love it, and I haven’t stopped thinking about it since my first visit. When it came time, it was easy to write a list of awesome things to do at Land Between the Lakes.
- 1. Learn About Wildlife at the Woodlands Nature Station
- 2. Visit the Elk & Bison Prairie
- 3. Catch a Show at the Golden Pond Planetarium
- 4. Explore Settler’s Life at the Homeplace 1850s Working Farm
- 5. Go Fishing
- 6. Enjoy the Hiking Trails
- 7. Paddle Along the Blue Way Trails
- 8. Go Horseback Riding
- 9. Go Off-Roading
- 10. Enjoy the Scenic Drive on Woodlands Trace
- Where to Stay
1. Learn About Wildlife at the Woodlands Nature Station
The Woodlands Nature Station has a rather nice educational center packed with information about the wildlife you’ll see at Land Between the Lakes. The friendly staff is ready to answer questions about the regional wildlife and help you figure out where you can spot some of the critters during your visit.
The best part about the nature station is the Backyard Exhibit Area. A paved trail meanders around several animal enclosures and a large grassy lawn. I just happened to be visiting during the annual hummingbird migration. I sat on a bench for an hour and watched hundreds of hummingbirds flapping furiously while gulping from the feeders.
Admission is $5 per person for anyone age 13 or older, $3 per person between 5-12, and free for anyone 4 and under.
2. Visit the Elk & Bison Prairie
The Elk & Bison Prairie is my absolute favorite place at Land Between the Lakes and one of my favorite places to visit in the country. The prairie is a 700-acre enclosure with a 3.5-mile paved road looping through. Visitors can drive their personal vehicles through a pay gate into the prairie and enjoy unbelievable views of the wildlife.
Along the road you’ll see dozens of massive bison and slender elk grazing in the fields or crossing the road. The drive takes thirty minutes without making any stops and you have the option of looping around indefinitely without leaving the prairie.
Entry into the Elk & Bison Prairie is $5 per vehicle payable at the pay gate entrance. However, if you visit the Golden Pond Visitor Center just a few minutes away you can purchase 3 entry cards for $10 or 5 entry cards for $15.
3. Catch a Show at the Golden Pond Planetarium
Want to hear a good news, bad news situation? Bad news first. When I visited the Golden Pond Visitor Center & Planetarium, the planetarium was closed so I wasn’t able to see any shows at all. But the good news is that the planetarium was closed because they were installing a brand-new state-of-the-art digital projector system!
The planetarium offers shows throughout the business day. Each show is around 40 minutes long and projected onto a 40’ high dome ceiling. Visit the Land Between the Lakes planetarium page here to see the current schedule.
Admission is $6 for anyone age 13 and up, $3.50 for anyone between 5-12, and free for anyone 4 and under.
4. Explore Settler’s Life at the Homeplace 1850s Working Farm
Have you ever wondered what life was like on the frontier in the 1800s? Okay I’ve never wondered that, either, but I found it fascinating when I visited Homeplace 1850s Working Farm!
The exploration begins with this really cool museum buried in the ground. Seriously, the entrance, museum, and gift shop are in a building covered in earthen works. I never did find the story behind that so somebody leave a comment below and help me out!
After paying the admission visitors walk a primitive trail out the back of the museum to the working farm. The trail is somewhat accessible, though wheelchairs may have difficult.
The farm is spread out between several historic buildings that have been restored and maintained. Often times, including when I visited, interpreters in period clothing will be demonstrating how to farm, grow crops, make soap, or even make ice cream!
Be sure to give yourself about one or two hours here so be able to see it all. The farm is spread out across several different areas. They also had several goats and a couple of massive bulls!
Admission is $5 per person for anyone age 13 or older, $3 per person between 5-12, and free for anyone 4 and under.
5. Go Fishing
I’m not much of a fisherman but I did find some great places to go fishing at Land Between the Lakes. With 300 miles of shoreline, four fishable lakes, and numerous ponds throughout the recreation area there are plenty of places to cast a line.
Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley is home to largemouth and smallmouth bass, carp, crappie, and more. Anglers must have a fishing license for the state in which they are fishing at Land Between the Lakes.
Year-round fishing is allowed on Bards Lake, Energy Lake, Visitor Center Pond, and all interior ponds. From March – October fishing is allowed on Hematite Lake, Duncan Lake, Honker Lake, Long Cree, Long Creek Pond, and the wildlife refuges at Fulton Bay, Honker Bay, Duncan Bay, Smith Bay, and Rushing Bay.
Piney Campground and Hillman Ferry Campground had fishing piers on Kentucky Lake. There was a fishing pier at the Energy Lake Day Use Area just outside the campground. Almost all the campgrounds, basic campgrounds, and self-service campgrounds had boat ramps for using your own fishing boat.
6. Enjoy the Hiking Trails
There are over 500 miles of hiking trails at Land Between the Lakes. I think with that many trails you can certainly find a way to take your legs for a walk.
The 59-mile North-South Trail is the big daddy of all hiking trails in the recreation area. This trail follows the ridge through the middle of the Land Between the Lakes from the South Welcome Center to the North Welcome Center.
The 5.9-mile Fort Henry Trail is a great day hike near the Piney Campground. The 6.6-mile Bear Creek Loop Trail is a local favorite at the South Welcome Station, connecting to the North-South Trail. The 11-mile Central Hardwoods Trail is another favorite with an accessible paved path on the eastern section. The 10-mile Canal Loop Trail is accessed at the North Welcome Station and includes some of the roughest terrain change of any of the trails.
My favorite discovery was the 5.4-mile Honker Lake Trail. The trail can be access at the Woodlands Nature Station or, as I did one day, the Honker Bay Day Use Area. The trail crosses the earthen dam separating the interior lake from Lake Barkley.
My favorite trail, though, was the short and easy 2.4-mile Hematite Lake Trail. The trail crosses the concrete dam at the end of the lake and circles the small inner lake. The trail is accessed at the Hematite Lake Picnic Area that doubled as a great place to enjoy lunch that day.
7. Paddle Along the Blue Way Trails
In 2016 the Land Between the Lakes debuted their Blue Way Trail System. It is a continuing process, but they have already “developed” a few trail routes for paddlers.
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 access 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.
8. Go Horseback Riding
Whether you have your own horse or note, there is plenty of opportunity for you to enjoy horseback riding trails at Land Between the Lakes. Visitors who bring their own horses use Wranglers Campground with horse stables, washes, and plenty of room for both horse trailers and RVs at each site.
Visitors who don’t travel with their own horse can enjoy guided trail rides with Rocking U Riding Stables at the campground. Cost is just $18 for a 45-minute ride or $30 for a 90-minute ride on the nearby trails.
The Wranglers horseback riding network includes 100 miles of trails. A dozen trails explore the shores of Lake Barkley, Homeplace 1850s Working Farm, South Bison Range, and the wooden interior of the recreation area.
9. Go Off-Roading
A lifetime ago my brother and I had an old 1998 Ford Bronco Eddie Bauer Edition. We always said we would use it to go off-roading. Unfortunately, we never found any great places along the East Coast. If only we had known about Land Between the Lakes!
The Turkey Bay Off-Highway Vehicle Area includes nearly 100 miles of off roading trails at Land Between the Lakes. Visitors must purchase either a 3-day permit for $20 or an annual permit for $75.
The OHV is divided into four types of trails:
- Primary Trails are off-road but maintained for a less-challenging experience
- Secondary Trails connect many of the primary trails and are narrower and more challenging
- Tertiary Trails are the narrowest and most challenging trails
- Challenge Areas are washed-out hills or steep landscapes that offer the greatest challenge in the OHV
10. Enjoy the Scenic Drive on Woodlands Trace
What used to be called “The Trace” is now Woodlands Trace National Scenic Byway. The 43-mile two-lane paved road travels north-south right through the middle of Land Between the Lakes.
Beginning at the South Welcome Station the road winds through the wilderness for a peaceful and scenic drive. Although the inevitable speed demon will end up on your bumper the road is otherwise a place where people relax for the drive and enjoy the scenery.
The South Bison Range was one of my favorite discoveries along Woodlands Trace. The long open field along the road was home to dozens of bison roaming, grazing, and playing in the grass. There is a place to pull off on the west side of the road or you can pull over at the South Bison Range Picnic Area across the road.
Colson Overlook Picnic Area is another great spot to pull off the road. This small picnic area overlooks an equally small pond.
Kentucky Lake Scenic Drive is a wonderful detour off Woodlands Trace. The short loop road is just north of the North Welcome Station and the first thing you come to after crossing the bridge into Land Between the Lakes.
The Kentucky Lake Scenic Drive Picnic Area is a large parking lot, but not with much of a view. The best view of the lake on this scenic drive is the first official scenic overlook just after the picnic area. The next two scenic overlooks offer narrow, overgrown views of the lake. The last large parking area just before the road leaves the lake is another great place for views of Kentucky Lake about 50’ below.
Where to Stay
There are a lot of amazing hiking trails at the Land Between the Lakes. You might want to make a weekend of the adventure! Here are a few places to stay that I highly recommend.
There are four developed campgrounds and over a dozen basic and self-service campgrounds throughout the Land Between the Lakes. Click to read my write up about Everything You Need to Know About Camping at Land Between the Lakes.
Lake Barkley State Resort Park has a very nice lodge only twenty minutes from the Golden Pond Visitor Center. The state park has King Rooms and Double Rooms with two full beds in the lodge, a Two Bedroom Deluxe Cabin with two full beds in each bedroom, and a Two Bedroom Log Cabin with a queen bed in one bedroom and two full beds in the other.
Kenlake State Resort Park is the closest state park to the Land Between the Lakes, located just ten minutes from the Golden Pond Visitor Center. This park features cottages ranging from one bedroom to two bedroom with a variety of beds from queen to full.
Kentucky Dam Village State Resort Park would be an amazing place to spend the night while hiking all day. The park features rooms in a lodge with a view of the lake and others with a view of the garden, and several cottages ranging from one to three bedroom. This state park is located about 10 minutes from the North Welcome Station.
Patti’s Inn & Suites would be an interesting place to stay. The hotel resembles a multi-unit apartment building and while the building is older the rooms have modern furnishings and bedding. Along with a swimming pool and good breakfast in the morning it would be a great place to stay. This hotel is located about 10 minutes from the North Welcome Station in Grand Rivers.
Quality Inn would be a great budget-friendly option for staying near the Land Between the Lakes. The hotel features King Rooms and Queen Rooms with two queen beds. The hotel also includes a rather nice indoor swimming pool. It’s located about 20 minutes from the North Welcome Station and 30 minutes from the Golden Pond Visitor Center.
You know how much a fan I am of Hampton Inn. Located about 20 minutes from the North Welcome Station it’s a bit further away, but worth extra drive for a great place to stay. The hotel has King Rooms and Queen Rooms with two queen beds. The free breakfast in the morning will make a good start to the day.
If you really want to treat yourself while exploring the Land Between the Lakes take a look at the Maple Hill Bed and Breakfast. It’s a good thirty-minute drive to the North Welcome Station, but the B&B’s location on Lake Barkley just about makes it worth it.