Read Now, Travel Later
COVID-19 has changed the world. The tourism industry has been one of the hardest hit areas of the global pandemic. Local restaurants, museums, state and national parks have all changed hours of operation, procedures, and some have gone out of business altogether.
Please verify current operations of any places you want to visit mentioned in these articles, and contact me if a business has permanently closed so I can update the article. Thank you and stay safe out there!
The sun was just a finger width above the horizon, casting a beam of orangish light across the choppy water of Kentucky Lake. I was sitting at a picnic table with my freshly cooked dinner looking out across the white pebble beach along the lake. In the distance, I could hear the faint hum of a motorboat, but otherwise not another human sound in the air. It was my last night at the Land Between the Lakes and, thousands of miles of road trips later, still one of my fondest memories in a national forest.
When I began an epic three- month road trip across the southeast, starting in Charleston, South Carolina, I knew the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area would be on the itinerary. My anticipation grew as I got closer week by week. After all, the name “Land Between the Lakes” made it seem like some sort of magical wonderland like Narnia or Middle Earth.
The South Welcome Station was very welcoming indeed. I picked up a map of the recreation area, a sheet of frequently asked questions, and purchased a $10 dispersed camping permit. One of the benefits of traveling in a campervan was the ability to eat and sleep anywhere. This is what I was looking forward to the most at Land Between the Lakes.
I’m not exactly in the best shape of my life, despite my love of outdoor recreation. It’s a bittersweet arrangement because I think nothing is more thrilling than hiking a trail into the middle of a forest, miles from any kind of development. Fortunately, the hiking trails at Land Between the Lakes were easy to hike with little elevation change.
The big daddy of trails was the 59-mile North-South Trail. Following the ridge along the middle of the recreation area, it stretched the entire length between the South and North Welcome Stations. I met a couple packing their gear, ready to spend four days on the trail, but figured that was something I would do another time.
I found the 5.4-mile Honker Lake Trail quite by accident. I had decided to drive to the Honker Bay Day Use Area for lunch one day. As I was preparing to leave, I noticed a sign for a hiking trail. The hike began along a narrow path between two bodies of water and then descended into a lush forest around Honker Lake.
This was the perfect opportunity I found at Land Between the Lakes. I drove to a day use area for lunch and found one of my favorite trails by accident. But my favorite discovery was yet to come.
Woodlands Trace National Scenic Byway connects everything at Land Between the Lakes. The two-lane road winds through the forests and fields and, in its own right, would make an excellent getaway. The road also connects the “Four Big Attractions.”
The first attraction I visited was Homeplace 1850s Working Farm. The living history museum demonstrated what life was like before the Tennessee Valley Authority created the lakes. Located near the middle of Land Between the Lakes, the Golden Pond Planetarium was a welcome respite from the heat and humidity. At the intersection of the scenic byway with US Highway 68, it’s also the main visitor center. Inside, I found a large gift shop, information, and the planetarium with a brand-new digital projector.
In hindsight, I wish I had gone to the Elk & Bison Prairie first. As it turned out, this would not only be my favorite place in Land Between the Lakes but one of my favorite places in the country. The 700-enclosed field was home to large herds of American bison, elk, and a smattering of other local wildlife. A one-lane, one-way paved road allowed me to drive through the field and get closer to wildlife than ever possible at any national park (and for a good reason).
It’s not often I get lucky with my travels, but as luck would have it, I arrived at Woodlands Nature Station at the perfect time of year. The 8,500-acre Nature Watch Area surrounding the nature station would have been an excellent place for a hike, and they rent kayaks and canoes to get on the water, but I spent hours sitting inside the garden. It was the annual hummingbird migration! From my seat on a comfortable wooden bench, I could hear the humming of tiny flapping wings all around as I watched hundreds of birds hovering beside feeders.
Every evening at Land Between the Lakes, I began a hunt for the best place to watch the sunset. I have always thought sunsets never looked better than they do across a body of water. Fortunately, Kentucky Lake was the perfect body of water.
Two of the basic campgrounds I stayed in offered gorgeous sunset views. My first sunset at Land Between the Lakes was at Boswell Landing Campground. After parking the van, I found a little cove at the edge of the lake with a view straight across at sunset.
But sunset the next night at Redd Hollow Campground was even better. Perched on a cliff about fifty feet above the water, I found a “waterfront” campsite with two trees ideally situated for hanging my hammock. A cacophony of chirping birds, water breaking on the shore below, and watching the sunset from a gently swinging hammock was the perfect lullaby.
The view from my campsite at Hillman Ferry Campground (top) was not to be beaten on this particular trip. Although I have to admit, the campsites at Energy Lake Campground (bottom-left) and Piney Campground (bottom-right) weren’t bad, either.
Despite visiting Land Between the Lakes on a weekend in late July, I found the campgrounds sparsely populated. It was most certainly not from a lack of interest, but rather from the fact there are hundreds of campsites throughout almost two dozen campgrounds.
My first three nights were spent at basic campgrounds. These campgrounds had defined sites with a parking area and picnic table, but little else. A privy toilet was usually located somewhere near the middle of around a dozen campsites. It’s primitive at best, but when traveling in a campervan, it was all I needed.
My last night at Land Between the Lakes was spent at Hillman Ferry Campground. The kind lady at the office allowed me to drive through the campground to pick out a site for the night. I will never forget the peacefulness of spending a night at Site 27 in Area B. The waterfront campsite offered a gorgeous view of a cove on Kentucky Lake that became a breathtaking scene during sunrise the next morning.
The sun was just a finger width above the horizon, casting a beam of orangish light across the choppy water of Kentucky Lake. I was sitting at a picnic table at the Moss Creek Day Use Area with my freshly cooked dinner, looking out across the white pebble beach along the lake. In the distance, I could hear the faint hum of a motorboat, but otherwise not another human sound in the air. It was my last night at the Land Between the Lakes.
I started laughing out loud. How could this place be real? How could I be sitting on a white pebble beach without another human being in sight watching this amazing sunset develop across the lake? It was one of the rare travel moments that was too good to be true, and yet it was very true.
In just four days at Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area, I had seen more wildlife than spending a week at a national park. I had more moments of sheer peacefulness than I could have found at a spiritual retreat. I still have trails to hike, campgrounds to call home away from home, and I most definitely want to revisit the Elk & Bison Prairie.
I really, really need a weekend getaway to the Land Between the Lakes. And so do you.