This National Recreation Area in Kentucky and Tennessee offers an outdoor playground of trails, wildlife and first-rate campgrounds
Ruggedly beautiful “Land Between the Lakes” (LBL) in western Kentucky and Tennessee is a boot-shaped limestone ridge between rocky shores lapped by the silver-blue waters of Kentucky Lake to the west and Lake Barkley to the east. It is a world of thick woods and wide-open grassy fields, steep hills and deep valleys, meandering rural roads and trails, and hundreds of stunning high-up lake vistas.
Not surprisingly, these hilly 170,000 acres, part of a region once called the “Garden of the West,” are home to a host of animals: the expected gray and red squirrels, the not-so-common flying squirrels (adorable little masked rodents that don’t really fly — they glide), possums, raccoons and other small critters, as well as reintroduced herds of white-tailed and fallow deer.
Magnificent bison (whose bovine ancestors once roamed Kentucky in large numbers but had disappeared by 1800) and elk (similarly, gone a few years later) have also been reintroduced and now enjoy many hundreds of grassy acres to graze on.
Bobcats and black bears live on the LBL, as do red wolves, though these you’ll see only at the Nature Station, as the beautiful canids were declared biologically extinct in the wild more than 30 years ago (now red wolf/coyote hybridization programs keep the line going).
The LBL is a birder’s paradise, with more than 240 species — song birds, waterfowl, shore birds and raptors — that live here or migrate through. Among them are wild turkeys, once gone from the LBL but reintroduced from elsewhere, and a resident population of more than 150 bald eagles, elegant creatures with an amazing recovery story of their own to tell.
The LBL also offers glimpses into the history of the humans who have called the land home. The earliest were the mammoth and mastodon hunters alive more than 7,000 years ago. Visitors get a better look at the sturdy pioneers who settled this land a mere two centuries ago, after the previously called “Land Between the Rivers,” a slim rectangle framed by the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers, was opened to White settlement in 1818.
No one lives on the U.S.-Forest-Service-managed LBL today — it’s been a national recreation area for nearly 50 years — but a dozen or so cemeteries with age-old headstones tell cursory tales, and an 85-acre (originally 500-acre) historic farm with more than a dozen original log buildings interprets life here in 1850.
All these attractions and others can be accessed from The Trace, a fine two-lane asphalt road that winds a 60-mile serpentine route along the LBL’s spine, arcing over the hills and at every turn revealing yet another elegant panorama. The drive itself is especially inviting in fall (late October to early November) — the time of my husband, Guy’s, and my recent visit — after Mother Nature has performed her annual sorcery on the thick stands of hardwood trees and underbrush, transforming even the willowy grasses to shimmering gold.
Hickories and maples are turned bright yellow, lighting the woods like glowing lanterns; frilly sumacs look like low-burning wildfires and sweet gum trees show off their multicolored garb. But here it’s the oaks that put on the most dramatic display of all: post oaks, their leaves the shiny brown of polished jasper; white oaks showy with leaves turned various shades of pumpkin, peach and tangerine; and black oaks flaunting the brightest glossy-red and rich burgundy attire we’d ever seen. Though the LBL offers many enticements, the fall color alone is enough to justify making the drive.
Despite its relatively small size, the area is webbed with more than 400 miles of roads (of which about 150 miles are paved), 200 miles of hiking and biking trails, 100 miles of off-road vehicle trails, and is bordered by some 300 miles of pristine shoreline. The forest service runs four first-rate campgrounds — Piney, Hillman Ferry, Wranglers and Energy Lake — with nearly 1,000 wooded campsites (there are also five primitive campgrounds, unlimited back-country camping and 22 boat ramps).
Such a difference a century can make. Visitors to the Land Between the Rivers (LBR), as the LBL was originally called, would have come on a very different scene in 1912: miles of shorn forest, cut to feed the greedy appetites of the iron smelters, which had begun operating here in 1820 (the LBR was rich in iron ore as well as limestone and trees, all ingredients necessary to the process) and a decade later made Kentucky third in the country in iron production.
The smelters were shut down by Union troops during the Civil War. Several later reopened, each smelter gobbling an acre of forest a day, nearly exhausting the supply. Finally, outdated, no-longer-cost-effective methods and lack of trees for charcoal extinguished the last of the furnaces 100 years ago.
Into the 1930s no bridges crossed the rivers into the LBR, where only three farms in 100 had electricity. But as part of his New Deal, newly elected President Franklin Roosevelt created the Tennessee Valley Authority, which would build hydro-electric dams to “harness” the Tennessee River.
Part of the plan was to also create 65,000-acre Kentucky Woodlands National Wildlife Refuge, for which the government began buying up land, with the first purchases made in the 1930s.
Over the next 30 years, the rest of the land was acquired and thousands of families were obliged to leave their homes as the reservoirs for Kentucky Lake on the Tennessee River and later Lake Barkley on the Cumberland were filled. Kentucky Woodlands was absorbed into Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area, managed by the Forest Service since 1999.
Welcome Centers offering souvenirs, maps and literature greet visitors at the north and south ends of The Trace, which stretches nearly from Grand Rivers, Kentucky, to Dover, Tennessee. In between are the Woodlands Nature Station; Elk and Bison Prairie; Golden Pond Visitor Center, Planetarium and Observatory; and a working 19th-century farm called The Homeplace.
Our three-day visit began at the north end (with picturesque Energy Lake Campground as our home base, where we left the fifth-wheel parked for the duration). After a quick stop at the Welcome Center, we drove to Woodlands Nature Station, which includes a small natural history museum with exhibits that explain the area’s plant and animal life. Indigenous fish, turtles, snakes and flying squirrels are on display in tanks and cages.
Outside, past a butterfly garden, a path winds among 7 acres of roomy enclosures where other animals — red wolves, deer, turkeys, a red-tailed hawk and a black vulture (with a face like a Halloween mask) — can be seen. Public Program Coordinator Carrie Szwed says all these creatures were either orphaned or injured, or for some other reason could not be returned to the wild.
Just west of the nature station is Center Furnace Trail, a path through the woods where the community of Hematite once stood. Today, the collapsed town cistern; a towering 150-year-old white oak that somehow escaped the ax; and the massive stack of the old iron smelter are all that remain. Leaf-strewn excavations are the only evidence that dozens of other buildings were here, and the roar of the furnace has long been silenced.
But placards tell its story. Built in 1852, one of eight smelters on the LBR, Center was once “in blast” 24 hours a day, up to 10 months a year. Every day in operation it gorged on two tons of limestone, 30 tons of iron ore and 2,000 bushels of charcoal. By the time the furnace shut down in 1912, some 20 square miles of timber had been cut to make charcoal to feed its flames.
Ahead along The Trace is 700-acre Elk and Bison Prairie, a habitat restoration project to show how the land looked when Native Americans used fire to maintain prairie grasses. Visitors pay a small fee to drive the winding road in hopes of seeing some of the residents. We struck out at midday, and were told later that the best times to see the animals (and then usually from afar) are early morning and near dusk.
We fared better the next day at South Bison Range, where about 50 of the animals have 200 more acres to graze on. A stout wire fence keeps them in, but allows visitors to exit their vehicles and get a close-up look at these awesome beasts.
On to Golden Pond Visitor Center, a first-rate facility with dozens of exhibits, maps, historic photos and artifacts that explain the region’s long history — from Paleo-Indian times, through the centuries to the European explorers who traded with the Native Americans, to the early days of White settlement and the disputed border between Kentucky and Tennessee, on through the “harnessing” of the twin rivers to create the magnificent recreation area of today.
A planetarium and observatory are also here. At the 84-seat theater, which includes a 40-foot dome, visitors, for a small fee, can watch shows (five a day are offered for various age levels) on topics such as space exploration, the planets and the night sky among others. Planetarium Manager Rob Milner also showed us through the observatory out back, built half a century ago, but recently outfitted with a brand-new telescope, he says.
The Homeplace 1850 Interpretive Center is a dozen miles south. Here in a peaceful, welcoming setting visitors walk through the past at a rambling antebellum farm that fills a wide valley and includes 16 historic log buildings. Gauzy arcs of blue smoke rise from the two stone chimneys of the large dog-trot house, and life goes on as it would have more than a century-and-a-half ago.
Re-enactors dressed in period clothing are at work — the activities vary according to season — spinning and sewing, making baskets, hoeing the kitchen garden or plowing a field (with Proctor the white mule or docile Percherons Bob and Jack pulling the plow), splitting rails for fencing, making wood shingles or furniture, stripping tobacco and preparing meals using crops typical of the era.
Everything is in keeping with the times, meaning the up-to-date visitor center can’t be seen from the farm. A 13-minute film tells the story of the land and the descendents of Scots-Irish immigrants who settled it, and exhibits depict the lifestyle in different seasons.
Our last stop, at the suggestion of Belinda Gibson of the Golden Pond Visitor Center, was at St. Stephen’s Catholic Church, once one of many in the area, but now the only church left.
A placard outside explains that it was built in 1900 with the final service held 45 years later. Remote, it was overlooked and allowed to remain when the LBL was formed, but by 2000 it had become badly deteriorated. Photos show the “before” and work in progress, as a group called Land Between the Rivers Inc. in an agreement with the Forest Service restored the old frame German-Catholic church. The names on gravestones in the cemetery reflect its heritage.
Now, more than a million visitors a year come to the LBL for the many outdoor activities offered along its miles. But only here at the church and at a few small, forlorn cemeteries, a re-created farm and two stone stacks remaining from iron smelting days is there evidence that once hundreds of families called the land home.
When You Go
For information (including camping and reservations), contact Land Between the Lakes, 100 Van Morgan Drive, Golden Pond, Kentucky 42211-9001; 800-LBL-7077 or 270-924-2000, www.lbl.org