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Little-Known Fact: Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area is home to the largest publicly-owned bison herd in the eastern United States.
Although hiking is not the premier activity amid the park’s deep stands of hardwood, with 300 miles of undeveloped shoreline and generous mix of wildlife, it could be. One of LBL’s most underutilized attractions is the 65-mile North-South Trail that runs the length of the park. This fine path runs from lake shore to ridgeline and is seldom, if ever, crowded. The trail’s accessibility also makes it ideal for a half-day or week-long trip.
But don’t confuse ease of access with trail congestion. Only a fraction of LBL’s visitors (1 to 2 percent by official estimates) venture onto the trail for an overnight excursion. I was hiking the pathway in late September when daytime temperatures had returned to the comfort zone and the westerly breeze carried the first hint of fall. During the two-day trip I met three other people, two of them at a picnic area.
The trail is a continuous route but it traverses two very different sections of LBL. The northern point begins at the Kentucky Lake Drive circular parking lot, about a half-mile north of the entrance station. For about 25 miles this part of the trail roughly follows the Kentucky Lake shore and the bay line (part of the park’s 300 miles of undeveloped shoreline). The lake is fairly accessible for fishing, with white crappie and bass your most likely catch. (A state fishing license is required.) This up-and-down section is moderately difficult with a maximum elevation change of no more than 200 feet.
The Golden Pond Visitor Center marks the unofficial halfway point on the North-South trek. The southern portion of the trail begins and ends here and roughly follows a ridge near the center of the park, offering a nice view of the lake at selected points.
Highway 453, known as “The Trace” within LBL, runs north and south through the park. The North-South Trail crosses this two-lane blacktop road twice. Five quonset-type huts made from large metal culverts are also located along the trail about 12 miles apart.
If you’re looking for something less challenging, LBL also sports several shorter trails, including the Canal Loop Trails and the interconnecting Fort Henry Trail System that traces Civil War troop movements.
Although Land Between the Lakes is better-known for its man-made attractions, those who seek out its natural diversions are rewarded with a feel for what life was like before the dams were built, when folks still lived “‘tween the rivers” in an isolated, independent, and quietly soothing world.
Land Between the Lakes stretches through western Kentucky and into northwest Tennessee. The northern entrance is approximately 180 miles southeast of St. Louis, Missouri, and the southern entrance about 175 miles northeast of Memphis, Tennessee. Nearby towns in Kentucky include Paducah (800/359-4775), Murray (502/753-5171), and Cadiz. For more information, call Marshall County at 502/527-7145.
LBL’s northern entrance is accessible from I-24 about 25 miles east of Paducah, Kentucky. The southern entrance is off U.S. Hwy. 79, about 25 miles east of Paris, Tennessee. U.S. Hwy. 68 crosses both lakes and runs east and west through LBL at about the midpoint. This road intersects I-24 about 20 miles east of Lake Barkley near the town of Cadiz, Kentucky.
The average temperatures are 87 degrees F in summer; 62 in fall; 36 in winter; and 72 in spring. Severe thunderstorms often come in June and July.
As LBL’s trail guide says, the possibility of sighting waterfowl, eagles, deer, bobcats, turkey, beaver, and songbirds is so good that each hike is practically a field biology lesson. Owls and elusive red wolves also call LBL home.
A buffalo herd roams a 200-acre range. This herd of about 50 animals is a living example of a successful wildlife conservation project.
Ticks are prevalent in LBL from mid-March through mid-October. Hikers are likely to encounter two species ~ the lone star tick and the American dog tick. Repellent is available at welcome stations. Wear long pants and treat clothing with repellent.
You will see hickory, oak, prairie vegetation, wildflowers, and the endangered prices potato bean.
There are a variety of camping options, including three developed family campgrounds, a campground for horseback riders, an off-highway vehicle area, and a group campground.
- Hillman Ferry (502/362-8230), Piney (615/232-5331), and Energy Lake (502/924-2270) campgrounds can accommodate both tents and large motor homes. These developed sites offer showers, flush toilets, drinking water, hook-ups, ballcourts, swimming beaches, picnic tables, and fire rings. There are even laundry facilities and firewood. Piney Campground also has cabins. Both Piney and Hillman have bike and camping equipment rental.
- Wranglers Camp provides accommodations for horses.
- Group camping is available at Colson Hollow.
- More primitive camping is offered at Birmingham Ferry, Fenton, Rushing Creek, Cravens Bay, Gatlin Point, and Turkey Bay OHV Area. These sites provide tables, grills, toilets, and drinking water. Hook-ups are also available at Fenton. Some sites are only open seasonally and most accept reservations (although they are not required).
- Five metal shelters along the North/South Trail accommodate four hikers, and open camping is allowed throughout LBL with a permit, except in posted areas.
- North Welcome Station, Golden Pond Visitor Center, and South Welcome Station provide information.
- Basic rates for developed campgrounds are about $13 per night. For more primitive sites, it’ll be $8.
Contact park office for information.
A backcountry permit is required and can be purchased at welcome stations for $10 (good for March 1-February 28 of that year).
Horses, motor vehicles, and mountain bikes are prohibited on the trail systems, except for approved organized events and on designated segments of the North/South Trail.
During dry months, hikers may find it difficult to find natural water sources, such as springs and creeks. Hikers may store water along the route before hiking it or arrange for friends to deliver it to drop-off points.
Leave No Trace:
During periods of extreme fire danger, all open fires may be prohibited. A backpacking stove is recommended.
All LNT guidelines apply.
Trail and topo maps are available from the LBL Golden Pond, Kentucky, office at the above address.
Other Trip Options:
- The Homeplace-1850 is a 19th-century living history farm with 16 restored log structures and a farm “family” living in the style of the times.
- You can see distant constellations at the Golden Pond Planetarium.
- Other parks in the area include Lake Barkley State Park and Kentucky Dam Village State Resort Park.
- Nashville is just 90 miles to the west.
- And be sure to stop in Paducah at the Museum of the American Quilters Society.