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Land Between the Lakes: Mid-America’s gigantic outdoor playground
By Tom Adkinson

land between the lakes
The sun sets over Lake Barkley on the eastern side of the 170,000-acre Land Between the Lakes; image by Tom Adkinson.

LAND BETWEEN THE LAKES – You just don’t expect this much undeveloped forest smack dab in the middle of the country.

Lake Between the Lakes (LBL for short) National Recreation Area in western Kentucky and Tennessee is a tall and skinny destination for lovers of the outdoors that sprawls across 170,000 acres. That’s about one-third the size of Great Smoky Mountains National Park at the other end of Tennessee.

This attraction-packed peninsula between gigantic lakes created on the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers is 40 miles long from north to south and only 1 to 9 miles wide east to west, and it’s largely in a world of its own a long way from any major city.

screech owl
An injured screech owl, whose cry seems much too large for its size, gets some human time with a Woodlands Nature Center staffer; image by Tom Adkinson.

LBL is 200 miles from St. Louis, 200 from Louisville, 175 from Memphis and 100 from Nashville. You almost have to be headed to LBL to get here, but when you arrive, there’s plenty to enjoy.

Don’t expect theme parks and shopping malls, multi-screen cinemas and fancy restaurants. Instead, look for grazing elk and bison, a farm family happily living in the 1850s, trails to hike, fish to catch, lightning bugs to chase and stars to admire. Viewing the heavens is easy because LBL’s dark sky (there’s simply very little light pollution) makes it perfect for special programs at a genuine astronomical observatory. Observatory programs are complemented by daily shows at a planetarium that is unexpected in a place this remote.

lbl bison
LBL bison aren’t so much camera shy as they are hungry when the grass is green and fresh; image by Tom Adkinson.

LBL gets its name logically. Kentucky Lake is on its western edge, while Lake Barkley forms its eastern edge. Before the Tennessee Valley Authority built Kentucky Dam and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built Barkley Dam, the region was known simply as Between the Rivers.

This finger of land – basically a limestone ridge called the Tennessee Divide, with creeks flowing east and west – has supported human residents for at least 6,000 years. Bison, elk, deer, fish and more sustained Native Americans, and American settlers eventually arrived to develop arable land for corn, tobacco and other crops.

The farmhouse at the Homeplace 1850 has two big rooms spaces separated by a central hallway; image by Tom Adkinson.

Farms were staked out, a primitive but elaborate iron industry was established, the Civil War left its marks and a significant whiskey business took root. Prohibition put an end – mostly – to the whiskey trade, and the last known still was removed in the mid-1960s when the TVA was acquiring land to create LBL. More than 2,300 people had to move out, moonshiners included. The LBL visitor center features a photo showing a whole house being removed by barge.

  Ayrshire breed ox
Ozzy, an Ayrshire breed ox, takes it easy after a day of work at the Homeplace 1850; image by Tom Adkinson.

The USDA Forest Service now administers LBL and welcomes about 1.5 million people a year. For comparison, the visitor count at Great Smoky Mountains National Park usually exceeds 11 million.

Mother Nature is on display in a big way because LBL has 300 miles of undeveloped shoreline, 261 miles of hiking trails, 106 miles of horse trails, 70 miles of mountain bike trails, 1,400 campsites, 26 boat ramps, and 444 miles of scenic road, including the 43-mile-long Woodlands Trace National Scenic Byway.

Two of the most visited sites on the byway are the Woodlands Nature Station, where many native animals are on display (but only ones that couldn’t survive in the wild), and the Homeplace 1850s Working Farm and Living History Museum. The “family” at the Homeplace really works the land, growing vegetables, raising chickens, mending fences and plowing fields with two massive oxen named Ozzy and Otis.

Non-campers can enjoy LBL, too, because three Kentucky state parks are just outside its boundaries – Lake Barkley State Resort Park at Cadiz, Kenlake State Resort Park at Hardin and Kentucky Dam Village State Resort Park at Gilbertsville.

land between the lake national recreation area
The USDA Forest Service administers the Land Between the Lakes, which began as a Tennessee Valley Authority project; image by Tom Adkinson.

Trip-planning resources:, and

(Travel writer Tom Adkinson’s new book, 100 Things To Do in Nashville Before You Die, is available at

Published June 21, 2019

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