In 1963, 170,000 acres of woods and open land between Lake Barkley and Lake Kentucky was designated as the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area (LBL) by President John F. Kennedy.
The densely forested, rugged and hilly region became known as “Between the Rivers” in the early to mid-1800s, in reference to the Cumberland and Tennessee waterways. After the first was impounded in the 1960s and a canal was built between Lake Barkley and Lake Kentucky, LBL became the nation’s largest peninsula: 40 miles long and ranging from one to nine miles wide. . Originally managed by the Tennessee Valley Authority, LBL’s operations were turned over to the United States Forest Service of the United States Department of Agriculture (USFS) in the 1960s.
Since then, this lush acreage in the westernmost part of the Pennyrile region of Kentucky and northwest Tennessee has become an annual nirvana for active adventure seekers, hunters and anglers, boaters and nature lovers.
“We offer such a wide range of outdoor experiences and adventures that it’s hard to cram it all into one weekend,” says Carlin Lewis, USFS Public Affairs Specialist at LBL.
Highlights include the Elk and Bison Prairie; the Homeplace Working Farm and Living History Museum from the 1850s; the woodland nature station; the Golden Pond Planetarium; 260 miles of hiking trails; Over 100 miles of equestrian trails (bring your own horse) and a year-round horse camp; 100 miles of off-road vehicle trails in the Turkey Bay OHV (off-road vehicle) area; 70 miles of mountain bike trails; 1,400 campsites; 444 miles of scenic drives; wildlife viewing; stables for horses; canoe and kayak rental; nautical sports; picnic areas; and 300 miles of undeveloped lakeshore.
“We host events throughout the year, as well as daily family-friendly programming,” Lewis said.
Because the property is close to the Mississippi Flyway, birding is spectacular here, and innovative resource management helps attract some 240 species for possible sightings.
LBL’s ability as a demonstration site for managing public lands, its self-guided tours, professional naturalists and overnight facilities provide extraordinary environmental education options for school groups, scout troops and school children in home, as well as for corporate retreats.
Open to groups by reservation, the Brandon Spring Group Center offers catering, overnight dorms and meeting space for up to 128 attendees. Facilities include team building activities, canoe and kayak rentals, an amphitheater, campfire areas and planetarium tours.
Meadow of elk and bison
More than a century ago, this area of Kentucky was home to a multitude of wildlife, including buffalo and elk. Now within LBL’s 700-acre bison and elk prairie compound, these magnificent animals roam free, along with wild turkeys, small game and prairie mammals. Visitors can travel in their car along a 3.5-mile paved loop to watch them in their natural habitat from dawn to dusk, seven days a week.
A second herd of bison resides across from the 1850s Homeplace on a 100-acre pasture in Tennessee, visible from the road.
Changing seasons bring out different animal behaviors, you may want to schedule multiple visits at different times for viewing. Look for baby elk and bison in the spring. In summer, the animals take refuge from the heat under the trees. Visit early morning or late afternoon for most activities. Late summer is the bison’s breeding season and they can get very aggressive, while elk in heat holler in September and October during their mating season.
The austere winter landscapes offer beautiful contrasts for superb photos.
Homeplace 1850s Working Farm and Living History Museum
Want to travel to a simpler time? You might find that life 150 years ago involved a lot of work! The 1850s Homeplace is a recreation of a working farm at that time, with restored buildings and heirloom seeds from the Civil War era. Costumed interpreters attend to the property, plowing with a team of mules, oxen or horses; to work an abundant garden; cook on a wood stove; sew to a quilt bee; the Woodcraft; and the forge. Daily visitor activities may include assisting farm staff, who work seven days a week.
Visitors love to see the heritage livestock: sheep, oxen, horses, mules, chickens and pigs.
Woodland Nature Station
The Nature Station serves as the gateway to the 8,500 acre nature viewing area. Here you can try staring at a great horned owl, howl with a coyote and watch for a shy red wolf. Two red wolves, part of a critically endangered species, are on residence here as part of the LBL captive breeding program. You can also meet the new LBL Animal Ambassador, a beautiful female bald eagle who is part of the LBL Bald Eagle Recovery Program.
In August, the Nature Station celebrates the arrival of hundreds of hummingbirds that stop here on their annual migration to Central America. The Hummingbird Festival in August is a chance to observe banding and release techniques, enjoy informative talks about small birds, bees, butterflies, raptors, and more. ; and admire exquisite birdlife art and photos.
Golden Pond Planetarium and Observatory
The big news for LBL is the installation of its new SkyExplorer digital planetarium software in combination with a high resolution 2k laser projection system that projects stunning and lifelike images onto the theatre’s 40ft planetarium dome. Skilled interpreters supplement the presentations with live interactions with the audience.
Programs include “Tonight’s Sky Live”, about the planets, stars, constellations and weather phenomena expected in the sky next night, and laser shows which are pure and fascinating fun.
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