Monday, July 27, 2015

Backpacking Land Between the Lakes in KY and TN

The area historically had been called the Land Between the Rivers referring to the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers which bordered it for 40 miles, creating a spit of land which was home to a proud, rugged, fiercely independent people who preferred autonomy to government control, especially when it came to the alcohol taxes. Moonshine abounded in this locale, and according to legend, numerous government agents ("revenuers") who tried to locate and destroy the stills and arrest the owners were never heard from again.

The government further alienated the inhabitants when the Tennessee Valley Authority took over the entire area and the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers built two dams, creating Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley (named for Alben William Barkley, Harry Truman's vice president.) A canal was dug at the north end to connect the two lakes (seen by the North Welcome Center in the map below) making Land Between the Lakes (LBL) a peninsula. It is the largest inland peninsula in the United States.

Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area (administered by the U. S. Forest Service), located in western Kentucky and Tennessee starting 20 miles south of Paducah, Kentucky, is a mecca for the avid outdoors person, providing over 170,000 acres of land (270 square miles), 300 miles of undeveloped shoreline, 3500 total miles of shoreline (more than Lake Superior!) and two 40 mile long lakes with nearly a quarter million acres of water surface. It is one of 300 United Nations' Biosphere Reserves dedicated to natural resource conservation.

The high land which remained after the lakes filled in became the LBL property, 40 miles long by 8 miles wide, offering 1535 campsites at six campgrounds. Primitive at-large camping is allowed everywhere else on the peninsula. There are over 200 miles of hiking trails, a home for the largest bison herd east of the Mississippi River, a Nature Station, an Environmental Education Area, 3 visitor centers, a planetarium, The Homeplace (a working 19th century farm), 2 furnaces which are relics of the once flourishing iron industry, a campground with trails especially for equestrians, another campground and set of trails just for off-road motorized vehicles, hunting, fishing (the LBL calls itself the "Croppie Fishing Capital of the World" but also has small and largemouth bass), boating, windsurfing, sailing, water skiing, swimming, both paved trail biking and mountain biking, and more!

This photo shows the canal dug to connect Lake Barkley and Kentucky Lake, which is the large body
of water at the top of the picture.

The major trail of interest to backpackers is the 65 mile long North/South Trail which wends its way from shoreline to inland area and back on the northern end, then follows the ridge line at the southern end of the peninsula. Along the way, you notice signs of past civilization as you pass numerous cemeteries, occasional foundations for structures, stretches of old barbed wire fences, one partially disassembled and rusting Ford pickup truck, and old components of moonshine stills.

When I backpacked here in 1996, creeks abounded and crossings varied from easy to "good luck." This may have changed since then. A number of the deeper/wider creeks had bridges constructed over them, though nearly all had broken or missing boards. Several bridges consisted simply of 6" by 6" timbers to step on and a cable stretched across the gap as a handhold (one of these was over 20 feet across and the timber to walk on was canted at an angle!) Other creeks simply had to be forded, and if your trip follows a recent rain, the water could be over boot depth.

This was one of the multitude of streams which had to be crossed. Actually, this one had to be forded since no bridge was available. It was near here where I encountered one of the wild turkeys which populate the island. Unfortunately, it was shy and did not stay long enough to be photographed.

 Though the elevation gain on the peninsula is only 200 feet, the trail is constantly going up and down and is rated as moderate to strenuous. Hiking/backpacking is NOT the major activity here, so the trail is not heavily traveled. A $10 permit per person in 1996 (good for a year) allowed you to camp anywhere you wish. A state license is required if you wish to fish. Water sources are plentiful on the northern half of the trail but less ubiquitous on the southern portion where you might want to cache water in advance as I did.

My backpack trip was during the last week of March in 1996. The average temperature was supposed to be in the 60s, but the highest was the upper 40s and my water bottles froze overnight as the temperature dipped below 20.  Again, camping is at-large, though you could plan your hike to hit various campgrounds if you wished. I bear-bagged just to keep attractants off the ground.

The starkness of the brown/black scenery was in fact quite beautiful, and also preferable to the snow-covered ground back home in Chicago.

This is one of the bays of Kentucky Lake. The 30 mph wind blowing from the west across the lake towards me made the already chilly temperature approach zero on the wind chill index. It also prevented me from setting up camp on the lakeshore since everything would have blown around as well as been too cold. However, in the warmer months, the wind would no doubt have a wonderful cooling effect making lakeshore camping comfortable as well as scenic.

Stands of conifers were infrequently encountered, but their green needles provided a marvelous contrast to the browns of the oak forest.

Indigenous wildlife which I encountered include deer and wild turkey. Also present within LBL are red wolf, bald eagles, and ticks, both the lone star tick and American dog tick. Information on these ticks is available on a handout from the address below. Bald eagles were introduced in 1980, a captive pair of red wolves since 1991, elk since 1996, and it is home to 1300 plant species, 230 bird species, and 53 mammal species.


Land Between the Lakes (US Forest Service site)

Land Between the Lakes
238 Visitor Center Drive
Golden Pond, KY 42211


Kentucky claims its State Park System is the "Nation's Finest" and I heartily concur. I have stayed at over half of their 14 State Resort Parks and they are wonderful, from scenery to accommodations to amenities. Three State Resort Parks border Land Between the Lakes, and all are excellent choices.

Kentucky Dam Village State Resort Park (at the northern entrance)
PO Box 69
Gilbertsville, KY 42044-0069
(502) 362-4271
1-800-325-0146 for reservations

Lake Barkley State Resort Park (at the eastern entrance)
Box 790
Cadiz, KY 42211-0790
(502) 924-1131
1-800-325-1708 for reservations

Kenlake State Resort Park (at the western entrance)
524 Kenlake Rd.
Hardin, KY 42048
(502) 474-2211
1-800-325-0143 for reservations

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