6 best outdoor activities in the National Recreation Area between the lakes

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Land Between the Lakes is a unique part of western Kentucky and Tennessee that covers 170,000 acres of pristine landscapes, wildlife, and places to get lost in nature. The land is 40 miles long and 1-9 miles wide. There are 500 miles of trails and 300 miles of shoreline to explore. Land Between the Lakes is an area that not everyone is familiar with, so it is not as crowded as the National Parks, but has many of the same offerings. It receives 1.5 million visitors per year.

Expect to find forests, wetlands, and open areas on this peninsula between Lakes Barkley and Kentucky.

Melody Pittman

Things to do in the land between the lakes

Land Between the Lakes is a road trip destination. It can be enjoyed by anyone who appreciates the great outdoors and quaint little towns that flow from its long expanse of land. The ride itself is enjoyable, or you can enjoy the endless outdoor possibilities of this natural wonderland.

Upon entering the LBL region (as it is commonly known), there are two docking stations, one in the north and one in the south. Fishing, boating, and water sports are prevalent due to its location between two large lakes. The property is also used for licensed deer, turkey and squirrel hunting.

Gold Pond Planetarium at Land Between the Lakes
Nolichuckyjake / Shutterstock.com

Planetarium and Observatory of the Golden Pond

I’m not sure most would expect to find a NASA-associated property in this remote location, but LBL’s Golden Pond Planetarium is a resource center for NASA educators. How cool is that? Open on Memorial Weekend until the end of the year, you can watch a 40-minute planetarium show in the 360-degree, 40-foot domed theater and learn about the solar system. Laser light shows are also a popular draw.

Homeplace 1850 working farm at Land Between the Lakes
Melody Pittman

Homeplace 1850 Working Farm

In Land Between the Lakes, this interpretive center and 170 year old working farm was my favorite thing. Today, he sees two generations of farms from before the Civil War.

The houses and outbuildings of the pioneers are in very good condition and well stocked with period objects. Costumed performers explain what life was like in the Victorian era, and show you examples of tobacco drying, sewing, gardening, and sheep shearing. Other buildings scattered throughout the property include the smithy, henhouse, tobacco dryer, stake and tool barn. Home gardens, orchards and field crops are not only photo worthy, but grown from heirloom seeds.

The Homeplace has excellent animal displays including a heritage mule and pigsty, chicken coop and a British Border Leicester breed of sheep. The chickens roam free, as well as a few ducks. Sadly, the last oxen passed away a few months ago, so don’t expect to see one just yet.

The Homeplace offers dozens of events to enrich your visit and your working experience on the farm. You can find them on this calendar.

Bison on land between lakes
Melody Pittman

Elk and Bison Prairie

A $ 5 entrance fee gives you access to this scenic driving area that’s home to elk and dozens of bison. We made the trip around 3pm, obviously a bit late in the day for lots of action, but saw several bison and calves herding together for what looked like a nap in two areas at the start and end of the park. There weren’t any moose on display, but rest assured, they were there among the beautiful prairie grasses. The Elk And Bison Prairie is open from dawn to dusk. There is also a free southern bison course on the main road as you pass through LBL.

Pro tip: Woodlands Nature Station is another scenic area to see with an 8,500 acre nature viewing area.

Wild Turkeys at Land Between the Lakes
Melody Pittman

Tourist routes

You can’t get much more scenic than driving through the Land Between the Lakes area. Wild flowers, animals and migrating birds are some of the things that will catch your eye as you walk these beautiful country roads. There are 240 species of birds per year.

You’ll find several pullover locations to enjoy a nice picnic, so grab the essentials on the way in or take one home.

Historic Iron Oven at Land Between the Lakes
Melody Pittman

Historic iron oven

The Great Western Furnace in limestone slab is a historic offering at the southern end of LBL. From 1820 to 1927, this region was an active industrial iron producer, one of the country’s 18. This particular furnace only operated for six months but produced 1,350 tonnes of quality iron. The process, as depicted on the panels, is fascinating.

Dover Civil War Site
Melody Pittman

Day trips

Dover, Tennessee, and Grand Rivers, Kentucky are two I recommend 2 day tours in the Land Between the Lakes area.

Grand Rivers is a perfect town with hundreds of sailboats and the Patti Settlement in the 1880s praised it. Patti’s is an old-fashioned megaplex, which started long before Broadway at the Beach in Myrtle Beach and The Island by Pigeon Forge. Patti’s has a restaurant known for its one- and two-inch pork chops, as well as a menu of desserts that will make your mouth water. Then there is the property with shops, mini golf, a koi pond, gold panning, landscaped gardens and a charming lodge. You can stay busy for hours roaming the colony and enjoying a delicious meal. Patti’s has 11 unique dining rooms, each meticulously decorated.

Dover in the south is home to historic Fort Donelson, the Union’s first significant victory in the Civil War. General Simon Buckner officially visited his longtime colleague General Ulysses Grant at the Dover Hotel. At the time, 130,000 Confederate soldiers gathered in this very place, in freezing conditions (February 1862), waiting for rations and to return home. You can get to the Civil War sites by following the Fort Donelson National Battlefield tour markers and reading the informative plaques.

Land Between The Lakes Cabins And Camping

There are many camping choices at LBL, including cabins, RV parks, and tent camping. The camping season runs from March 1 to November 30 at all of the following campgrounds, unless otherwise specified:

Energy Lake Campground

This Kentucky campsite offers 48 lake sites. Campers can purchase drinks, snacks, firewood and ice from the neighboring gatehouse, while a separate washer and dryer area is present. Other facilities include a playground and a beach with a swimming area exclusively for campers. There are four primitive cabins at Energy Lake Campground, and the rest are RV or tent ready.

Piney Campsite

Piney Campground in Dover, Tennessee offers 384 lakeside and wooded campsites. The majority of sites have full logins, but 57 are primitive. There are several shower buildings and washer / dryer options. Piney Outpost offers perishables and camping supplies, as well as ice, drinks and firewood. Prices at Piney Campground vary from $ 22 (community water) to $ 40 per night (water and sewage).

Piney also offers nine cabins that can accommodate four people and 10 that can accommodate eight people. You will need to provide your own linens, but AC and portable heaters are included.

Fun fact: This campground is connected to the Fort Henry trail system, where Civil War soldiers previously protected neighboring forts.

Hillman Ferry Campground

Another great campground is Hillman Ferry in Grand Rivers, Ky. This one is similar to Piney; only it has 378 campsites.

Two trails cross Hillman Ferry – the Hillman Heritage Trail and the Mountain Biking Trails. Hillman Heritage is intended for bicycles and pedestrians to use during the day. Unregistered guests can also use this trail, but must check in at the Hillman gatehouse.

Pro tip: You can rent bikes at the outpost during opening hours.

Wranglers Campground at Land Between the Lakes
Wranglers Campground (Photo credit: MachoCoffee / Shutterstock.com)

Wranglers Campground

This beautiful campsite is located in Golden Pond, Kentucky, and offers year-round horseback riding, cart driving (new to me) and 220 campsites. The property also has 12 cabins. For those traveling with their horses, you’ll be happy to know that during the weekends, April through November, farrier and blacksmith services are available, as well as 100 terrific miles to ride your horse. Wranglers Campground is the only place to stay for those traveling with a horse.

Rocking U Riding Stables offers guided horseback riding tours for those who want to but don’t have a horse. Pony rides are available for those traveling with young grandchildren.

Cane Creek Marina and RV at Land Between the Lakes
Cane Creek Marina and RV (Photo credit: Melody Pittman)

Other campsite

Scattered camping is a big draw at Land Between the Lakes. I met several people who opted for this method of camping while I was there. If you are unfamiliar, the term applies to camping anywhere in the National Forest but outside of a designated campground. Camping is not permitted where others are already camping or within 100 feet of any water source. The north and south docking stations can help you find places to camp this way, if that interests you.

My husband and I camped a few miles from Land Between the Lakes in Stewart, TN, Cane Creek Marina and RV Campground. We liked it. Besides having a quiet campground with spacious grounds and a view of Lake Kentucky, we had pretty much everything to ourselves on weekdays, and the price was right for full RV hookups.

For other outdoor opportunities in Kentucky and Tennessee, check out:


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