One of the best things about living in Paducah is the proximity to outdoor recreation. A short 25-minute drive from the heart of the city lands you at the North Welcome Station of Land Between the Lakes. This vast 170,000-acre playground is home to some of the rowdiest or laid back adventure city dwellers crave and covers ground from Grand Rivers, Kentucky all the way down south to Dover Tennessee. The park contains a planetarium for viewing the night sky and educational programs, The Homeplace 1850s Working Farm and Living History Museum, Nature Station, and the Elk and Bison Prairie.
Land Between the Lakes boasts an expansive trail network that expands over 100 miles all throughout the park. Single track, double track, crushed stone, you name it; a variety of surfaces and levels of difficulty are represented.
Warm up on the mellow inclines and smooth surface of the Central Hardwoods Scenic Trail. Walkers, joggers, hikers, and bikers share this 8.5-mile trail that crosses the park from East to West. Enjoy this trail all year round, even when the other trails are too muddy. The builders have done an excellent job designing this trail to shed water, and combining that design with the surface material means that this trail sees quite a bit of traffic in the winter months. Both ends are connected to paved bike paths that are separated from vehicle traffic and connect the towns of Aurora to Canton with an expansion currently being built to increase the trail all the way to Cadiz.
Beginning at the South Welcome Station in Dover, TN heading all the way up to the North Welcome Station, the North/South Trail is the largest trail system in the park. At 59 miles, it’s perfect for a week-long thru-hike, or backpack a portion over a weekend. Mountain biking is also allowed on the Kentucky portion. At 31 miles, I recommend getting a shuttle to the Golden Pond Trailhead and ride North towards the Welcome Station for a ripping good day on the bike. Pack plenty of water and a snack and come prepared for rugged terrain and murderous hills. When the weather is nice, it’s one of the East coast’s greatest mountain bike rides. If you’re not into pedaling, sign up early for the LBL 200. This one time per year event is the only weekend that dual-sport motorcycles are allowed on the trail. It’s a longstanding, very well organized event that attracts motorcyclists from all over to attend.
The Canal Loop Trail is by far the most used trail in the Land Between the Lakes and for good reason. This 11-mile, all single track loop has 4 connectors so you can choose your own adventure. Linking up with the North end of the North/South Trail, this trail has sculpted every mountain biker in Western Kentucky with its mixture of fun, fast, flowy, and undulating terrain. This trail has turned boys into men, and girls into mountain biking champions. It serves as training grounds for world-renowned events such as the Leadville 100, Breck Epic, Austin Rattler, Dirty Kanza, and more.
Events that are annually held at this trail include a trail-running marathon, cross country mountain bike race called White Lightning, and a longer XC race called Race to the Canal that includes a large portion of the N/S Trail. Mountain bikers aren’t the only ones that can have fun on this trail. Its length makes it very well suited for trail runners or a nice day hike with the children and dogs. Make sure to budget time to stop at the scenic overlook and enjoy the view. It’s only a half-mile from where the road to Nickel Branch intersects the trails. It’s definitely the most photographed place in the park.
Aside from the trail systems, there are over 200 miles of roads throughout the park. Most of these roads are gravel, and some are only accessible with high clearance and four-wheel drive. They’re open year-round and perfect for exploration or camping off the beaten path. Many Jeep clubs get together and make trips to Land Between the Lakes for just that. It’s also common to see cyclists riding the gravel roads in the winter months. With the trees protecting them from the wind, the gravel is warmer to ride than the paved roads, and with the added adventure, they’re just more fun too.
Turkey Bay is an OHV (off-highway vehicle) area and campground. Unload your Jeep, rock crawler, dirt bike, 4-wheeler, side by side, or whatever else doesn’t legally belong on the streets. Turkey bay has over 100 miles of off-road trails to play on that range from mild to wild. There’s even a skills area for kids to learn on.
If you prefer riding trails on hooves instead of tires, there’s plenty of room to roam on saddleback. Wrangler’s Campground is capable of filling all 220 campsites on any given weekend in the summer. Plenty of room to park your horse trailer, and full-service hook-ups, and trails on-site make this campground the favorite of any equine lover.
With Kentucky Lake on one side and Barkley Lake on the other, you can bet that the fishing is top-notch. Catching largemouth bass, crappie, and bluegill isn’t the only fun to be had on the water. In the summer, Pisgah Bay hosts an annual drag boat competition. Speeds reached are over 150 miles per hour on the water. It’s’ common to see boats of all nature on the water around LBL. Sailboats, kayaks, yachts, powerboats, pontoons. One of the more recent trends in our area is towards wakeboarding and wakesurfing boats. Fun for the whole family, they get the participants out in the water and getting wet. These sports can be as gentle as surfing with your child on your shoulders, or as extreme as hucking a backflip all the way across the wake.
After a long day of exploring by foot, bike, horse, boat, truck, side by side, Jeep, 4 wheeler, motorcycle, or however else you may choose, you’ll be ready to lay your head down with a full belly so put a log on the fire and pitch the tent. LBL has campgrounds spread throughout the park including some such as Hillman Ferry, Piney, or Energy Lake that feature full hookups for RVs. There are also many self-service campgrounds, and backcountry camping is permitted as a more “roughing it” option. Expect most camping spots to be filled on holiday weekends so plan ahead by making reservations or snag a backcountry permit to break away from the crowds.
With LBL being so close to home, it’s easy to overlook and take for granted. Every year people in the surrounding area drive for hours to vacation at Land Between the Lakes. When you bump into first-time visitors they’re always blown away at how much you can do in the park and the freedom it gives you. There are few green spaces left in America to explore like those in LBL. It’s vast, and you can pretty much go anywhere in the park. A common activity is to track down old homesteads, and relics that are still remaining from before the land was procured by the Tennessee Valley Authority’s use of eminent domain in the 60s. Many old structures, silos, foundations, cemeteries, and fireplaces are still left standing today. LBL is a great place to visit when you need a day trip or weekend away from the city. Whether you intend to throw out a line, hike a trail, shred some singletrack, cook dinner over an open fire, or sleep under the stars, Land Between the Lakes has what you need to reconnect with nature. Go roam.