Kentucky's outdoor recreation gem, Land Between the Lakes has something for everybody.
Rolling hills, blue skies and grass. Green grass. My eyes feast on it after crossing the Tennessee border into Kentucky. We make our way west across the Lawrence Memorial Bridge to our temporary home for the next few days, the sedate Kenlake Hotel at Kenlake State Resort Park in Hardin, Ky.
I was raised in Indiana, but my parents were from Kentucky, and this is my first visit back as an adult. Having spent the past 40 years in Arizona, I haven't set foot in Kentucky since my grandfather died when I was around 10 years old. What brings me to western Kentucky now is an autumn visit to Land Between the Lakes.
A great getaway, naturally
Operated by the USDA Forest Service as a national recreation area, visitors here will find 1,500 campsites and backcountry camping within 170,000 acres of hardwood forest. Guests get their bearings at the Golden Pond Visitor Center, the information hub for what to see and do. Sites to explore include the Woodlands Nature Center, Elk & Bison Prairie, Golden Pond Planetarium and Observatory, and the Homeplace 1850s Working Farm.
On the map, Land Between the Lakes looks like an extra long and narrow outline of a tank top. Lake Barkley on the east side and Kentucky Lake on the west draw the outline, while land fills up the center. Ponds, creeks, and tributaries make up the rest of this area.
The 40-mile Woodland Trace National Scenic Byway, a two-lane road, runs north and south and is the main road through the recreation area. At the waist of the "tank top," 11 miles of highway cut the peninsula into four quadrants, and takes visitors from one lake to the other. New bridges over both lakes are under construction, and by 2018 will offer space for pedestrians, cyclists, and motorists.
My husband and I had to fly cross-country to get here, but most of Land Between the Lake's annual 1.5 million visitors travel a shorter 100- to 200-mile radius.
The green grass, trees with leaves turning colors, and lake views prove easy on the eyes. Add an abundance of fall wildlife to the picture — including eagles, elk, bison, ducks, and pelicans — and you're experiencing nature at its best.
Except for three of the campgrounds, the Homeplace, and Woodlands Nature Station, Land Between the Lakes is open year-round. Visitors come to hunt, fish, camp, hike, bike, boat, plus take part in scheduled activities. Developed recreation extends from March to November, but fall is a good time to visit if you prefer a little solitude on the water.
As you'd expect, boating and fishing are big in this area. With the Mississippi, Ohio, and Illinois rivers nearby, "loopers" – recreational boaters who circle the waterways – are drawn to western Kentucky's shoreline. But most visitors will bring in their boats or rent watercraft from local marinas for vacation fun.
There's plenty to explore on land, too. At the Elk & Bison Prairie near Golden Pond, Ky., visitors drive through a fenced-in area to watch the animals roam about.
There's no driving in the South Bison Range across from the Homeplace, however, and you have to time it just right to catch them roaming about. We did, and I spent 20 minutes listening to the large brown animals chomp on grass, their tails wagging behind them.
Speaking of chomping, you'll want to chow down at Patti's 1880s Settlement in Grand Rivers, Ky., at the northern entrance to Land Between the Lakes. Order Patti's famous two-inch-thick pork chop, and flowerpot bread. If you need to share dinner to have a slice of lemon meringue pie, go ahead. Walk off extra calories by exploring the settlement's gardens and shops.
Pork rules at the 40th Annual Trigg County Country Ham Festival in nearby Cadiz, Ky. The ham fest will be Oct. 14–16 this year and includes a carnival.
The Homeplace surprised me the most. It's a very hands-on working farm and living history museum that shows visitors what life would have been like in the 1850s. The walking tour follows a path around the farm to see restored historical structures, including a tobacco barn with its dried stalks hanging from the rafters, a corn crib, and wood shed.
Visitors can watch farmers chop wood and help pick vegetables in the garden. Children can carry buckets of water using a yolk on their necks. Staff members explain that children might have had to do this to and from the well up to eight times a day. Volunteers or staff at each building answer questions, demonstrate a farm chore, and encourage visitors to try it themselves.
Although I had been away from Kentucky for many years, my brief return to my parents' home state brought the song, "Green, Green Grass of Home" to mind. I guess sometimes you really can go home again.
Jackie Dishner is a contributor from Phoenix, Ariz.
September/October 2016 Issue
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