Winding roads and mist-shrouded woods and ponds. Miles of unspoiled shoreline. Unlimited camping. Year-round fishing on two giant lakes and a dozen little ones. This is Land Between the Lakes, 170,000 untamed acres in the Tennessee River Valley and a wilderness getaway for all seasons.
Land Between the Lakes (or simply LBL, as it is locally known) is an off-the-interstate (Western Kentucky Parkway) surprise -- an unexpected adventure on a major east-west route through the mid-South. LBL is one of the country's least crowded and best preserved natural areas. You can hike through its forest and along its waters for hours and encounter few signs of human intrusion.
Paradoxically, though, LBL exists because of massive -- albeit carefully planned -- intervention. It was a creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority. Started by the Roosevelt administration in the early 1930s, the TVA has built hydroelectric dams and artificial lakes across the South. One of its most ambitious projects resulted in LBL. The Reagan administration is expected to propose a 50 percent budget cut for TVA, including a zero LBL budget, for the coming fiscal year; and there is little indication that another federal agency or Kentucky and Tennessee would take over operations. So LBL's status as a federal recreation area may be in danger. For the present, however, Land Between the Lakes is open and free.
Western Kentucky is an almost wholly rural land and very likely looks much the same as it has for the past two centuries: Small farms dot the landscape and tobacco patches bloom bright pink in the summer. Retired farmers in their obligatory coveralls and plaid shirts gather at the county courthouses to play checkers. Art Deco movie theaters face town squares and people sit on their front porches after dinner. The Land Between the Lakes seems a part of this timelessness, even though it is new and man-made -- and subject to the whims of economic development.
A quiet, forested strip covering 265 square miles, LBL is bordered by Kentucky Lake to the west and Lake Barkley to the east. It is remote -- accessible by road at only five points over its 40-mile length -- and that is a strong point, for it is too far for the day-tripping hordes: more than 800 miles from Washington, 175 miles southeast of St. Louis and 200 miles beyond Lexington, Ky. LBL averages under 6,000 visitors a day, or fewer than two people per 50 of its scenic acres.
A pair of hiking shoes is the ticket to a lot of enjoyment here. Two hundred miles of picturesque trails make their way through the area; add a backpack and you can camp for days at a site of your choice -- on one of the lakes, near a pond, in a clearing or right in the middle of the woods. Except for the eight family and group campgrounds, there is no charge for camping, and there are 25 designated "informal use" camping areas -- many of which have shorelines, boat ramps and even chemical toilets.
If you bring a pole and string, a superlative dimension of LBL unfolds -- its excellent fishing, on Barkley and Kentucky lakes as well as bountiful inland ponds. No matter what time of year, something (besides mosquitoes) will be biting.
For the recreation-minded traveler, Land Between the Lakes is really the land of three B's: backpacking, bicycling and boating. Its 400-mile network of maintained roads (100 miles are paved) means lots of pretty and safe biking terrain. These roads also give you the option to be lazy and drive through wilderness vistas (the Trace is the main north-south road connecting attractions) or to camp within a short walking distance of your vehicle.
Backpacking in LBL offers a lot of pluses and few minuses. The trails are easy and they provide enough variation in terrain and vistas to keep long-hike tedium to a minimum. You are never far from the water if you need to cool off; campsites are seemingly infinite in number. And, with 3,500 miles of shoreline to choose from, finding a strip of private beach to settle on for the night (no need to worry about tides here) is usually not difficult. Serious backpacking should be avoided in summer months, however, as LBL can get very hot and muggy, with temperature and humidity both in the nineties.
Boating, a major drawing card of LBL, is responsible for the largest human concentration within its borders. There are numerous boat launching areas, and rentals are available in adjoining commercial areas such as Grand Rivers at the north entrance. There are few restrictions for boaters, though sailing -- growing in popularity on both lakes -- and motorboat use occasionally get into competition.
The lakes themselves are large; their surface area within LBL is considerably more than LBL's land area. Kentucky Lake is slightly wider than Lake Barkley (up to two miles as opposed to about a mile). One curious feature of the lakes is a scattering of tiny islands that once were the tops of hills protruding from the now-flooded Cumberland and Tennessee River valleys.
LBL's colorful history has created some of its most popular attractions, including Center Furnace, Golden Pond and The Homeplace. Before President Kennedy signed an executive order in June 1963 making it a federal recreation area, LBL was an iron-producing area with many small farms and (from the Prohibition era until just after World War II) productive moonshine stills.
In the early 19th century, charcoal and iron ore from the area, which was then known as "Between the Rivers," was used to make structural iron. The area soon became a thriving industrial center. The once-impressive Center Furnace in the northern half of LBL was last fired to make iron in 1912. This brick structure is now in ruins.
During Prohibition the LBL region took on a new kind of industry -- bootleg whiskey. Golden Pond, now the site of the main LBL visitor pavilion, was the center of this activity; a scattering of crumbled foundations are all that remain of the old hamlet of Golden Pond.
But the area's farming tradition lives on at The Homeplace. LBL serves as a national environmental education, research and demonstration center, and The Homeplace is a featured part of this effort. The Homeplace includes 16 restored period buildings and is staffed by a farm "family" living and working as they might have in the 1850s. LBL guests are invited not only to visit here but to step back into history -- at least for a few minutes -- and become part of the 19th-century rural South by helping with farm chores and getting a taste of that era's Kentucky farm life.
In addition to the working farm environment of The Homeplace, visitors can get a glimpse of simple contemporary activities at Empire Farm, in the northern part of LBL and on the shore of Lake Barkley. Empire Farm has been set up to demonstrate modern methods of resource conservation -- such as composting, sorghum making and solar energy use. Silo Overlook at Empire Farm, built on an old silo, provides a sweeping view of the lake and surrounding terrain.
Besides conservation, preservation is another environmental objective at LBL. Efforts are under way to nurture species once indigenous to this part of the country. The American bison has been successfully reintroduced into the area and you can now pass a herd peacefully grazing in a pasture near the southern end. Wildlife as diverse as bobcats and eagles also are found in LBL, and rangers have set up special monitoring and preservation programs for these and other dwindling species.
TVA has set aside portions of Land Between the Lakes for special interest groups ranging from handicapped persons to off-road vehicle users. Duncan Lake, near the Wildlife Restoration Center, is reserved for mobility-impaired users. Four of the campgrounds are accessible to handicapped individuals or groups. Long Creek Trail is a two-mile paved path in the Environmental Education Area specially designed for use by the handicapped.
Adjoining the Golden Pond Visitor Center is the 2,350-acre Turkey Bay Off-Road Vehicle Area with nearly two miles of Kentucky Lake shore front.
The visitors centers in LBL are particularly friendly places, where you can find out about current exhibits or special activities. Talk to Fern at the North Information Center and she will try to sell you on the popular North-South Trail. This 60-mile path winds through woods, on top of ridges and along shorelines as it runs the length of LBL and goes back and forth between Kentucky and Tennessee, bordering waters that cover the past.
Old Eddyville, seat of Lyon County, lies under Lake Barkley. The new Eddyville is a textbook "instant" city -- town square, courthouse and shops -- which was built in the early 1960s to replace the original eclectic town. Civil War battlefields also lie underwater, adjacent to the Kentucky State Prison, an imposing castle-style structure that may be one of the most scenically located reformatories in the nation, on a hill overlooking the sweep of the lake.
Eddyville and Lyon County, home base for LBL, have a tradition of remoteness, like LBL itself. This may well change, however. The opening last summer of the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway, a $2-billion, 234-mile-long canal, links the area to the Gulf of Mexico and makes it a port. The county is hoping to take advantage of this new status to attract business and industry. While this may not bode well for those seeking isolation and remoteness, ultimately it may attract more visitors and more attention, thus making the loss of LBL's federal wilderness status less likely.
Today LBL is considered underutilized by the Reagan administration; in comparison with other recreation areas of its size, it has few visitors. Recognizing that underutilization may mean reduced federal funds for maintaining LBL, its managers are currently developing an aggressive marketing campaign.
As federal expenditures for wilderness programs have dropped, areas like LBL have felt the pinch. Hopefully this area will survive the crunch and continue to offer free access to visitors. In the meantime, this is a good time to take advantage of serene public treasures such as Land Between the Lakes and western Kentucky's calm beauty.