“Water, water everywhere” is an apt description of western Kentucky. The mighty Mississippi, Old Man River himself, determines her western and northern boundaries. And smack in the middle lies one of the world’s largest man-made bodies of water—Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley—and the nation’s largest inland peninsula, 170,000-plus-acre Land Between The Lakes National Recreation Area.
Add 218,000 acres of water and more than 3,000 miles of shoreline for a complete paradise for boaters, anglers, hunters, mountain bikers, campers, off-highway vehicle (OHV) riders, horseback riders, star gazers, eagle watchers, history buffs, environmental students, and folks just looking to spend time outside in the glories of nature.
And if you don’t have equipment, you can rent just about anything in the area, from camping tents to johnboats.
Western Kentucky brings a rousing amen to the cliché “something for everyone.”
At 184 miles long, Kentucky Lake, part of the intercontinental waterway system connecting the Gulf of Mexico to the Great Lakes, was formed in the 1940s by Kentucky Dam, at a mile and a half the longest on the Tennessee River. Named for U.S. Vice President and Graves County native Alben Barkley, its sister lake, Barkley, was formed 20 years later when Barkley Dam impounded the Cumberland River. Above the dam, a 1.75-mile canal connects the two lakes at Grand Rivers, creating one of the greatest freshwater playgrounds in the country.
Both dams have visitors’ centers for learning and for dreaming big.
“You can get on a boat here and go anywhere in the world,” says Scot Ratzlaff, resort park manager of Kentucky Dam Village State Resort Park (SRP).
Created by President Kennedy in 1963, Land Between The Lakes (LBL) is a favorite of Kentucky Living’s readers, who voted it Best in Kentucky Vacation Getaway this year. LBL shared the honor with its two surrounding lakes in 2010.
This 40-mile-long outdoor classroom features up-close encounters with rescued wildlife, such as red wolves and great horned owls, at its Woodlands Nature Station; a step back in time to the mid-19th-century living-history farm The Homeplace; star shows at Golden Pond Planetarium; a Civil War historic site known as Fort Henry; the remains of two historic iron furnaces; and more than 700 acres where elk and buffalo still roam.
“Our Elk and Bison Prairie offers visitors a taste of life in the area when these species actually lived here,” says Nicole Hawk, LBL’s public affairs specialist. “We’re open dawn to dusk 365 days a year. From the 3.5-mile loop road, you’ll most likely see the herds early morning and late afternoon.”
Managed by the USDA Forest Service, LBL is rife with campsites, campgrounds, boat ramps, and 100 miles of trails for hikers, bikers, and OHV jockeys. Drive US 453’s Woodlands Trace National Scenic Byway straight through LBL—40 miles—to see it all.
Horseback riders can haul their steeds to Wranglers Campground, which has stalls, cabins, campsites, an outpost camping supply store, and 100 miles of horse and wagon trails. St. Charles, Kentucky, residents Sherry and Dudley DeMoss grew so attached to Wranglers that last summer they brought their horses and became volunteer registrars.
“Ninety percent of our campers are returns,” says Sherry. “It’s safe. Like family. You can turn your kids loose to play and everyone looks after them.”
With access to the treasures of LBL, the area’s three state resort parks give families more recreation choices, with ranger-led programs, bird-watching, campgrounds, boat rentals, dining rooms with Kentucky Proud vittles, and a slate of annual events.
During the 1980s, LBL began an eagle hacking program, placing 44 eaglets in hacking towers, counting on the fact that eagles tend to return to the area where they first learned to fly. In 2011, the area boasted 25 nesting pairs and 98 breeding pairs, and numbers are expected to increase this year. In the wintertime, the Kentucky Department of Parks holds three western Kentucky eagle weekends, one at each park, with van and boat tours.
“The earliest tours, in 1970 when eagles were still endangered, were lucky to see one eagle,” says Mary Schmidt, naturalist at Lake Barkley State Resort Park and an eagle tour guide. “This January, we saw 25 eagles in three and a half hours.”
Opened in 1952, Kenlake State Resort Park in Aurora is the grand dame of the park trio, with a Southern-style lodge, nine-hole golf course, indoor tennis center, and flowers galore.
“Our calling card is our gardens,” says John Rittenhouse, general manager. “We have some of the most beautiful landscaping in the parks system.”
Kentucky Living readers chose Lake Barkley SRP as Kentucky’s best Hotel/Inn/Bed and Breakfast in 2011, and with good reason. The largest wooden structure east of the Mississippi, Barkley Lodge affords luscious water views from most of its 120 rooms and through three-and-a-half acres of glass windows in its dining room. Amenities include an 18-hole golf course, indoor and outdoor pools, and a trap shooting range.
Near Cadiz, the 3,900-acre SRP has nine miles of trails to hike, and nature at its fingertips. “At any given time, you can drive through the park and see 30 to 40 deer,” says John Jordan, park manager.
At Kentucky Dam Village SRP in Gilbertsville, overnight options include a 72-room lodge, 62 rentable cottages, and the 14-room Village Green Inn, rentable as a unit, which fronts the par-72, 18-hole course on the Kentucky State Parks Golf Trail.
“Visitors can economize by renting a cottage and cooking in,” says Ratzlaff.
Pilots can land on this park’s 4,000-foot paved runway and hop a courtesy shuttle to the Harbor Lights Restaurant, lodge, and marina.
Also on Lake Barkley, Green Turtle Bay Resort in Grand Rivers defines upscale, with waterfront rental condos, a conference center, and a new day spa that specializes in girlfriend getaways.
“Our slogan is ‘Water—Way of Life,’” says the family-owned resort’s president, Vida Gary. “The boating life is so valuable for kids growing up. Ours is a generational place, with family members from kids to grandparents.”
Those arriving by water can rent golf carts and drive in Grand Rivers, where they’re street-legal, and where boat slips (600+) outnumber the population (350). In January 2009, Southern Living readers voted the Grand Rivers jetty (landing or dock area) in its “Top Ten Best Scenic Views,” and Grand Rivers a “Top Ten Best Small Town.”
Get your heart in shape for the romantic view by hiking a 2-mile trail from the jetty.
Two blocks from town, Lighthouse Landing Resort & Marina has lake-view cottages, rentable 26-foot sailboats, a prestigous sailing school, and an RV park, all on Kentucky Lake. Surrounded by water on three sides, Kentucky Lakes KOA Prizer Point Marina and Resort on Lake Barkley has a marine service center, condos, cabins, campgrounds, boat rentals, and plenty to keep a family busy, with hiking and biking trails, mini-golf, a “jumping pillow” trampoline, movie nights, and a human-sized chessboard.
For the past few years, Louisville-based Ed and Karen Stotts and their three kids have spent a week at Prizer Point’s campground.
“When I was a boy, my family used to visit Kentucky Dam Village,” Ed says. “We love fishing in the lake, seeing the wildlife, and being on the water. We never run out of things to do.”
Building memories in western Kentucky’s treasured waterlands—for a weekend or a lifetime—is the magic that keeps families coming back year after year.
EXPLORE TO FIND OUT MORE
Contact the following for western Kentucky info:
Cadiz-Trigg County Tourist & Convention Commission
Grand Rivers Tourism Commission
Hopkinsville-Christian County Convention & Visitors Bureau
Kentucky State Parks: Kenlake State Resort Park
Kentucky Dam Village State Resort Park
Lake Barkley State Resort Park
Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources
Kentucky’s Western Waterlands
Downloadable 48-page Kentucky’s Western Waterlands Visitor’s Guide
Lake Barkley Tourist Commission (Eddyville, Kuttawa)
Land Between The Lakes National Recreation Area
100 Van Morgan Drive,
Golden Pond, KY 42211
Marshall County Tourism Commission
Paducah Convention & Visitors Bureau
(800) PADUCAH (723-8224)
Princeton Tourism Commission
GET OUT OF THE BOAT
Hop in your car and discover how much there is to do off the water in western Kentucky.
Ogle the arts in Paducah’s LowerTown Arts District, where historic homes host galleries and artisans at work; and marvel over exquisite stitchery at the National Quilt Museum. Hum your way down Memory Lane at Variety! Music, Memories and More, a Branson-style show at the Badgett Playhouse in Grand Rivers. Tap your foot to country and gospel music at the Kentucky Opry in Draffenville, and catch a movie at the Calvert Drive-In (www.calvertdrivein.com), open since 1953 in Calvert City.
In Gilbertsville, putt-putt around a mini-golf course and gawk at exotic animals at Maggie’s Jungle Golf. And at Kentucky Shores Family Fun Center ride bumper boats, go-karts, and a new zipline canopy tour.
Learn history in Hopkinsville at Trail of Tears Commemorative Park that pays homage to Cherokees forced to walk 1,000 miles in the 1800s. Explore ancient Mississippian Indian culture at Wickliffe Mounds State Historic Site near Wickliffe. Increase your Civil War knowledge at Jefferson Davis State Historic Site, where you can see forever from atop a 351-foot obelisk, and at Columbus-Belmont State Park on the Mississippi. In the river town of Paducah, steer a riverboat in a pilot house simulator at the River Discovery Center, and see the city’s visual history on its Wall to Wall floodwall murals. Cross those waters to Missouri on the Dorena-Hickman Ferry, and catch the historic, free Cave-In Rock Ferry in Marion across the Ohio River to Illinois. Find info on all state sites and parks at www.parks.ky.gov.
Adults can sip and grin while tasting fruit of the vine at Princeton’s Eddy Grove Vineyard, and at Purple Toad Winery in Paducah. Taste “moonshine” at MB Roland Distillery, a craft bourbon distillery near Hopkinsville.
If shopping’s your bag, the lakes area has tons of eclectic possibilities. Exquisite Kentucky crafts fill state resort park gift shops. Marion’s Amish community sells handmade wares and baked goods at shops and roadside stands. One of 10 shops at Patti’s 1880’s Settlement is bound to tickle your taste. And for antiques, take a tip from Kentucky Living readers, who voted Cadiz as their number one antiquing choice in 2011. Five major shops line quaint Main Street, some with as many as 200 vendors.
FILL YOUR BELLY
Tuck in your napkin in these parts for some of the best home cookin’ your taste buds are likely to encounter. Chow down on open-pit hickory barbecue in Mayfield at Carr’s Barn, (270) 247-8959, or at d.Starnes in downtown Paducah near the river, (270) 442-2122. Broadbent’s Gourmet Market & Deli has been producing Kentucky State Fair grand champion hams since 1966. Grab a sandwich and take a plant tour at their Kuttawa location. Savor catfish at Cadiz Family Restaurant, ranked third in Best in Kentucky for 2011 Breakfast Restaurant and 2012 Nonfranchise Restaurant. In Grand Rivers, you can pack a healthy picnic lunch at the Lite Side Bakery & Garden Café, (270) 362-4586, or linger over 2-inch pork chops and mile-high pie at Patti’s 1880’s Settlement, which Kentucky Living readers chose as 2012’s Best Nonfranchise Restaurant, (270) 362-8844.
SLEEP ON IT
Lodging choices in western Kentucky range from resorts, motels, and lodges, to bed and breakfasts, rustic cabins, and campgrounds for RVs, tents, and sleeping bags under the stars. Since its beginnings in 1948 as a fisherman’s campground, 52-acre Big Bear Resort in Benton has been hosting families on Kentucky Lake in diverse accommodations accessible by car or boat, (800) 922-BEAR (2327).
More intimate overnights await amid Victorian antiques in Eddyville at Maple Hill Bed & Breakfast, an 1850s historic home overlooking Lake Barkley, (270) 388-4963. Rest your tootsies in impeccably restored condo-style lofts at Fox Briar Inn at RiverPlace on historic Broadway in downtown Paducah, (270) 443-7004. Or get back to nature in your RV or tent on one of 378 sites in the U.S. Forest Service’s Hillman Ferry Campground near the North LBL Welcome Center on Kentucky Lake near Grand Rivers, with recreation programs, swimming area, and boat ramps.
Business as usual despite bridge collapse
On January 26, a cargo vessel crashed into the US 68-KY Eggners Ferry Bridge across Kentucky Lake in Marshall County, destroying a 322-foot section of the span. The bridge will remain closed to traffic indefinitely. Despite the collapse, Land Between The Lakes, the state parks, and all area businesses will remain open. Contact Lake Barkley or Kenlake State Resort Parks for route information. www.parks.ky.gov, (800) 255-PARK
LIGHTHOUSE LANDING RESORT & MARINA
(800) 491-7245 • (270) 362-8201
Our thanks to photographer Marty Colburn for the use of his stunning images on this month’s cover and in this feature story. Colburn specializes in wildlife, nature, and sailing photography and has a gallery at Lighthouse Landing Resort & Marina. You can purchase prints from photos shown, or check out hundreds of others at his online gallery.
Lighthouse Landing Resort & Marina also offers 22 cottages, 60 campsites and RV park, a meeting room, 190 boat slips, a store, and all things sailboating—from sales and service to rentals and lessons.
Lighthouse Landing is recognized as one of the top sailing schools in the nation and honored as an American Sailing Association “School of the Year” for multiple years. They offer a four-day sailing school as well as hourly lessons, quite a unique feat for landlocked Kentucky.
KEYWORD EXCLUSIVE: >MORE IN WESTERN KENTUCKY
For more on fishing and hunting in western Kentucky, and a list of annual events, go to western wonderland.