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Adventures on the water

Exploring Kentucky’s wild and wonderful waterways

Kentucky is a paddler’s paradise. With more navigable waterways than any other state in the lower 48, there are nearly 2,000 miles of creeks, rivers, and lakes for water enthusiasts to explore. So whether you’re a day-tripper hopping in a canoe or kayak for a leisurely paddle or you’re a thrill-seeker craving the rush of tubing and whitewater rafting, the Bluegrass State has a waterway adventure for you. 

Standing up  

“Kentucky has more miles of running water than every other state, except Alaska. We have chosen some of the most unique and beautiful paddles in the state to share with our guests,” says Heather Warman, SUP (Stand-Up Paddleboard) Kentucky co-owner, along with her husband Aaron. Since 2016, the company, served by Licking Valley Electric Cooperative, has offered three paddling tours.  

The Grayson Lake Paddleboarding Adventure is a leisurely 4-mile round-trip excursion to explore steep cliffs, hidden coves, and cascading waterfalls in the tucked-away, natural haven of the Grayson Grotto. “We swim. We jump off rocks. We have lunch,” says Warman. “When you’re in that grotto, you feel like you’re in a different country.” 

In the heart-pounding Cumberland Falls Paddleboarding Adventure, guests soak in the view from below the 68-foot-tall, majestic falls, dubbed the Niagara of the South. For a magical moonlit nighttime adventure, schedule a moonbow paddle to view the rare lunar rainbow—one of only two naturally occurring moonbows on the planet. 

SUP Kentucky’s most popular offering is Crystal Kayak and SUP Glow Tour—a glow-in-the-dark Red River Gorge subterranean excursion, hundreds of feet beneath the Earth’s surface. Equipped with helmets and headlamps, paddlers navigate through 60-foot-wide passageways in an abandoned limestone mine using single or tandem clear kayaks or on clear paddleboards outfitted with colorful, underwater LEDs. Expert guides regale visitors with the mine’s rich history, pointing out unique features along the way, like underground waterfalls, sleeping brown bats resting on the limestone walls, and rainbow trout swimming alongside the kayaks. Because of steady, mid-50-degree temperatures underground, this 90-minute tour is offered year-round. 

Before embarking on any waterway adventure, Warman stresses the importance of checking water levels and ensuring you have the right equipment. Other than that, she says, “The main thing is to get out and have fun.” 

Water, water everywhere 

For the ultimate waterway adventure, Land Between the Lakes (LBL) in western Kentucky boasts 170,000 acres of family-friendly recreation area and 300 miles of undeveloped shoreline for swimming, boating, and fishing fun on its inland peninsula. 

“If people are interested in getting out and kayaking and paddling, there’s a lot of places that folks can get in to enjoy the water,” says Emily Cleaver, LBL communications specialist and Pennyrile Electric consumer-member. 

Have a few hours to spend on the lake or time for an all-day trip? The LBL Regional Water Trail system makes it easy to plan your next paddling adventure. A map on its website displays all the accessible canoe and kayak drop-in points on both Lake Barkley and Kentucky Lake, as well as waterways farther south. As an added perk, the map shows amenities and mileage between each access point. 

Besides aquatic recreational opportunities, LBL also offers environmental educational experiences at Woodlands Nature Station, Golden Pond Planetarium, Elk & Bison Prairie, and the Homeplace 1850s Working Farm. 

“They’re your public lands,” Cleaver says. “We just want you to come outside and play.” 

Adventure awaits these waterway explorers just beyond the cavern entrance at Grayson Lake State Park. Photo: SUP Kentucky
Thrill-seekers choose tubing and whitewater rafting tours on the Cumberland River. Photos: Sheltowee Trace Adventure Resort
Thrill-seekers choose tubing and whitewater rafting tours on the Cumberland River. Photos: Sheltowee Trace Adventure Resort
Spend a day—or more—exploring water trails at Land Between the Lakes in western Kentucky. Photo: U.S. Forest Service Staffff
Chart your own course with a Land Between the Lakes waterway adventure. Photo: U.S. Forest Service Staffff
Sheltowee Trace Adventure Resort offffers recreational water excursions to fifit every adventurer’s comfort level. Photo: Denis Foley
The cascading Cumberland Falls makes the perfect paddling adventure backdrop. Photo: SUP Kentucky
Paddlers of all ages enjoy family fun on Elkhorn Creek. Photo: Canoe Kentucky
Boone Depenbrock shows off his canoe throwing technique at the Canoe Kentucky takeout in Peaks Mill. Photo: Canoe Kentucky

A river running through it 

“Kentucky has so many water activities that people can get involved in,” says Dania Egedi, owner/manager of Sheltowee Trace Adventure Resort in Corbin. “Our goal here is to get people into whatever type of activity that they are most comfortable doing.” 

Sheltowee Trace, served by Cumberland Valley Electric, offers a variety of river adventures to match each visitor’s budget, time constraints and comfort level—from canoeing, kayaking or tubing on the Cumberland and Big South Fork rivers to navigating a stand-up paddleboard to the base of Cumberland Falls, where you’ll hear the massive waterfall’s roar and feel the mist on your face. 

For a more relaxing excursion, cruise the Cumberland River on the 65-foot, double-decker Cumberland Star riverboat. Or if you dare, brave the rapids with Cumberland Below the Falls, a thrilling whitewater rafting trip, where you may encounter Class III conditions depending on seasonal water levels. 

All the river trips are on natural-flow rivers; they are not dam-controlled. That means rivers may be high in the spring or lower and calmer in the fall—so every journey will be different. 

No matter the season, Sheltowee Trace features fun, family-friendly adventures where people de-stress, becoming more in tune with one another and with the outdoors. Egedi, a Cumberland Valley RECC consumer-member says, “We really focus on getting people to enjoy being outside in whatever it is that Mother Nature has to offer.” 

From bluebells to whitewater 

Head to Franklin County where adventure awaits at Canoe Kentucky, now celebrating its 42nd season. “We are one of the oldest canoe and kayak outfitters in the state of Kentucky, and we’re one of the largest in the southeastern United States,” says owner Nathan Depenbrock, noting that paddlers own and run the year-round business. 

Canoe Kentucky’s most popular offering is the go-at-your-own-pace trips on Elkhorn Creek and the Kentucky River. The guided tour in high demand is the all-inclusive Bourbon Paddle Tour where paddlers navigate canoes and kayaks on the Kentucky River through an operational lock and dam. It includes a barbecue lunch and culminates with a Buffalo Trace Distillery tour and tasting. 

Also popular are the Pop Up Paddle tours. These short-notice, guided trips are typically announced on Canoe Kentucky’s website about two weeks in advance. In April, paddlers might view bald eagles on the north fork of Elkhorn Creek. May trips often include a bluebell paddle on the Elkhorn to glimpse blooming wildflowers. Yet another padding tour embarks on a moonlit Kentucky River through downtown Frankfort. 

For thrill-seekers, there’s also the Whitewater Hair Raiser—traversing Class II to III whitewater (water-level dependent) in rafts or inflatable one- or two-person kayaks on a 7-mile Elkhorn Creek stretch called The Palisades. The family-friendly three-hour tour is semi-guided, meaning there’s a guide in front of and behind the group. 

“We have a lot of opportunities in Kentucky for people to get out and enjoy the water,” says Depenbrock. “Canoeing and kayaking is just a very beginner-friendly, entry-level way to get into water sports here in the state.” 

Rapids classification explained 

The flow of moving water on creeks and rivers is assigned a class on a scale from 1 to 6. If you’ve ever wondered what the different classes mean, Canoe Kentucky owner Nathan Depenbrock, explains: 

  • Class I—Any water that’s moving. Easy and smooth water with light riffles. Clear passages; occasional sandy banks and gentle curves. Beginner friendly. 
  • Class II—You’re getting into actual whitewater. The water is hitting rocks and causing white foam. Waves may be 1–2 feet high. These conditions are still fairly navigable. Best handled by intermediate paddlers. 
  • Class III—Expect 3-4 foot high, irregular waves that splash you. Visual inspection required if rapids are unknown. Open canoes without flotation bags will have difficulty. 
  • Class IV—Difficult. Long and powerful rapids and standing waves; holes and boiling eddies. Powerful and precise maneuvering required. Visual inspection mandatory. Cannot be run in canoes unless the craft is decked or properly equipped with flotation bags. Advance preparations for possible rescue work are important. 
  • Class V—These are big whitewater waves. Long and violent rapids that follow each other almost without interruption. Extremely difficult. Unless you are very experienced, a professional guide is recommended. 
  • Class VI—Professional-only whitewater paddling. Extraordinarily difficult. Paddlers face constant threat of death because of extreme danger. Navigable only when water levels and conditions are favorable. This violent whitewater should be left to paddlers of Olympic ability. Every safety precaution must be taken. 

Waterways maps and more 

Eleven of Kentucky’s state parks have paddling opportunities, from calm waters to whitewater. This lists them all, along with a sweet canoe camping video to get you in the mood. 

If you’re wondering where to put in your oar or paddle, try out one of the state’s Blue Water Trails. The Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources has put together a complete list with maps and tons of other info on each stream or river trail. You can also try out the Southcentral Kentucky Blueways using this map

The Kentucky Transportation Cabinet’s map shows the state’s commercially navigable rivers and navigable rivers—the latter accommodating light-duty and recreational boats. 

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