Into the Wild
By Polly Dean
Photography courtesy of Polly Dean and Jimmy Jacobs (elk photo)
Called the “Heartland’s Outdoor Playground,” the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area provides an idyllic setting for camping, hiking, fishing, and wildlife viewing year-round.
In the southwest corner of Kentucky and reaching down into Tennessee, the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area is the largest inland peninsula and one of the largest blocks of undeveloped forest in the U.S. with 170,000 acres of open lands, forests, and wetlands. Bordered on the west by Kentucky Lake on the Tennessee River and to the east by Lake Barkley on the Cumberland River, this family-friendly recreation area is less than a three-hour drive from Memphis.
The land was designated a national recreation area by President John F. Kennedy in 1963. Decades earlier, settlements such as the towns of Golden Pond, Kentucky, and Tharpe and Model, Tennessee, occupied the area. The damming of the Tennessee River to create Kentucky Lake in the 1940s flooded low-lying areas forcing out many farmers. Plans to create Lake Barkley and to connect the two lakes by a canal to lessen shipping distances to the Gulf of Mexico from the Cumberland Valley followed. The project called for evacuation of the entire Land Between the Lakes area.
Welcoming more than 2 million visitors from all over the world each year, Land Between the Lakes offers several opportunities for exploring and experiencing mid-19th century history. Highlights include driving through the Elk and Bison Prairie, visiting the Homeplace 1850s Working Farm, spending time at the Woodlands Nature Station, and watching the skies at the Golden Pond Planetarium and Observatory. Go beyond these key sites and you’ll find an endless array of activities to keep nature lovers happy for days.
The area abounds with wildlife such as deer, fox, turkeys and countless more species. Many can be viewed from your vehicle while traveling the area’s 159 miles of paved roads. The almost 300 miles of additional gravel thoroughfares in the park have very little traffic and provide even more opportunities to view those animals that are a bit shyer.
A highlight of the recreation area is the Elk and Bison Prairie. The 3.5-mile loop road that is traveled by car winds its way throughout a 700-acre native prairie habitat that was restored for the reintroduction of elk and American bison. Centuries ago vast populations of these animals blanketed the area. Native Americans used the area for hunting grounds. Europeans arrived and due to loss of habitat through farming and over-hunting, bison and elk eventually disappeared from the region.
Today the prairie is home to a herd of about 50 bison and 40-50 elk. The cooler months are best for viewing the animals and early morning or evening when it’s warm. October offers a chance to hear elk bugling. Visitors are allowed to photograph the animals from outside their cars as long as they stay within a few feet of their vehicle.
Another large herd of bison can be seen from the main road on the Tennessee side, on the South Bison Range. Bison can be very dangerous during mating season and when with young calves. Don’t underestimate their agility and ability to move quickly.
The Woodland Nature Station in the recreation area provides a place for visitors to get-up-close to rescued animals. Trails take you through multiple habitats for viewing wildlife.
The 1850s Homeplace
Travel back in time to experience mid-19th century farm life at the 1850s Homeplace, located inside the recreation area. Interpreters provided by Friends of Land Between the Lakes demonstrate daily activities such as sheep shearing, pig feeding, making wood shingles and tending to the chickens and the garden. Visitors can walk among the restored historic structures, see craftsmen performing their artistry or tasks, and meals being prepared. Seasonal activities take place throughout the year.