I had never even heard of Land Between the Lakes before we started researching this trip. Of course, we knew the general direction we wanted to drive after leaving Nashville, but we also had to weigh in on campsites that were available in the area. We found the massive National Recreation Area that is affectionately referred to as the LBL, and only then did we realize how massive the place is. Like…drive-in-and-get-lost big! And then I realized they have Bison and Elk! How did this place fly under the radar?
Our trip brought us to the southern tip of Land Between the Lakes through the town of Dover. Before I go any further, I have to exaggerate to anyone planning on taking a similar trip: GET GAS before you enter the LBL! On the south end, Dover is your best bet to resupply before you get nice and enveloped by the wilderness. Whether you enter from the north or south, it takes about a half hour on the main byway just to get to the only other outside road that runs straight across the LBL, US Highway 68. That means it’s a full hour from the north to south tip, which is about 40 miles. If you make it to the campsites on either shore, it’ll take that much longer just to get back to civilization. You’re definitely out away from the hustle and bustle here, which is awesome, just understand that you’re kind of out of luck if you run out of gas in the middle somewhere.
The other oddity about Land Between the Lakes, if you didn’t know this already, is that it sits in two states. The southern end is in Tennessee, while the northern side is in Kentucky. Because the place is so large, there are multiple campsites and sightseeing opportunities throughout, and as the name suggests, the land sits…between two lakes.
If you choose to relax on the eastern portion, you’ll be swimming, fishing, and playing in the Cumberland River/Lake Barkley, which carries right on up from Nashville. If you choose the west, your water source is the Tennessee River/Kentucky Lake. Our site, the Energy Lake Campground, sits on the east side, almost centrally between the north and south tips inside Kentucky. The water here is a bit calmer because they’ve actually separated Energy Lake from the main part of the Cumberland River by a narrow land bridge.
Land Between the Lakes is an outdoor enthusiast’s paradise. There’s hundreds of miles of hiking trails, amazing fishing, bird watching, bison and elk, boating, swimming, history, and more all in the massive confines of this recreation area. There is a mixture of paid-for and free experiences throughout the land, but trust me when I say there is plenty to do. They have an old 1800’s working farm, the Bison and Elk range, a planetarium, and an OHV (Off-highway vehicle) trail. I was a tad disappointed when I found out you have to pay to go through the main bison and elk range, but the kind lady at the southern entrance told us that there is a secondary range on the main byway that just holds bison. She also mentioned that there were reports of a decent herd visible on that particular day. We followed the main road until we happened right up on the herd, and suddenly we were closer to these majestic and historic animals than we had ever been.
Another neat roadside stop, especially if you like history, was the massive iron furnace on the side of the main byway near the bison range. There are a few of these left throughout the park, but this is definitely the easiest one to view if you’re driving through the main road. They’re unexpectedly massive, and look more like something out of Lord of the Rings rather than 1800’s America.
They would dump the materials and fuel into the furnace, and then use a long bellows to get the heat up to over 3000 degrees. The molten iron would then trickle out into a spot where they could collect it and let it solidify into iron bars. The company that built these in the 1800’s, however, got a tad over their heads, and ended up going out of business.
We set up our camp in the afternoon, and then started battling on-and-off rain. Once camp was set about fifty yards up from the lake, we drove about a minute away to the large swimming area that Energy Lake has. Keep in mind, you can swim anywhere in any of the lakes, but one of the draws of Land Between the Lakes is the hundreds of miles of untouched shoreline, so actually finding a decent swimming spot without hacking through the humid southern jungle might be a tad difficult. Our spot had a beach, complete with a roped off swimming area and then plenty of other spots to jump or wade in. The rain started up again, but it cooled things off so we didn’t mind. We made it back to camp and after an intense battle with the rain to make fire, we made our Mountain Cherry Pies! We settled into the tent to get some sleep after the bottom fell out.
One fun story about Land Between the Lakes consists of “the beast,” or a werewolf-like monster that is said to have been the cause of some pretty gruesome attacks over the years. The legend has a variety of sources, with some saying the Native Americans who used to occupy the area believed it was cursed. Others say it was a native shaman who was a shapeshifter, and who was killed while in the form of the wolf. And yet more tales speak to a sickened man who settled in the area with his family in the 1800’s, and who had a genetic disease that sent him into a tizzy after nightfall.
The nightmarish stories speak of the beast as one who would prey on the bison of the area, who were, at the time, prevalent and still occupying the location naturally. But even now there are reports of bison calves going missing from the herd, and the herd becoming very skittish and wary for days after the fact.
Who doesn’t love a good scary story? Don’t let the spookiness keep you from the LBL, though, just as many folks believe the legend was cooked up by a local. Not to mention, the location is enjoyed by literally thousands of people every year with no incident. Our experience, as a small sample size, was outstanding and werewolf free!
The picture above is us sitting on the overlook just north of the LBL facing south. That strip of land in the middle is the LBL, with the Cumberland River in that opening to the left. Just off screen to the right is the Tennessee River side. This was on our way out of the Land Between the Lakes as we moved on towards our next location in Paducah, Kentucky. We truly loved our experience at LBL, and our time there just showed us we really need to take the time to spend a few days on the next go. And we got to see bison!