Located on a slim finger of land between two man-made lakes, Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area is a landscape of forests, meadows, and former towns managed by the Forest Service. Offering recreation at the border of Kentucky and Tennessee, this inland peninsula is a popular spot for inhabitants of Louisville, Memphis, and Nashville. You'll have access to woodlands, nature, and quiet unlike most of the pastoral and city landscape adjacent to the area.
Roughly 170,000 acres in size, this area was once the location of several towns and established farms, mills, and communities. However, with the damning of the Cumberland River in the 1940s and construction of a canal to join the flooded Cumberland with the Tennessee River, the land comprising the National Recreation Area was taken by eminent domain. Modern day signage of historical homes, villages, and businesses, as well as historical markers, lay out the saga of lost homesteads that still touch families of the area today.
However, the modern day forest offers hiking, fishing, and boating to thousands each year. A planetarium is located at the visitor's center, as the recreation area is a designated Dark Sky Area as well. A former farm was converted to a bison range, providing a unique wildlife viewing experience to the area.
There are currently four developed campgrounds and several primitive camping areas in the National Recreation Area that are RV-friendly. We’ll highlight the top three to help you plan your motorhome trip to this unique sanctuary.
The Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area is located on a low ridge near Barkley Lake, a damned lake created by the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers. The roads within the recreation area are fairly straight with few sharp curves and rolling hills. Many roadways are paved, though some gravel and dirt forest access roads do exist.
Access to the northern side of the peninsula is across the man-made canal from the town of Grand Rivers. Though the bridge is in good repair, traffic can cause backups and delays to cross into the recreation area. From the south, Tennessee State Highway 79 creates the southern border, while State Highway crosses the peninsula nearly in its center. Paved state roads connect these major thoroughfares, allowing easy access to all of the recreation area for rigs of any size.
Most roads are well maintained, though potholes and mud can be found on the older gravel roads. Expect occasional low branches on lesser traveled sections. In general, most rigs will not have a problem traversing the peninsula. Some forest access roads dead end near the lake. Most have suitable turnaround spots, but some can be tight for longer campers.
Located on an inland lake adjacent to Barkley Lake, Energy Lake Campground offers a quiet spot with amenities, as well as access to great recreation opportunities. Nearby boat ramps provide a chance to drop in your watercraft in either lake. Plus, a swim beach, kayak and canoe rentals, and hiking trails offer more activities for your family.
There are 35 campsites in the campground located on wooded loops. Nearly all campsites offer electric hookups and are suitable for rigs up to 45 feet in length. The access road is paved but camping spurs are naturally surfaced. The sites are fairly flat but do require backing in. All sites come with picnic tables and fire rings. Reservations are accepted and is the best way to claim a spot right on the lake.
Flush toilets as well as showers are available in the campground. The camp store offers snacks and soft drinks as well as firewood. Water is available in the campground, however, there are no water or sewer hookups. It is best to come with your holding tanks empty and water topped off to enjoy all this campground has to offer.
With two boat ramps accessing Barkley Lake, as well as amenities like an archery range, mountain bike trails, and a swim beach, Hillman Ferry Campground feels more like a camping resort than a campground. Located amid tall pines and mixed hardwoods, this campground is family friendly.
Open March through November, this campground contains 374 campsites suitable for RVs up to 60 feet in length. All sites are reservable and some come with full hookups for water, sewer, and electric. Hot showers, laundry, and activities such as disk golf and playgrounds are available on site. All campsites have picnic tables and fire rings. Most sites are back-in and vary between wooded and lake front. In the summer, recreation programs are offered for all ages.
The campground is easily navigable on paved roads. Located in the north end of the park near the canal, Hillman Ferry Campground is just off of the main road through the park, Woodlands Trace National Scenic Byway.
Open year round, Piney Campground puts even Hillman Ferry to shame. Located near the southern edge of the National Recreation Area, this campground features 384 sites, which vary from idyllic woodland settings to lakefront on the shores of Barkley Lake. Over half of the campsites offer electric hookups and 44 are available with water, electric, and sewer connections. Reservations can be made online to take your pick from amenities and locations.
The road to and through the campground is paved. Most sites are back-in, but they are suitable for RVs up to 60 feet. The campground is flat and curves are gentle, meaning you should have no problem with your rig. Showers are available in the campground, as well as flush toilets. The campground also offers a host of other amenities and activities from rentals to an archery range. In the summer, recreation programs are available to campers of all ages. In mid-September, an annual Camper’s Fair is held featuring a camper’s flea market and an RV show.
Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area has been actively developing water trails on Barkley Lake since 2015. Due to this, several routes with shoreland camping opportunities have been created, offering paddlers of the area a fantastic experience unlike most in the region. There are currently five established paddle trails, featuring fantastic chances to spot wildlife or visit quiet bays were roads don’t go. Parking is limited and overnight camping requires a permit before setting out.
Located on the flooded waters of Cumberland River, which create Barkley Lake, fishing is a very popular pastime at the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area. Besides the watery border of the recreation area, there are four fishable small lakes and numerous ponds on the peninsula where you can drop your line. Most campgrounds offer boat launches if you want to drop in a watercraft, though there are plenty of great spots to fish from shore. Several lakes are no wake and two are restricted to non-motorized craft. Fishing licenses for both Tennessee and Kentucky are required for the area.
Over 500 miles of trails and 200 miles of roads wind through the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area, for those who like to hike and bike. Many trails are multi-use with wide paths and very gradual climbs or descents. With multiple trail lengths from leisurely one-hour strolls to a multi-day backpacking excursions, heading out from your camper to enjoy the woods, meadows, and lakeshore is possible for everyone in your group.
Every wonder what Kentucky looked like over a century ago? If so, check out the Elk and Bison Prairie located within the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area. Old farmsteads have been converted to the lush grasslands that used to spread across the area. Now home to Bison and Elk that roam free in a 700-acre enclosure, the fields are also home to a variety of smaller species such as butterflies, turkeys, birds, and prairie mammals. A 3.5-mile loop road allows visitors to travel through the preserve. Bring your binoculars in your campervan for a chance to spot numerous species.
From the beginning, Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area was designed with hunting in mind. Providing access to hunters, hunting is also the Recreation Area’s management method to control the population of numerous species from white-tailed deer to turkeys. Fall and spring hunts for turkey and squirrels are held annually, as well as fall and winter hunts for deer and waterfowl. Hunters must be 16 and older, have a Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Hunting Permit, and a Hunting Permit for their state of residence.
The Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area is designated as a Dark Sky area. Not only is this a fantastic place to camp and stargaze, you can up your night sky game with a visit to the Planetarium and Observatory, located at the Golden Pond Visitor Center. Daily activities are scheduled at the Planetarium. Observatory activities are weather based and should be checked before heading out to attend.