Take time out to traverse this special preserve in southwest Kentucky along a road where you can discover area history and view an abundance of wildlife.
By Pamela Selbert
As you drive on Interstate 24 across the southwest corner of Kentucky, heading east from Paducah toward Hopkinsville, you pass in quick succession the northern tip of Kentucky Lake on the Tennessee River, and then a pair of inlets at the north end of Lake Barkley, on the Cumberland River. It’s a 20-mile drive past glittering acres of sapphire water poking emerald hills with a thousand fingers. From the highway you see moored boats rocking gently in their slots, birds decorating the water like bits of paper, and resorts with smooth golf courses spread along the tawny shore.
Just out of sight to the south is a 170,000-acre patch of land called Land Between the Lakes. This lush stretch of ground is roughly rectangular in shape, bounded by the two rivers. The Cumberland arcs over from the east to flow within a mile or so of the Tennessee, forming the rectangle’s top just below the pair of dams that were built decades ago for electrical power and outdoor recreation. A canal links the rivers at their closest point.
This aptly named Land Between the Lakes (LBL) is 40 miles long with 300 miles of pristine shoreline. The hydroelectric dam built by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) across the Tennessee River in 1944 created one of the largest man-made lakes in the world, Kentucky Lake. Lake Barkley to the east is smaller, but just as lovely. The Army Corps of Engineers runs and maintains the latter.
Today no one lives in the LBL. Thousands of families were moved off the land when the huge TVA project began in 1936; even more were displaced when the Corps began construction of Lake Barkley in 1963; and the rest were gone by 1968. Now only turkeys, bison, deer, and a host of other wild critters are permanent residents.
Temporary visitors of the human kind are numerous, however, and rightly so. The LBL offers much to see and do. A 40-mile scenic route called The Trace bisects the LBL lengthwise and leads past several attractions, as well as stunning vistas. It’s also an excursion through both human and natural history.
If you’re traveling from the south, stop first at Fort Donelson National Battlefield (931-232-5706), just east of the south entrance to The Trace on U.S. 79. There, during a four-day period in February 1862, armies of the North and South clashed over the Confederate-held fort. The unconditional surrender of the fort to General U.S. Grant on February 16 was the first success in the Union’s effort to split the Confederacy. Union control of the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers would open the way for an invasion of the South; thus, the loss of Fort Donelson was devastating. While visiting the battlefield site, make sure to see the Confederate cannon that now stands guard over the Cumberland; a Confederate monument; and the historic Dover Hotel, where General Simon Buckner surrendered the fort.
The South Welcome Station to the LBL is just beyond the entrance to The Trace. Stop by to pick up a road map. While you’re there, consider turning west to make a side trip on the Fort Henry Civil War Commemorative Trail. Twelve days before the surrender of Fort Donelson, Union forces had opened fire on Fort Henry on the Tennessee River. Within hours the Confederates withdrew to Fort Donelson, 11 miles east. The trail follows their route, passing more than a dozen historic cemeteries.
Piney Campground is reached via the trail. It overlooks Kentucky Lake at Piney Bay, and has hundreds of sites. But this is not the only campground in the area. Dozens can be found, so check your favorite campground directory if you plan to stay overnight in this region.
Continuing up The Trace, passing grassy meadows and thick woods, you will come upon a massive stone structure, the ruins of the Great Western Furnace. It was constructed in 1854 of cyclopean limestone blocks. Iron ore and limestone found in the area had fueled the LBL’s most important industry “” iron production “” from 1820 until the start of the Civil War. Shallow deposits 2 miles north yielded ore that was processed here into pig iron, which was then shipped by river or hauled to rolling mills in the East.
Prepare to pull over just north of the furnace. Most of the time, people gather at a fence where a sign reads “South Bison Range.” Yes, American bison “” commonly called buffalo “” were not limited to the Plains. Bison and elk once roamed this land by the thousands. In 1969, to illustrate wildlife conservation efforts in America, the TVA relocated 19 bison from North Dakota. The herd has grown significantly, and the wooly behemoths often can be seen nibbling grass or lying under the trees in the distance.
The Homeplace living history farm is situated across the road from the bison range. Enter the visitors center first. There, dozens of exhibits with artifacts and a 13-minute video tell the story of 19th-century life in the area, and how the main crops “” tobacco and corn “” were grown. Here, sprawled across many grassy acres, are 16 historic log buildings, including a house with a dogtrot (a breezeway between the house’s two halves), a woodshed, a smokehouse, a springhouse, a tool barn, a tobacco barn, a chicken house, and others. All are original, and were reconstructed here. Inside many of the buildings, folks dressed in period clothing toil at 19th-century tasks. Seasonal crops are grown in a large kitchen garden behind the dogtrot.
Everything on the farm is true to the period. “It’s so authentic we don’t even have cell phone service!” said one man we met there. We had already learned that’s true of the entire LBL (so be forewarned).
The Homeplace is open Wednesday through Sunday beginning March 1, and daily from April through October. A small admission fee is charged.
The Kentucky state line lies ahead as you continue north to the next stop, the Golden Pond Visitor Center and Planetarium. Here a host of first-rate exhibits explain the history of the area, from prehistoric times through the lengthy development of Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley, to what’s available today at the LBL. (The Forest Service took over management from the TVA in 2000.)
The 81-seat planetarium offers daily shows from March through mid-December (closed Thanksgiving) on such topics as black holes, white dwarfs, and life on Mars. Those who wish to learn more about astronomy or who just want to stargaze can attend a “star party” or take part in observing sessions, which are open to the public.
Continue up The Trace to the Elk and Bison Prairie, a 700-acre restoration project. For a small fee you can drive a 4-mile-loop road that provides wonderful vistas over the surrounding grassy barrens (prairie) and rolling hills rimmed thickly with trees, mostly oaks. Scan for elk and bison, and imagine you’ve traveled back in time when countless numbers of these animals roamed across America.
Continuing north, other attractions include Woodlands Wildlife Refuge, Woodlands Nature Station, Hematite Lake and Trail, and Center Furnace Ruins. At the latter, a 3-mile-loop hiking trail winds past other vestiges of the iron industry: an old general store, a cistern, limestone and iron ore pits, and a charcoal hearth. Center Furnace, according to signs, was the “granddaddy” of furnaces in this region. Built in 1844, it burned around the clock, devouring nearly 60 cords of wood and two tons of limestone each day while processing some 30 tons of iron ore. It closed in 1912, the last iron furnace to operate in the LBL.
Just past the North Welcome Station “” similar to the South Station with exhibits and plentiful information about The Trace “” signs point to Kentucky Lake Scenic Drive. It’s a short drive, just 2 miles, and we recommend taking it, as the high-up views it offers of the lake’s wind-whipped, steely waters and bluff-like shoreline are magnificent.
Don’t miss the start of spring at the Land Between the Lakes, and keep it in your plans as you travel this year. It’s a great way to spend a day or half a day, enjoying the drive.
Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area
USDA Forest Service
100 Van Morgan Drive
Golden Pond, KY 42211-9001
(800) LBL-7077 (525-7077)
A Writer’s Story
The small town of Guthrie, Kentucky, was the birthplace of writer Robert Penn Warren, a three-time Pulitzer Prize winner and the only writer to be awarded the Pulitzer for both fiction and poetry. Warren was most known for All the King’s Men, a fictionalized account of Louisiana Governor Huey Long, published in 1947. His other two awards were for poetry books titled Promises in 1958 and Now and Then in 1979.
Guthrie is approximately an hour’s drive from the south entrance to the Land Between the Lakes, and less than a mile north of the Tennessee state line. To reach it from the south entrance, travel northeast on U.S. 79 for approximately 40 miles, and then turn east toward Guthrie on U.S. 41. Here, the red house where Warren was born on April 24, 1905, is carefully preserved and docents lead tours of the seven-room home. The United States’ first Poet Laureate was born here on April 24, 1905; however, he lived much of his life in Connecticut and at his summer home in Vermont. He died in New England on September 15, 1989.
The home features original hardwood floors, walls papered in patterns of burgundy and other rich colors similar to the original, and windows festive with original stained glass. The front parlor is furnished with antiques of the period and photographs of Warren’s parents, Frank and Ruth, and of Robert as a schoolboy. Another room is now a library of sorts, where hundreds of copies of Warren’s books, many of them first editions, line shelves and are piled on tables. New copies are also available for purchase.
Across the hall, photos and displays remember Warren’s friend Kent Greenfield (also of Guthrie), a rookie pitcher in the major leagues in the 1920s. Artifacts and ordinary personal effects belonging to Warren are displayed throughout the house: a dorm key he used at Vanderbilt University and a pencil drawing of a bird from his childhood, among many others.
A large, airy back porch holds photos, posters, and other displays to help interpret the author’s long life.
The Robert Penn Warren Birthplace Home is at Third and Cherry streets in Guthrie off U.S. 41. It’s open from 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 2:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. Sunday; closed Monday. Guided tours last approximately 30 minutes. Admission is free.
For more information or to arrange a tour, call (270) 483-2683 or visit www.robertpennwarren.com/birthpla.htm for more information.