11 Best Lakes in Kentucky
Author Brad Lane enjoyed a lengthy reporting trip throughout Kentucky for PlanetWare.
Many of the best lakes in Kentucky are massive reservoirs. These immense water systems provide flood control and energy production. However, their recreation opportunities tend to draw the most crowds. And many of the state's best lakes feature sprawling state parks and resorts along their shores.
One of the most popular activities on Kentucky's lakes is boating. Powerboats, Jet Skis, pontoon boats, and magnificent mansion-style houseboats all find room on the water. This array of vessels caters to fishing, waterskiing, and throwing an anchor in a secluded cove.
And it's not just the water that attracts visitors to Kentucky's best lakes. Park units along the shores also offer land-based activities like hiking and bicycling. The state parks and resorts also provide overnight accommodations, including campgrounds, cottages, and lodges overlooking the water. The Kentucky State Parks website offers more information about visiting and staying the night.
Find your next prime vacation spot with our list of the best lakes in Kentucky.
1. Kentucky Lake
Kentucky Lake is a massive reservoir on the Tennessee River. It covers approximately 250 square miles and stretches south across state lines into Tennessee. Besides being a significant hydroelectricity source, Kentucky Lake is also a magnet for recreation and lake vacations.
The lake has over 2,300 shoreline miles punctuated with recreation areas, campgrounds, and public access points. The west side of the lake is more developed, with more boat launches, docks, and marinas.
The eastern shoreline is more natural as part of the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area. The other lake that makes this recreation area the "land between lakes" is Lake Barkley to the east. The National Recreation Area offers water activities on both sides and over 500 miles of multi-use trails in between.
Kentucky Lake caters to every lake activity under the sun. Powerboats, playboats, and pontoon boats all find plenty of space to make a wake. Commercial barges use the waterway, and other boaters should exercise caution around these large vessels.
The lake has a reputation as one of the best places to fish in the state. While several species bite at the hook, it's often bass or crappie that most anglers land. Anyone 16 years of age or older needs a valid fishing license to cast a line.
Accommodation: Best Kentucky Lake Resorts
2. Lake Cumberland
As one of the largest human-made lakes in the nation, Lake Cumberland extends into several southern Kentucky counties. The primary purpose of the Wolf Creek Dam, impounding the Cumberland River, is flood control and energy production. But over the last 50 years, this government-owned body of water has become central to southern Kentucky tourism.
Lake Cumberland is also known as the "Houseboating Capital of the World" - thanks to a generous fleet often found on the waters. Houseboat rentals range from cozy aquatic abodes to 90-foot vessels that sleep up to 18 people. Several marinas and resorts rent out these floating homes, including Lake Cumberland Marina and Beaver Creek Resort.
It's not just houseboats that are popular on Lake Cumberland. With over 65,000 acres of lake to explore, there's plenty of room for other vessels like powerboats, Jet Skis, and fishing rigs. Everyday activities tied to boating include waterskiing, casting a line, and anchoring in secluded coves.
Several fun places to visit line the shoreline. Lake Cumberland State Resort Park is one such engaging locale, located near Jamestown on the northern shore. This all-inclusive state park features lodge rooms, cottages, and campsites.
3. Lake Barkley
Lake Barkley comprises the eastern border of Land Between the Lake National Recreation Area. This 58,000-acre reservoir is opposite Kentucky Lake and has its own magnetic pull on tourists and lake lovers.
Several communities line the eastern shoreline. These lakeside stops offer classic vacation amenities like shopping, dining, and places to stay. Overnight accommodations range from upscale hotels to rustic cabins and camping spots. Lake Barkley Resort State Park is one such place that offers a little bit of everything.
Near the center of the eastern shore, Lake Barkley Resort State Park features rooms, suites, cabins, and a campground to spend the night. The resort also caters to various activities, including hiking, golfing, and fishing. Birders also flock to the area to catch a glimpse at one of the more than 200 species known to frequent the lakeshore.
Within the Resort State Park boundaries, the Lake Barclay Marina is the place to go to access the water. Here, alongside fuel and fishing permits, the marina provides pontoon and fishing boat rentals.
4. Buckhorn Lake
This approximately 1,200-acre reservoir is in southeast Kentucky near the Appalachian foothills and Daniel Boone National Forest. With a lot of lake to explore, many vacations center around Buckhorn Lake State Resort Park on the northeast shore.
This popular state park resort features a long list of amenities for traveling families. Buckhorn Lake features lodge rooms and cabins for overnight accommodation, with many rooms including stunning patio views of the water. The Bowlingtown Country Kitchen Restaurant at the resort also features incredible views of the lake.
The resort caters to water activities with a full-service marina. The marina has several boat slips for visiting vessels and features pontoon and fishing boat rentals. The public is free to use the marina's boat launch. The public is also welcome to enjoy the sandy and seasonal beach next to the marina.
Guests at the resort also enjoy a surplus of land activities next to the water's edge. Miniature golf, horseshoes, and a playground area are just a few of the things to explore throughout the day. The property also features a moderately strenuous 1.5-mile hiking trail that enables beautiful views of the lake.
5. Barren River Lake
Barren River Lake is another popular vacation lake in Southern Kentucky, twenty miles southeast of Bowling Green. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers operates this 10,000-acre reservoir. However, the most popular place to recreate is the Barren River Lake State Resort Park near the community of Lucas.
The Barren River State Dock features boat slips, launches, and rentals within the State Park Resort. A variety of pontoon boats comprise much of the fleet at the marina, as well as other fishing vessels like Jon boats. Angling is one of the most popular activities on the lake, with bass, walleye, and crappie often taking the hook.
Overnight accommodations at the State Park Resort include lodge rooms, modern cabins, and a 99-unit campground. Other land-based amenities include self-guided hiking trails and a lighted outdoor basketball court. The resort also features a professional 18-hole golf course with club rentals available.
The Army Corps of Engineers operates four campgrounds, separate from the State Park Resort. These campgrounds offer a bit more solitude and distance from the crowds. Two of the campgrounds, Bailey's Point and Tailwater, feature boat ramps and swimming beaches.
6. Green River Lake
Green River Lake is near Campbellsville in Central Kentucky, 90 miles east of Bowling Green. The lake is a staple natural landscape in this adventurous part of the state, and several public access points line the 8,000-acre reservoir.
A central spot for exploring is Green River Lake State Park, a 10-minute drive from Campbellsville. The marina at this 1,300-acre park features over 200 covered boat slips. The marina also features an impressive fleet of rental boats, including houseboats, powerboats, pontoon boats, fishing vessels, and Jet Skis.
Land-based activities also run rampant at Green River Lake State Park. A network of over 28 miles of multi-use trails spans throughout the park and leads to incredible views of the water. These trails are also popular with bicyclists and horse riders. The campground at the park has over 200 sites near the lakeshore catering to RVs and primitive tent camping.
The town of Campbellsville is reason enough to visit Green River Lake. This laid-back city is home to Campbellsville University and has grown into an outdoor mecca in the state. It's the surrounding Bluegrass region that gives Campbellsville its outdoor aesthetics. This friendly community is also steeped in history that's fun to explore.
Read More: Top-Rated Small Towns in Kentucky
7. Taylorsville Lake
Taylorsville Lake is another popular recreation reservoir that snakes across Spencer County. The lake is situated approximately halfway between Louisville and Lexington and sees a lot of traffic on the weekends. And many visitors head to Taylorsville Lake State Park on the northeast shore.
Taylorsville Lake covers over 3,000 acres. Some of the most popular launching points are the Possum Ridge and Settlers Trace boat ramps near the state park. The Taylorsville Lake Marina is also nearby and offers various rentals, including pontoon boats and waterskiing supplies.
Alongside access to the water, the state park also offers several land-based activities. An extensive 24-mile trail system spans throughout the public space and caters to hikers, bicyclists, and horse riders. The state park also features a campground with 42 full-service sites for RVs.
Whether launching from the state park or other access points, fishing at Taylorsville Lake is often the reason to visit. The lake has a flourishing ecosystem of several fish species, including bass, bluegill, and crappie. The Taylorville Lake Marina has all the necessary fishing supplies.
8. Herrington Lake
Herrington Lake, Kentucky's deepest lake, is accessible from Lexington with a 30-mile drive. This approximately 2,300-acre reservoir is the result of a dam on the Dix River. Unlike many of the best lakes throughout the state, no state park or state park resort abuts the shores. However, that doesn't stop Herrington Lake from being a popular place to enjoy the water.
The Herrington Lake Marina is a central spot for recreation, located near the middle of the lake. Alongside pontoon boat and kayak rentals, the marina features covered and uncovered boat slips and a boat launch.
Fishing is one of Herrington's most popular things to do, and the marina offers boaters easy access to the water. The lake is regularly stocked, and anglers often land bluegill, catfish, crappie, and various bass species.
The marina is also home to lakeshore dining at Idler's Cove Restaurant. This casual eatery offers lakeside views and entree items made fresh to order.
One big event not to miss each year is the Lights over Herrington fireworks display at the marina. This popular 4th of July celebration also includes a lighted boat parade.
9. Rough River Lake
Rough River Lake spans three counties approximately 60 miles southeast of Louisville. This massive reservoir covers over 5,000 acres and is a product of the Rough River Dam on the far western shore. The Rough River Dam State Resort Park is also on this side of the lake.
The State Resort Park has gone through several upgrades since its inception in 1962. It is now the central spot for lake activities. The marina at the state park enables water excursions with year-round pontoon boat rentals and a public boat launch. Land-based activities here include disc golf, hiking trails, and a permanent orienteering course.
The Army Corps of Engineers also offers four campgrounds punctuating the lengthy shoreline. Three of these campgrounds are near the northern arm of the lake, close to the community of McDaniels. The other campground, Cave Creek Campground, is situated farther south and closer to Falls of Rough.
10. Nolin River Lake
Nolin River Lake is just north of Mammoth Caves National Park in west-central Kentucky. Nolin Lake State Park offers a fun place to visit or stay the night after exploring the nearby caves. With easy access to the 5,000-plus acre lake and several land-based activities, the state park is also worth a standalone visit.
The campground features nearly 60 sites, all close to the water. Camping at Nolin River State Park is split between primitive places to pitch a tent and standard hookup campsites. The park's sandy swimming beach is near the campground and open to the public between Memorial Day and Labor Day.
A boat launch at the park enables easy access to the water. Several land-based activities also draw a lot of attention. The park features over nine miles of singletrack for hikers and mountain bikers. A recommended trail to check out is the waterfall loop, where visitors come across a beautiful display of gravity halfway along the route.
11. Laurel River Lake
Laurel River Lake is a scenic reservoir within Daniel Boone National Forest in southern Kentucky. It's part of the London Ranger District and encompasses more than 5,600 acres of some of the cleanest water in the state. This expansive and deep footprint attracts several types of recreation, including fishing, scuba diving, and camping near the shores.
Fishing and boating are prevalent at Laurel River Lake. The quiet coves and surrounding nature lend to favorable conditions, with several fish species often biting at the hook. The Forest Service provides several boat ramps on different areas of the lake and two marinas stocked with fuel and supplies.
Head to the Laurel River Lake Picnic Area for a nice spot to lounge in the sand. This popular day-use area is near Laurel River Dam and is flooded with visitors throughout the summer. The Forest Service also offers a variety of drive-in and boat-in campgrounds for spending the night. Head to the Holly Bay campground for RV accommodations and places to pitch a tent. Boat drivers might prefer the boat-in Grove or White Oak Campgrounds.