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Into The Woods: Land Between the Lakes
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For this particular trip, my husband and I chose the Canal Loop Trail at the northern end of LBL. It's 11 miles in length - although there are plenty of places where it branches off and loops back into itself, so if you are not up for such a long trip there are ways to shorten the hike significantly. Land Between the Lakes overall has quite a few trails, ranging from nature walks to mountain biking. The Canal Loop Trail is labeled for hiking and mountain biking.
As a matter of fact, the only other people we saw on the trail were mountain bikers! Our goal was to get away from other people for the weekend, and we were hoping that if we backpacked and camped along the trail we would reduce the likelihood of having to deal with other people or loud campers. Although we were a little disappointed at the popularity of the trail, the mountain bikers were very polite and courteous, and we saw fewer than 10 other humans the whole trek.
The trail begins at the North Welcome Station, where visitors can park their cars overnight and fill out backpacking and back-country camping permits (in case you get lost or eaten by a bear). The first mile or so is very easy and flat. After you pass the designated back-country camping area, however, the trail gets much rougher and there are some hills. The trail itself is well ridden and well maintained, but you will have to be careful not to stumble over rocks or roots along the way. In addition, where the trail is close to the shoreline there are places where the path is very narrow and very near the edge of a drop or cliff. Mountain bikers beware and be on the lookout when riding. Hikers and backpackers, keep an eye out and look out for each other. Definitely wear hiking boots or shoes - DO NOT hike this one in regular tennis shoes (trust me- this is exactly what I did and the rocks hurt pretty bad through the soles).
About 5 miles into your trek, the trail leads away from the water and into a prairie and forested area. In the heat, this is not ideal, as the breeze coming off the lake helped us stay cool even while carrying heavy packs. But don't worry - about 3 miles later you hit water again. More of this particular trail is on the shoreline than inland, allowing for wonderful wildlife views and nice breezes - and even a break for a swim if you like.
What to Be Careful of When Swimming In LBL
IF you hike in LBL and stop to swim in Kentucky Lake or Lake Barkley, be careful in your choice of swimming spots.
Cottonmouths are not uncommon in this area, and although they avoid the well traveled picnic and beach areas, there are many places along the trails where they can hide and are not expecting people to go for a dip.
Turtle nesting season is from mid-spring til the end of summer. If you see more than one or two turtles, they may use that spot for mating and nesting. DO NOT DISTURB.
The View from Our Cliff
Although our permits would have allowed us to camp anywhere along the trail we liked, we chose to make camp at the Nickell Back Country Camping Area. Partially because there was a torrential downpour, and partially because the Canal Loop trail is lacking in good spots to make camp that are on the shoreline.
If you are not familiar with back-country camping, it means that there are no water or electric hookups at the campsite, there are no pre-made fire pits or grills, there are no bathrooms (if you are lucky like we were there will be a latrine, but not a bathroom), no showers, no parking spaces, and much fewer campers.
We chose a spot near the edge of a cliff overlooking the lake. About 10 feet away was a hill where water runs down in the rain, making a little makeshift boat ramp, where we could climb down to the water's edge for fishing and to cool off. By the time we got camp set up, we were soaked to the bone from the aforementioned downpour, but luckily there are plenty of trees at that spot between which to string fishing line as a clothesline.
Our spot had been used previously, and had a fire pit already set up that we could use, and firewood was not hard to find (though it was wet). We had camping neighbors, an older fisherman in his van (this gentleman takes his van all over the country, towing his sailboat, to camp and fish. This is how he is spending his retirement and that was just awesome to see), and two middle age gentlemen up the hill in their tent. As far as we could see in the area, people were fairly well spread out and no one was loud or bothersome. We did see one couple who decided to bring an RV into the back-country camping area - clearly they are unfamiliar with the concept - who also seemed content to leave beer cans all around their campsite, but didn't bother anyone and were at the opposite end of the area from our site.
Overall Trail Score
As I discovered while setting up camp, most of our important gear was Ozark Trail brand, though we in no way planned that.
We picked out an Ozark Trail two-person dome tent for about $30.00, specifically because it was small in size and claimed to be good for backpacking. It did stand up to this claim and fit very well inside one of our backpacks, along with all our other gear. It was very easy to set up, utilizing just two poles through the center to the corners, a rain fly, and a cargo loft. The cargo loft hooks inside the tent at the very top of the dome to give campers an extra place for storage besides the little net that comes in every tent ever. However, as much as I liked the cargo net (we stored the camera, two cell phones, a wallet, a watch, and a lighter up there), it was not as big as I was expecting somehow. If you choose this tent, do not expect to be able to put anything too large up there, or more than a few items. Aside from that, I have few complaints about our tent. It got very hot inside at night, but tents are designed to be warm inside and it was very hot and humid out after the rain. Around the edge of the flap are pieces of fabric to protect and cover the zipper, which tend to get CAUGHT in the zipper and become frustrating and inconvenient, but are easily dislodged and caused no damage. Overall, this is a good quality tent for the price.
Our sleeping bags were Ozark Trail as well, and rated for 50 degrees and above (we would have gotten some rated for colder weather, but it's summer time and quite hot out). Personally, I LOVE these sleeping bags. Lightweight, packed conveniently, and comfortable. They lack a hood/pillow area like many do which are rated for colder weather, but it was not necessary for this trip and was not missed. As a former girl scout, the one thing about camping that is tedious and annoying is rolling your sleeping bag up at the end of the trip. These were easy to roll and store back in the original bag, which compresses them down to a size perfect for our backpacks. They were about $30 apiece, and for the convenience they offered alone they were well worth their price.
Our backpacks were, once again, Ozark Trail! They were fairly lightweight alone, and offered many pockets and extra straps. I wish they were a little more water resistant, as the only things we packed that did not get wet were stored in zip lock bags. But overall, the amount of space was great. I was able to fit my sleeping back, bed roll, clothes, emergency medical supplies, snacks, fishing poll, two water bottles, a towel, a bottle of lotion, and some Excedrin in my pack. In my husband's (identical pack), we fit his fishing poll, the tent, the tackle box (a flat, small one for backpacking), snacks, fire starting supplies, a small cooler, his clothes, sleeping bag, and bedroll. Not much for a full on vacation, but plenty for backpacking! Like most backpacks made for hiking, these offered padded shoulder straps and a padded waist strap, and a small adjustable chest strap between the two shoulder straps. I personally found the chest strap uncomfortable (women, you all might agree, it's at breast level and doesn't offer any real relief from the weight on your shoulder's unless it's tight), but the other straps were comfortable and helped support the pack weight correctly. As a result, after miles of hiking with my belongings on my back and few breaks to remove it, my back and shoulders are not in pain. The backpacks cost around $20 apiece, and although I do wish they were waterproof, they proved to still be worth the cost (the maker's could not have predicted we would use them in a torrential downpour).
Old Girl Scout tip....to keep your clothes (or anything else really) dry when hiking/camping/backpacking, pack them in freezer or gallon size zip lock bags. Squeezing the air out keeps them easy to pack, and dry clothes are totally worth the extra effort.
In the End
Overall, I give our gear 4 out of 5. I think for our next camping trip we are getting a bigger tent and cots, but for backpacking we will be keeping and using all the same gear. And although this trail was good fun, there wasn't quite enough to see to be worth backpacking. Next time, we will try a different trail - Land Between the Lakes has quite a few more!