If you drive a long, narrow, dirt and gravel road, without a name, almost to the edge of the Cumberland River, you can just get to Saint Stephen’s Church.
The trim white one-room building is surrounded by a neat picket fence and presides over a cemetery that has been just as carefully put back in order. That it’s here at all is a bit of a miracle.
In 1944 the Tennessee Valley Authority completed the Kentucky Dam on the Tennessee River and Kentucky Lake began to fill. It’s the largest lake east of the Mississippi if you measure by surface area, and has a shoreline more than two thousand miles long.
Its creation swallowed up more than a dozen towns and settlements and forced the relocation of thousands of residents. In 1966 Lake Barkley, on the Cumberland River, finished filling behind Barkley Dam and created the same scenario just a few miles away across the ridge. For generations, the area had been called ‘land between the rivers.’
President John Kennedy worked with the TVA to purchase nearly all of it, more than two hundred and fifty square miles, and it was renamed Land Between the Lakes. It was turned over to the US Forest Service in 1998, designated a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve in 2005, and removed from the World Biosphere program by the Trump administration in 2016.
The biggest town in the strip was Golden Pond, a regional settlement along US 68. The growth of Kentucky Lake had brought fishing and hunting businesses to town, and things were looking up when the purchase was announced and, within a few years, it was a ghost town.
Now there are no residents in the entire park, all the buildings have been removed, and the site of Golden Pond is marked by a set of interpretive signs at a turnout. How did the church survive this purge?
As the story is told, it was somehow omitted from the maps that were in use during the transition, and the road to it was erased by the flooding. Twenty years ago it was rediscovered by hikers and, through an extraordinary effort, descendants of those buried in the cemetery negotiated with the Forest Service to restore the building.
Thousands of work hours later, the church is again usable and the closest forest service road has been extended, sort of, to allow access. Our high clearance Roadtrek had no trouble negotiating it, but you might not want to try it in something that rides lower to the ground.
The building and grounds are lovely in the late afternoon light, reminiscent of some of the iconic locations in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Other Land Between the Lakes Excursions
Another thing that makes Land Between the Lakes a great destination is its dark sky designation. Find a spot away from the many, many trees to look up at night for one of the best views of the heavens in the Eastern USA.
To add to your astronomical pleasure, the Golden Pond Planetarium in the middle of the park offers lots of programs and regular nighttime viewings with their telescopes. One of the best programs is ‘Tonight’s Sky Live’ which gives pointers on where to look and what to see tonight.
While you’re at the visitor center, don’t forget to buy a token for the elk and bison prairie, a few miles to the south.
As you drive along the loop, you’ll likely see all or part of the park’s herds wandering among the trees or grazing in the fields.
Both of these animals were once native to most of the Eastern USA and The Trace, the name of the main road running through the park, is a reference to the buffalo trace, an ancient migratory path used by both bison and Native Americans for thousands of years.
Further south still you’ll find the Homeplace Farm, where costumed interpreters work the land just as they would have in the mid-nineteenth century.
You’ll see mules, sheep, pigs, chickens, and a variety of crops being harvested. And the church isn’t the only little-known wonder in the park. A long chat with one of the park’s rangers may well set you off on your own adventure of discovery, out here off the beaten path.
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