I came around a curve in the one-lane road and spotted a herd of massive American bison right in front of me. I slowed to a gentle crawl as the massive animals parted just in front of my van and casually walked around either side. One of them grunted at me as if to say this was his road and I was in his way. I didn’t dare argue considering he was just as tall as the van and weighed nearly as much. A few minutes later they were gone and I was left with an incredible memory and the sudden urge to laugh uncontrollably.
The Elk & Bison Prairie is one of the four big attractions in the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area. The 170,000-acre recreation area is straddled on one side by Lake Barkley and the other side by Kentucky Lake (hence the name Land Between the Lakes). Throughout the massive recreation area are miles of hiking trails, a dozen campgrounds, horseback riding trails, fishing piers, and endless beautiful landscapes.
The prairie, though, is actually an enclosed area. I swiped an Entry Card I purchased earlier at a gate, then drove through a second gate to enter the prairie. It keeps the elk and bison in a controlled area. You don’t want to be driving along the road at night and have one of these 1,400 pound beasts step out in front of you. Once inside a 3.5-mile one-lane, one-way loop road takes you around the prairie in the comfort of your own car. It’s a great way to see some wildlife without having to hump it twenty miles into the outback.
The Elk & Bison Prairie is much more informal than a zoo but there are still some rules in place similar to other national parks. You have to stay at least 200′ away from the wildlife and you can’t leave the roadway to walk into a field. If you’re inside your car you’re fine getting close to the wildlife but, obviously, no off-roading allowed. This isn’t Jurassic Park.
I had purchased my Entry Cards from the nearby Golden Pond Visitor Center where they gave me a pretty good deal: entry is $5 per vehicle but if I got three cards for $10. I had three days left to explore the Land Between the Lakes. Three equals three. I thought that was a pretty good deal and I walked out of the visitor center with the biggest grin on my face.
Finding the bison, though, can be a very hit or miss ordeal. My first time into the prairie I spotted them at a watering hole near the end of the loop road. I was too close to be able to get out of the van so I just stuck my 300mm telephoto lens out the open side window and clicked away. Probably the easiest photos of wildlife I had ever captured. But my second time into the prairie I struck out; the bison were in a field about a thousand feet off the road, laying in the grass and taking it easy. You’re not allowed to leave the roadway to walk into fields so I decided to focus more on the elk that day. My third time into the prairie I struck gold: as I came around a curve in the road they were right straight in front of me. I made my way through the herd, quickly looped back around, and spent hours slowly traveling with the herd and capturing photos.
Although it can be difficult and frustrating to get up close with the bison there is also a lot of other wildlife not to be ignored inside the prairie. There is a large herd of elk that will frequently come out into the field just before sunset. Raccoons are common throughout the area as well. Wild turkey will quietly roam through the fields looking for their own food.
It takes about twenty minutes to drive the loop road if you don’t make any stops. I made lots of stops, especially if I saw some wildlife. The elk were usually in a dense forest just off the road so they were easy to spot but not so easy to photograph. But I put the camera down frequently and just enjoyed the beauty of the landscapes inside the prairie. Wide open fields, untouched vegetation, and gorgeous weather made it an incredible place to visit and spend some time. I think in three days I ended up spending almost twelve hours there, and I wish I could have spent more.
If you want the best chance at seeing the elk and bison come at sunrise or two hours before sunset. The bison are slow, methodical creatures who roam the prairie in seemingly random paths so you don’t know where you might find them from one day to the next. But the elk are somewhat predictable; about an hour before sunset when the shadows of trees get long you’ll find them out in the fields grazing. During the summer months they like to stick to the shade so you’ll have a pretty good idea where to find them.
The Elk & Bison Prairie turned out to be one of the most beautiful and captivating places I have visited yet. I had never been able to see bison in this manner, up close and personal, and capture such great photos of these massive animals. It was quiet and peaceful and actually made me seriously long for an African safari or overland adventure. But don’t take my word for it; come find out for yourself just how amazing this place can be.
Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area: 238 Visitor Center Drive, Golden Pond, KY | 800-525-7077 | https://www.landbetweenthelakes.us/ | Admission is $5 per vehicle. At the Golden Pond Visitor Center you can purchase 3 cards for $10 and 5 cards for $15