Embrace America's Rivers

Kentucky River Journey by Jerry Hay

The Kentucky River is a wonderful natural resource with beautiful scenery, calm waters and remote countryside. Unfortunately the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers abandoned the Locks & Dams beginning in the early 1980s, leaving the river non-navigable because boaters could no longer lock through the dams. This meant that the river became a series of "pools" and only paddlers could make a continued journey of the river, with the ability to portage the dams.

The good news is that in recent years the Kentucky River Authority was formed and they eventually renovated and opened the lower four locks, so that boaters can now travel 82 miles up the Kentucky River from the Ohio River to Lock 5 (17 miles above Frankfort)

For years, I had went up the Kentucky River to the closed Lock 1 to camp and fish but could go no further. I had often looked at that beautiful river above the dam and hoped that some day the lock would be re-opened and I could journey above the dam. When the KRA opened the lower four locks, I began trying to find the time and good weather conditions to make the trip to Lock 5. This opportunity finally came on August 25, 2017.

Approaching Lock 1

I would normally take the Ohio River from the Louisville area to Carrollton, KY (mouth of the Kentucky River) but to save time and lock early I trailered my boat to Madison, IN, which is only 11 miles to Carrollton. The Kentucky River locks are only open on Fridays through Mondays. The first lock is only four miles up the Kentucky River from the Ohio River. As we approached the lock, I called for the lockmaster on channel 13 but got no response. I read that if you don't have a radio, they will see you coming and assist. Since I got no answer, that is what I planned to do. There was a couple in another boat waiting below the lock, so we joined them and before long the gate opened and the lockmaster waved us in.

Locking through

I am accustom to the Ohio River locks that have floating ballards that boats attach to. The ballards lower or raise with the boats. In the Kentucky River locks, they toss two ropes for the boaters to hold onto to keep the boat close to the wall. Since we were going upriver, we would be raised to the next pool (about 15ft at this lock). I am also familiar with locks that have the valves in the bottom of the lock chamber to fill/drain the locks. These lock controls are below the gates so the is a lot of turbulence in the chamber when if first starts to fill. If there is only one person onboard, the lines would be handled with both hands from the center of the boat. It did not take long to fill the chamber, then the gate opened and we were on our way. The lock chambers are very old (circa 1840) but even though they are rough, they seem to be holding up just fine. 

A few things to remember when locking:

1. No wake going into and out of locks.

2. Wear life jackets during locking.

3. No smoking in locks.

4. Always following instructions given by the lockmaster

Scenic River

Lock 1 pool is 27 miles long (distance to the next lock). The river and riverbank is beautiful. There are occasional snags to steer around but the channel is deep and easy to navigate. There are no mile markers or other navigational aids on the Kentucky River so it is a good idea to have a chart book (available from the KRA free to download and print) to keep track of locations and the sail line. Gratz, Ky is the beginning of the Kentucky River Palisades, so the bank will become steeper and rocky, with higher elevations. The farther we went up the river, the prettier the scenery was. For the most part the river was all ours, with few other boaters.

Locks 2 and 3

On nearing Lock 2, I again called ahead on marine channel 13 for locking information and this time get an immediate answer from the lockmaster. He informed me that he is preparing the chamber and the gate would open in a few minutes. The lockmasters on the Kentucky river are very helpful and friendly. They also call the next lock to let them know that we are coming. The little village of Lockport, KY is just above Lock 2. There is a small grocery/hardware store there but we didn't need anything at that time.

It is only eleven miles to Lock 3, but we stopped for lunch at a nice spot. Also we take our time. My boat can do 40mph but I usually cruise at no more that 15mph because I want to enjoy the river and not having it flashing by at high speeds. I would go even slower but the boat operates more efficiently on plane, and puts out less wake than "plow speed", which is less than 15mph but faster than high idle speed. I always try to be observant of docked boats and avoid waking them as much as possible. We got to Lock 3 and the lockmaster responded on the radio, saying we could lock through immediately. Once we were raised high enough in the lock, I met the lockmaster Mark (photo). He is a very nice guy and extremely helpful with information about what to expect ahead. Mark seems to love his job and it is obvious that he is dedicated to making the locking experience as easy and fun for boaters as he can.

Pictured is water flowing in to raise the level in the lock chamber. It creates more turbulence when going up than when being lowered (downriver), so it is important to keep hold of those dock lines and avoid having the boat knocked around. The lock walls are old and slimy so anyone locking through should have fenders to drop down and protect the side of the boat from scraping along the wall.

Our boat is an open style with a center console, with no sleeping quarters. That means we would be camping along the way. There are a couple of "campergrounds" along the Kentucky River but I prefer a remote spot, needing none of the amenities they provide and wanting none of the noise and crowds that are often present. The challenge on the Kentucky River is the riverbank. The banks are very steep and heavily forested, with few places flat enough to set up a tent. Even low-lying locations are covered in kudzu. There are usually beaches of sorts below the locks and dams that can be accessed and tents set up (keeping a safe distance from the dam), but care should be taken to not camp at an elevation to low during a rising river for obvious reasons. Those who use a boat with sleeping quarters have an advantage of being able to anchor or tie-off to shore about anywhere they want. There is no commercial barge traffic on the Kentucky River to worry about.

Foggy Morning

We did find a nice spot in the Lock 3 pool and decided to wait until the next morning to go through Lock 4 and on to visit Frankfort. We woke to heavy fog that was concerning but an amazing sunrise burned it off quickly. We left our camp set up for the next night and headed up the river. It would be 23 miles to Lock 4. The river became extremely winding with many tributaries coming into it. At mile 52 we passed the mouth of Elkorn Creek, which is the location of the Stillwater Campground. At mile 56 the Kentucky River Campground is along the right descending bank. The weather was great and to our surprise there was no issue with flying insects. We never had to use bug repellent.

Frankfort Boat Club

At Lock 4 we contacted the lockmaster on the radio (they also have phone numbers to call) and locked through with no wait. After we were brought up about 15 feet the lockmaster (again very friendly and helpful) gave us advise on were to dock and visit at Frankfort, along with information about food, supplies, and fuel. Frankfort is a very welcoming city for boaters coming from the Ohio River. They have a nice city dock and the locals enjoy boaters finally being able to visit the city via the Kentucky River. There are two marinas in Frankfort. Benson Marina is a short distance up Benson Creek, where they have fuel, food and supplies. The Frankfort Boat Club is on the main river right downtown. After buying fuel and ice at the boat club, they let us dock our boat to take a walk into the city. Both facilities have overnight docking available for a fee.

Frankfort, Kentucky

Frankfort is an impressive small city (the state capital). Great little shops, restaurants, and museums are a short walk from the river. The historic downtown is quaint and well kept. We stayed there longer than expected and I was running short on time to go on to Lock 5 (as far as we could go) before turning around and heading back downriver to our camp. Lock 5 is at mile 82 which is 16 miles above Frankfort. Frankfort is a busy boating community with many docks (and no wake zones). Everyone was friendly and considerate of other boaters and no one passed by without waving We did not have to got far beyond Frankfort to discover a remote river with little traffic once again.

Lock 5-Turn Around Point

We arrived at Lock 5, our destination. This lock is still closed so boaters can go no farther unless they take their boat out and put in at a pool 5 ramp. We discovered that this is a gathering place for those wishing to enjoy the beaches with shallow waters coming from the dam. Many people were there enjoying the river and I was inclined to stay for a while too, but needed to turn back in time to get through Lock 4 before it closed at 7:30 pm so that we could reach our campsite before dark. I did let my dog, Jack go for a run and hit a large sunken log while beaching, killing the engine. I tilted the engine up to check the prop, but no apparent damage. I carry spare props and tools to change it for such events.

Snake Locking Through

As we went past Frankfort we made another stop at the Frankfort Boat Club to enjoy an excellent cheeseburger. Debbie went in to place the order while I took Jack for a walk. The very nice lady at the boat club even delivered the order to the boat. We were now going downriver and locking would be much smoother, since water will be draining from the chamber instead of filling, so less turbulence The lockmaster pointed out something else locking through. A confused snake was swimming along the lock wall and then found refuge in a hole in the wall. It finally dropped into the water as it lowered then swam toward my boat, but upon seeing my face it turned back.

Heading Home

We reached our camp and the next morning we were on our way back to Madison by 9:30am. We encountered some debris fields on this day, which slowed us down some. This was a great trip that I highly recommend for Ohio River boaters. For those on an extended trip on the Ohio River, this is an excellent side trip. The river is beautiful and "user friendly". The Kentucky River Authority has done a great service by opening and operating the locks to Frankfort. The KRA and the people of Frankfort do all they can to encourage visitors from the Ohio River. For more information, including lock schedules, operating season, charts, lock contact information and much more, visit the KRA website at:


                  Jerry Hay