Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area: Stairs in the Woods

Stairs in the woods – apparently this is a thing. We were not familiar with this phenomenon, or urban legend, or rural legend, or whatever you want to call it, but a little Googling turned up a rabbit’s warren of strange stories. The original story can allegedly be traced back to a Reddit user who goes by “searchandrescuewoods“. This is from that user’s blog entry:

“I asked about it [stairs in the woods] the first time I saw some, and the other officer just told me not to worry about it, that it was normal. Everyone I asked said the same thing. I wanted to go check them out, but I was told, very emphatically, that I should never go near any of them.”

Searchandrescuewoods tells some pretty outlandish tales, and it’s easy to write them off as fiction. However, the weirdness buck does not stop with Reddit. The internet is chock-full of suspicious staircase stories. Some folks claim to have happened upon white-carpeted stairs – in pristine condition, not a smudge of dirt or a leaf on them, miles from roads or civilization. Others report having climbed the stairs only to lose time, pass out, or else be filled with inexplicable dread. Though we were not armed with these cautionary tales, we never touched the mystery steps on this hike and therefore were never transported to another dimension … or whatever. In retrospect, the discovery of this curiosity did add some interest to a pleasant, but uneventful hike.

We awoke that morning to a gloriously hazy sunrise over Barkley Lake. We were camped at the north end of the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area in the Nickell Branch Backcountry Area, a charming campground that I referred to as the “Nickelback Campground”. As you may suspect – no one found that funny except me – yet I persist.

Lesser Goldfinch
Lesser Goldfinch

The morning haze began to burn off and an hour later we found ourselves on the Canal Loop which crossed the camp road about 500 feet from our campsite. A bright-yellow lesser goldfinch warbled us on our way. That seemed like a good omen. The Kentucky forest greeted us with wildflowers – and that early-bird-hiker favorite – the spiderweb to the face. Fortunately for me, Lisa was hiking point and took the brunt of the morning web-fest. Nevertheless, I am unceasingly amazed at how a woman who is only six inches shorter than I, can somehow “miss” so many silken spanners, leaving them for me to find. And not just with the top of my head. Magically, she passes right through webs that catch me on the neck, chest, and arms. I’m pretty sure she’s a witch.

Soon the trail was running along the banks of the Nickell Branch, an inlet off of Lake Barkley.

At this point, just south of Grand Rivers, KY, the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers pass within two miles of one another on their way to join the Ohio. The Kentucky Dam, on the Tennessee River, and the Barkley Dam on the Cumberland, form these two respective lakes.

The sun glinted off of the water as we hiked past mimosa trees, their fluffy, pink blossoms belonging more in a Dr. Seuss story than beside a Kentuckian lake. Presently, we encountered a Bluegrass State native with a distinctly southern-sounding name: Cooter. The eastern river cooter to be exact. Now, Mr. Cooter wasn’t tuning up any orange Dodge Chargers. He was just hanging around on the trail, eyeing us every bit as suspiciously as Rosco P. Coltrane might treat a Christmas gift from Bo and Luke Duke. We left him to his own devices and continued down the trail.

We crossed the first of several bridges that spanned nameless tributaries to the lakes and found our way blocked by yet another amphibious Kentucky resident. This time it was a common box turtle. This one was markedly less skittish than its friend Cooter and craned its neck to cast annoyed looks at us as we stepped over it to continue our trek.

The trail wound through sun-dappled, deciduous forest, then past some abandoned cinderblock structures and along shallow creeks before delivering us to the North Welcome Station. There, one can find a potable water station and the usual amenities one might expect at a visitor center: maps, a helpful ranger, restrooms, etc.. We crossed Woodlands Trace Scenic Byway in full sun and realized how very hot the day was becoming. We were happy to slip back into the woods on the other side of the station.

A half-mile past the station, we had completely crossed the Land Between the Lakes and came alongside Nickell Cove on Kentucky Lake. The recreation area is a little more than eight miles wide at its widest point, but the tiny peninsula we were tramping was only about a mile and a half in width. Kentucky Lake was hazy and serene in the July sun. Two miles away, across the glassy surface of the water, lakeside homes shimmered on the opposing shore, little white specks distorted by the heat.

For the next two and a half miles the trail flirted with the shoreline, swerving inland only to return to the water a few hundred yards later. It was here that we happened upon …

The stairs in the woods.

For a thing shrouded in so much internet mystery, it looked pretty innocuous. Eight wooden steps leaning casually against a sturdy tree trunk just waiting to be climbed – beckoning us to see what was up there. Perhaps there was something up on that trunk that warranted a closer look. Or maybe something beautiful could be viewed from the top. If we had understood the preternatural dangers of approaching the stairs we may have been more wary; instead, we innocently declined their invitation and continued on our way, oblivious to how close we had come to an encounter with stranger things. If you want to see (or avoid) the sibylline staircase, its coordinates are: 36.968538, -88.208930.


Disclaimer: BIT|Hiker assumes no responsibility for lost time, alien abduction, feelings of dread or remorse, or psychological harm experienced as a result of approaching these stairs.


Five minutes later we arrived on a rocky beach and decided to take a break. I shrugged off my pack and sat down on a log. I looked for Lisa, assuming she would plop down beside me. Instead, she was busily stripping off her clothes.

“What are you doing?” I asked, a little alarmed.

“It’s frikken hot,” she said, ‘I’m getting in the water”.

And she did. I chose to opt out of the wet-skivvies club and stay on the beach to photograph an eastern tiger swallowtail alighting on a buttonbush. No sooner had the swallowtail flitted away than a bumble bee moved in to probe one of the little exploding blooms of the shrub. These beautiful blossoms look like tiny white bursts of fireworks – unfortunately, and as a sign of the times, all I could see was the coronavirus. I held my breath and took another photo. Lisa clambered out of the lake and we continued on our way.

The trail tracked along the shore for another mile before coming to a junction. To our left, the Canal Loop continued; ahead was the Canal Loop Connector C. Six and a half miles of trail were behind us. A left turn would commit us to at least nine miles – the full loop was around eleven. Hot, sweaty, and with a five hour drive ahead of us, we chose the connector. Three-quarters of a mile later, we rejoined the main loop at the tip of Nickell Branch, and soon we strode back into the Nickelback Nickell Branch Campground.

There is a lot to hike in the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area. The park boasts hundreds of miles of trail from easy walks to strenuous hikes. The North South Trail Runs from the North Welcome Station (that we passed on this hike) sixty-five miles to the South Welcome Station – in Tennessee. (The southern third of this 170,000 acre national playground is in the Volunteer State.) In our day and a half we saw one campground, hiked a paltry six miles of LBTL trail, and went swimming once – well, twice for Lisa. A week wouldn’t be enough to really explore this Kentucky-fried (and Tennessee-grilled) natural park. Knowing what we know now, however, we’ll be sure to steer clear of surreptitious staircases skulking in the woods. ♦


Date: July 8, 2020
Location: Grand Rivers, KY
Trailhead: 36.986733, -88.201686
Distance: 7.6 miles
Elevation Gain: 497 feet
Difficulty: Moderate

4 thoughts on “Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area: Stairs in the Woods

    • I shudder to think. Knowing my wife, she would enter the other dimension, kick ass, take names, and someone (or something) over there would end up with an inexplicable feeling of dread.

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  1. Gorgeous photos, and thanks for a wonderful trip down memory lane! I camped and short-haul hiked bits of land between the lakes about 37 years ago. Breathtaking then, and now! If you go again, look for some of the very old tiny cemetery plots – a scant handful are scattered throughout the natural area and are well worth a respectful contemplative visit. Also a great area for equine trekkers – several god horse trails and camp spots.

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  2. Pingback: Switchback Jacks, Trail Hogs, and Trash Trolls | BIT|Hiker

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