Written by Capt. C. Richard Smith
The beautiful Kentucky River has long been a favorite cruising ground of mine. As a youngster, I fished in flat bottom johnboats on the Kentucky River. Later, when I was a young adult, a group of us would jump on my 28’ Marinette, throw a 50 lb. block of ice into the icebox, fire up the 318 Chrysler and head to Frankfort for the weekend. This was in the early 1980’s and tow boats with barges still plied the Kentucky River. Unfortunately, the locks on the Kentucky River were closed in about 2007.
However, in 2012, The Kentucky River Authority undertook the ambitious project of repairing and reopening locks 1 through 4 of the Kentucky River, thus enabling boaters to travel from the Ohio River to Frankfort by boat. From the mouth of the Kentucky River at Carrollton, through lock 4 to Frankfort, the distance is approximately 65 river miles. According to Rodney Simpson, Chairman of the Kentucky River Authority, the cost of these repairs was a little under $8 million. Fortunately for boaters in the Louisville area, we can once again enjoy a trip on the beautiful Kentucky River to Frankfort.
My wife and first mate, Becky Wilson Smith, and I had the pleasure of taking our 42’ Grand Banks, Chillin’, from Prospect, Kentucky to Frankfort and back over the Labor Day weekend in September 2016. I am writing this article to pass on some information to area boaters and encourage them to make this wonderful trip.
According to the Kentucky River Authority, the locks will operate once again this year from May 26, 2017 to October 29, 2017. Normal lockage will be each weekend, water levels permitting, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, with an additional day on Memorial Day weekend and Labor Day weekend and two additional days on the Fourth of July weekend. I would strongly encourage you to visit the Kentucky River Authority website. Simply Google “Kentucky River Authority” to view the exact lock schedule. The website also includes helpful information about lockage, navigation, history etc. LINK
We began our trip by spending a relaxing evening anchored just below Lock 1. After a pleasant and restful night, we locked through at 10 a.m. on Thursday. Five other boats of various sizes and descriptions locked through with us. Construction of Lock 1 began in 1836 and it was opened in 1842. The historian in me marvels that we are going through a lock built 20 years before the Civil War. The stonework on the walls of the locks can only be described as functional artwork! I would highly recommend that you purchase one of the navigation maps which are available at the locks for a very modest cost. I found them to be high quality and very useful.
Becky and I have been through many locks both in the U.S. and Canada and we have never encountered such nice, respectful and helpful lock personnel as we encountered on our trip to Frankfort. It is easy to see that they enjoy what they are doing and they want the boating community to be safe and enjoy their trip.
It was a beautiful day with clear skies and seasonal temperatures. Chillin’ has a draft of 4.5 feet. On our entire trip to Frankfort and back, we saw an average of about 10 feet on the depth sounder. The water was slightly shallow just below Lock 3 at Monterey. But, we still found about 6 feet of water even there. The navigation maps do a good job of pointing out shallow areas. As with all rivers we stayed pretty much to the middle of the channel. The Kentucky River being much smaller than the Ohio River means that you are always in close proximity to the riverbank and the beauty of the farmland, forest and small towns along the way.
We cruised at a leisurely 8.5 knots (9.5 mph) but we were very careful to slow down for other boats and docks etc. The Kentucky River is a smaller waterway, so all boaters need to be very concerned about their wake. Slow down and enjoy the trip! It is simply common courtesy to slow down for boats and docks, etc., and remember you are responsible for the damage caused by your wake. Even at our leisurely pace, we had no problem transiting all four locks and arriving in Frankfort about 6 p.m. Although there are many beautiful anchorages along the trip from the Ohio to Frankfort, there is no dockage available until you arrive at Frankfort.
Just above Lock 4 at Frankfort there is a city dock available on a first-come first serve basis. It is situated in front of the Capital Plaza Hotel, very close to downtown. We chose to dock at the Frankfort Boat Club for a very reasonable dockage fee. The regulars at the Frankfort Boat Club were very accommodating, warm and friendly!
We ate at the Club Café which is open Wednesday through Sunday during the summer. Established in 1865, the Frankfort Boat Club is one of the oldest boat clubs in the U.S. Also, Frankfort Boat Club has gasoline available.
Once you arrive at Frankfort, you can extend your cruise up river 17 more miles to Lock 5 which remains closed as of this writing. It is a beautiful cruise above Frankfort! Keep your eyes peeled for the sighting of a Bald Eagle. We saw one between Locks 2 and 3.
On our return trip, we spent one night anchored between Locks 1 and 2. Anchoring on the Kentucky River is all the more enjoyable because of almost no commercial traffic. After a relaxing and enjoyable overnight anchorage on Sunday evening, we continued our trip back toward the Ohio River. Once again, the lock staff were helpful, friendly and prompt. We arrived at the Ohio River early Monday afternoon, then completed our cruise back to Prospect, our home port. It was a most enjoyable weekend, and I would encourage you to take this relaxing and beautiful cruise up the Kentucky River.
We always find it intriguing to see what is around the next bend in the river. As a result of the opening of the 4 locks on the Kentucky River, you can travel by boat all the way from Frankfort, Kentucky on the Kentucky River to Florida and beyond.
After departing Frankfort, we cruised down the Kentucky River to the Ohio River, then to the Cumberland River, the Tennessee River, the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway to Mobile, Alabama, then across the Gulf to Florida, where Chillin’ is docked as of this writing.
We encourage you to see what is around the next bend!
Editor's note: We thank Capt. Richard for such a great write-up, and hope that you will be inspired to visit Frankfort for yourself!