Kentucky's Major Waterways

The Mississippi River begins at Lake Itasca in Minnesota and empties into the Gulf of Mexico approximately 100 miles downstream from New Orleans, Louisiana. Measurements of the total length of the river vary as it changes course slightly from time to time. However, the U.S. government records the river's length at 2320 miles.

The Mississippi River has the third largest drainage basin in the world, topped only by the Amazon River and the Congo. It drains all or part of 31 states and two Canadian provinces, covering more than 1,245,000 square miles or 3,225,000 square kilometers.

Major tributaries of the Mississippi include the Illionois River, Missouri River, Ohio River, Arkansas River, and the Atchafalya.

The Ohio River and its Tributaries

The Ohio River runs into the Mississippi after draining a watershed that spans 14 states, including all of the state of Kentucky except for a small portion of the Jackson Purchase in extreme western Kentucky, which drains directly into the Mississippi.

The Ohio River is formed by the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers at Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and flows 981 miles or 1579 kilometers before reaching the Mississippi at Cairo, Illinois.

Kentucky cities along the Ohio River include: Maysville, Ashland, Newport, Covington, Louisville, Owensboro, Henderson, and Paducah.

Major tributaries of the river that flow in or through the Commonwealth of Kentucky include: Big Sandy, Cumberland, Green, Kentucky, Licking, and Tennessee rivers.

The Big Sandy River

The Big Sandy is formed between Louisa, Kentucky and Fort Gay, West Virginia by the confluence of the Tug Fork and Levisa Fork. It flows almost 30 miles before reaching the Ohio River at the shared state boundary of Kentucky, Ohio, and West Virginia, between Catlettsburg, Kentucky and Kenova, West Virginia. The entire course of the Big Sandy forms part of the state boundary line between Kentucky and West Virginia.

The Cumberland River

The Cumberland River, a portion of which is classified as a "wild river", is approximately 700 miles long and has a drainage basin of 18,500 square miles or 48,000 square kilometers.

The river begins in Letcher County, Kentucky near the Virginia border, flows through SE Kentucky, and dips into Tennessee, before curving back into Western Kentucky and joining the Ohio River at Smithland, Kentucky.

A famous feature on the river, and a highlight of one of our state parks, is Cumberland Falls. The waterfall is one of the largest in the eastern United States and home to the only moonbow in the Western Hemisphere.

Large resevoirs, or recreational lakes, have been created along the Cumberland River by a series of dams, including Lake Barkley in western Kentucky, Lake Cumberland in southern Kentucky and Old Hickory Lake to the east of Nashville, Tennessee.

Dams on the tributaries of the Cumberland have created Dale Hollow Lake on the Obey River in northeast middle Tennessee, Percy Priest Lake on the Stones River in Nashville, and Laurel Lake on the Laurel River in southern Kentucky.

Other tributaries of the Cumberland include the Little River, formed in Christian County (KY), the Rockcastle River, formed on the Jackson-Laurel (KY) county line, and the Big South Fork.

The Big South Fork of the Cumberland River is a world-class whitewater canoeing and kayaking stream and is protected by the U.S. National Park Service as the central feature of the Big South Fork National Recreation Area.

The Green River

The 370-mile long Green River holds claim to "Kentucky's longest river" because its entire course flows within the boundaries of the Commonwealth of Kentucky, as opposed to longer rivers which dip into other states.

The river is a national showcase in terms of biodiversity. It is considered one of the top four river systems in the United States in terms of the fish and mussel varieties found there. The river supports 150+ known species of fish and over 70 mussels. Twelve of the fish species that live in the Green River are found no where else in the world.

Rising in Lincoln County, the Green River flows west draining 12 counties and creating Green River Lake on its way to the Ohio River across from Evansville, Indiana.

The river flows through and drains Mammoth Cave in Edmonson County - the longest known cave system in the world. It is within the Green River drainage system that the unique creatures of Mammoth Cave National Park dwell. (See: Mammoth Cave, for more information.)
Tributaries of the Green River include the Barren, Little Barren, Mud, Nolin, Pond, and Rough rivers.

The Kentucky River

The Kentucky River is formed by the confluence of the North and South Forks in Lee County and meanders 259 miles, or 417 km, before reaching the Ohio River at Carrollton, Kentucky.

The river carries water from the hills of the Daniel Boone National Forest through the central part of the state where it supplies approximately one-sixth of Kentucky's population, including the city of Lexington, with drinking water.

The Kentucky River Palisades is the most prominent natural feature along the river's course.

Tributaries of the Kentucky River include: the Dix and Red rivers and Benson and Elkhorn creeks.

A dam on Dix River creates Kentucky's oldest man-made resevoir, Herrington Lake, before the Dix joins the Kentucky at High Bridge.

Mouth of the Licking River at Covington-Newport, Kentucky
Mouth of the Licking River, Covington-Newport, Kentucky, (Photo by Rick Dikeman, 2004)

The Licking River

The Licking River rises in southeast Magoffin County. The course of the river twists and turns taking the flow past Salyersville and West Liberty to Rowan County, where it is impounded to form Cave Run Lake.

The river continues on a meandering course to the Ohio River, receiving waters from its tributaries of Fleming Creek, North Fork of the Licking River, and South Fork of the Licking River, before separating the Kentucky cities of Newport and Covington, (see photo above), and pouring into the Ohio across from Cincinnati.

The ecosystem of the river supports a number of unique species of fish including: blue sucker, eastern sand, mimic shiner, paddlefish, redside dace, slender madtom, and streamline chub.

The river is also considered to be a rare example of a native muskie stream.

The Tennessee River

The Tennessee River is the largest tributary of the Ohio. It is formed on the east side of Knoxville (TN), by the confluence of the Holston and French Broad rivers. It flows southwest toward Chattanooga (TN), loops south into northern Alabama, then flows northward back into Tennessee and on to Kentucky where it separates the Jackson Purchase from the rest of the state before joining the Ohio at Paducah.

The course of the Tennessee River runs 650 miles or 1,046 km and tributaries include the East and West forks of Clarks River.

Minor Tributaries of the Ohio River Within Kentucky's Boundaries:

  • Little Kentucky River - rises in Henry County, flows through Trimble and Carroll counties and joins the Ohio west of Carrollton.
  • Little Sandy River - rises in Elliott County, flows northeast forming Grayson Lake along its way to the Ohio at Greenup, Kentucky.
  • Salt River - rises near Danville and forms Taylorsville Lake in Spencer County on its way to the Ohio at West Point, Kentucky.
  • Tradewater River - rises in northern Christian County and joins the Ohio southwest of Sturgis.
  • Tygarts Creek - forms in Carter County and flows into the Ohio at South Shore.

Rivers - Puzzles and Games

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