Hidden America: The Kentucky Bend Exclave

by  Darren Murph | Sep 19, 2013
Kentucky Bend
Kentucky Bend / ehrlif/iStock

As any midwesterner will tell you, Kentucky is an incredibly beautiful place to visit in the fall; then again, the same could be said for Tennessee and Missouri. If you're trying to figure out which one to visit on an upcoming road trip, you'll be glad to hear it's possible to visit all three within a matter of minutes.

At the far southwestern edge of the Bluegrass State, the Kentucky Bend is one of the oddest state borders in the United States. It's a rare example of an exclave, or a piece of land isolated from the rest of its borders and surrounded by foreign soil. Considering there are only a handful of exclaves in the U.S. (Ellis Island, interestingly, is one of them), this geographical oddity, located roughly equidistant between St Louis, Evansville, and Nashville, is a must-see stop on any tour through this part of the country.

What is it? The Kentucky Bend is also known in some circles as the New Madrid Bend, Madrid Bend, Bessie Bend, or Bubbleland. Technically, the entire 17.5 square mile plot is located in Kentucky, but the mailing address of the area is in fact Tiptonville, Tennessee. The land is nearly surrounded by the oxbow loop meander of the Mississippi River, and as with Point Roberts, Washington, the reason for its existence boils down to human error. Early surveyors merely estimated where the border between Kentucky and Tennessee would meet the Mississippi river, but the line they settled on actually cuts through a slice of Kentucky. Presently, under 20 citizens call this place home, and strangely, they can't visit the Kentucky Derby, watch a Louisville home game or even visit the capital of Frankfort without first driving through Tennessee. (Good thing the two states are on speaking terms.)

How do you get there?  If you're traveling along Interstate 55, a highway that connects St. Louis to Memphis, visiting the Kentucky Bend is surprisingly easy. Just point your GPS to Tiptonville, Tennessee, and it'll guide you across the Mississippi (likely using the Highway 155 bridge). If you're already in Tennessee, it's in the extreme northwest corner of the state, and you'll be forced to traverse a number of smaller roadways to get there. In our opinion, that adds to the charm.

Things to see and do: The Kentucky Bend is a quaint, quiet locale with no tourism industry to speak of. On any given day, you may be the only out-of-towner there, and while it's a solid day trip from any of the nearby towns (Peducah, Memphis, Jackson, and Nashville), the turning of the fall leaves makes it worth the trip.

You won't find any major adventure outfits here or street vendors hawking chintzy souvenirs. This out-of-the-way locale is of most interest to those who simply enjoy visiting geographical oddities. That said, it is surrounded (almost) by the Mississippi River, offering up excellent river views, terrific kayaking, and outstanding fishing opportunities. For those interested in literature, the Kentucky Bend prominently features in Mark Twain's book Life on the Mississippi. If you visit, be sure to take a photograph and have it embossed onto a magnet; you certainly won't find any in the surrounding markets.

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