Laurel River Lake in Kentucky
Its that magical time of year. Days get shorter, nights get cooler, trees tell of coming winter. All the jetski's have finally gone into hibernation, and the big inboards of a neighboring state's invading navy have gone back to home port. Mid October finds this destination serene, even dead flat if one chooses to go during the week.
Laurel River Lake is a Y shaped reservoir administered by the USACE in southeastern Kentucky. The surrounding landscape is almost entirely USFS owned, so there is no development anywhere on the lake, save two marinas, two boat-in campgrounds (developed), and a handful of boat ramps. I have found the Spruce Creek section to be particularly nice, along with the Craigs Creek section. As of today, there is an active bald eagle nest just up the Rockcastle River (southern) side of the lake. It is buoyed off, but the eagles can be seen fishing in adjacent coves and perched on dead snags near the lake. The nest is visible from the limit of the buoys, looking like a small bushy VW up in a big oak tree. Its definitely worth the paddle, note - bring binoculars.
Camping is the big draw for Laurel River Lake. During the summer, when a paddler must share the lake with numerous motorized craft, most of the campsites fill up rather quickly. If you're brave enough to try this place on a summer weekend, and want to camp, get there Friday morning to get a good spot. There are two types of boat camping on Laurel. Boat-in campgrounds administered by the USFS, or primitive sites at the water's edge throughout the length of the lake. Boat-ins are nice, and have fire rings, picnic tables, tent pads and pit toilet facilities. Bear in mind that a mid sized pontoon with a family of 10 can pack in a lot of civilization right next door though. They cost, at this time, $7 per site/night, and are located at two places, White Oak, just east of Marsh Branch Boat Ramp, on the north side of the lake, and at Grove, Just up the lake from Grove Marina. If you really want to get away, though, the primitives are everywhere. Nearly every point has a well used campsite which, depending on time of year and the most recent occupants, can be in varying states of cleanliness. These are free, but totally primitive. Most front on the lake, or are within a few yards of the water.
Since the lake is surrounded by USFS, the water is very clear. Visibility is several feet, especially in the coves. Another Really Cool Thing -- Waterfalls. They're everywhere, especially at the heads of coves after a rainy time. This lake is great for outdoor photography in the fall, and is a prime location for leaf watching. Thats where I'm going to be.
The key to getting a quality paddling experience at Laurel is to go during the week, and to avoid it during summer weekends. The traffic can be borderline dangerous, not so much because of boater recklesness (lots of nice people out there), but sheer volume is a problem, esp on holiday weekends. Oh, and around, say 6-7 pm, the lake gets deceptively quiet, just before they cut loose the bass fishermen, which though once they get to their spots are pretty benign, cut out like a Nascar start at the starting time for their tournament.
If you really want to do it right, go during mid October to watch the season change. Since its entirely bordered by deciduous forest, its stunning in the fall. Plan to spend a couple days and camp during the week, and you won't be disappointed.
If you're looking for a Motel, either Corbin or London has plenty from Super8 to Holiday Inn Express. Laurel River Lake has everything but a big lodge. There are campgrounds for Drive in camping (Holly Bay, Grove), Primitive camping as well. Boat in campgrounds (Grove, White Oak) are well maintained ($7/night), and there is ample primitive camping along the shoreline as well.
Drive in campgrounds as well as boat in campgrounds charge various fees depending on your rig and the season. Also, to use any boat ramps other than HighTop of Craig's Creek, there is a parking permit, avialable for day, weekend or year, which can be bought at any local store (I've found parking and access to be just fine at the two free ramps though)
Taking exit 25 on I-75 in Kentucky, turn west on US 25W. Either turn at the sign for HighTop Ramp, or continue on to KY 1193, which follows the southern boundary of Laurel River Lake to its dam, then crosses the dam and meets KY 192, which loops back to London (first exit north of Corbin) and follows the north shore of the lake.
DeLorme map gazetteer, also see the agency website for the USACE.
- Trip Duration: Day Trip
- Sport/Activity: Kayaking, Canoeing
- Skill Level: Beginner
- Water Type: Flat/Sheltered Water