By Jeremy Patton
Laurel Lake Loop Trail is located in Whitley County, Kentucky.
From KY-1193, turn into the parking lot located on the south side of Laurel River Dam. The trailhead resides near the picnic shelter.
The 1.2-mile trail is intermediate level. It traverses rough, hilly terrain, hugging the bluffs above Laurel River. There are two developed overlooks; watch for unmarked side-paths leading to both. The overlooks are worth a visit, but views are partially obstructed by trees.
I do not think that this trail gets much traffic because summer visitors are more interested in Laurel Lake.
Laurel Lake Loop Trail provides some good scenery and exercise. For those who prefer a greater challenge, try the off-trail excursion that follows. I recommend it for advanced hikers only:
About midway during the trek, you will see a faint side-path that heads downhill toward Laurel River. A small, wet-weather waterfall lives near this spot. I call it Laurel Lake Loop Falls.
Descend about 50 feet then follow the side-path east or west if you would like to explore the geology beneath the cliffs. For the off-trail excursion, continue downhill through an overgrown pass to the river.
There, you will see Laurel River Falls #1 cascading down the cliff across the river (this might actually be Dave Branch Falls, but I have yet to confirm that). It was impressive on 5/1/16, but it probably dries up during the summer. You can also get a partial view of Laurel River Dam from this spot.
A word of caution: Stay out of Laurel River Gorge during flooding. Overflow from the spillway and release from the dam can morph the diminished waterway into a raging river.
Follow the river west for about 0.5 miles. You will discover three more waterfalls on this segment, the second being a series of short plunges that emerge during low water: Laurel River Falls #2
Laurel River Falls #3 is fed by a tributary about 0.25 miles down-stream. It is similar to the first waterfall, but easier to examine because you can get closer to it.
You will reach Spillway Falls at the half-mile mark. I had discovered it earlier with my girlfriend Delania when we followed its source from the spillway to its confluence with the Laurel River. I estimate that it is 20-25 feet high, depending on the water level. When Delania and I stood near its crest on 4/3/16, I vowed to return and find a way to its base. As you can see, I succeeded, but it was hard work.
Half a mile does not sound very far, but when every step is hampered by undergrowth, boulders and climbs into the cliffs, it takes a long time. Again, this off-trail hike is taxing and I only recommend it for advanced hikers who are in shape.
Thank you Jimmy Hoskins for informing about Laurel River Loop Trail.