Length/Type: Approximately 1.5 miles one-way, out-and-back; Difficulty: Moderate (some moderately steep but short climbs, some undergrowth present in summer); Other Considerations: The trail’s end at the mouth of Laurel Fork can be buggy in warm months, and the trailhead parking area is not secured overnight – both considerations for potential overnight campers. You can download a detailed topo map of the hike here.
One of the great things about hiking in the Cumberlands is that there’s always a new trail somewhere to discover. Some are well-developed trails that you’ve personally never hiked before, while others are older trails that have fallen out of the public’s notice but still make a great hike. The Laurel Fork Trail, located just outside of Pound, Virginia near the Virginia-Kentucky line, is one of those latter examples. It’s a short hike at 1.5 miles in length each way, but its unassuming location at the Pound Boat Launch keeps it hidden from public view. In spite of this, it’s a surprisingly scenic hike along the shores of the North Fork of the Pound Reservoir, into a beautiful stream side woods, and ending at a backcountry campsite near the foot of Pine Mountain.
The Laurel Fork Trail has what is easily one of the more simply-accessed trailheads in the region: the parking area for the Pound Boat Launch just off of US-23. While the launch itself is located along the lakeshore, the beginning of the trail can be found on the opposite side of the entrance road directly across from the parking area (a sign denotes the trail’s start). From here, the trail quickly enters an open woods and begins to bend around the shore of the lake.
This trend continues for the first few hundred yards of the hike, taking you above the lake itself and eventually up an arm of the reservoir. It’s just beyond this point – as the lake narrows deeper and deeper into a cove – that the character of the trail begins to change. Still easily followed, the trailbed enters a more riparian, or streamside, forest that can be densely shaded and cool even into the summer. A couple of quick rock-hops of seasonal tributaries are made along this stretch until the lake disappears and the trail begins to follow Hopkins Branch, which makes its way off the lower slopes of Pine Mountain. This stretch of trail is surprisingly scenic, especially compared to the much drier and open woods near the trail’s start.
The trail turns left and crosses Hopkins Branch 0.7 miles from the trailhead, almost immediately beginning to climb on the other side. This climb continues, passing into a clearing and then through a much more open, scrubby forest, to a gap at 1.0 miles. This stretch of trail appears to have been impacted by a forest fire and may be somewhat overgrown in summer months. The trail is still relatively easy to follow, though, and is clearly marked with yellow blazes. The trail then descends into the Laurel Fork watershed on the other side of the gap, passing a couple of concrete cisterns embedded in the forest floor along the way
This descent continues, passing through another very scenic forest and rocky section, all the way to Laurel Fork at 1.5 miles from the trailhead. There are actually two streams – tributaries of Laurel Fork – that join here before entering the lake just beyond the trail’s end. Although the trail officially ends at the creek, it is easy to rock-hop the stream and cross through the clearing of the old Laurel Fork Campground – now an informal backcountry camping area – to the shore of the lake at a surprisingly scenic spot. To return to the trailhead, simply retrace your steps back up the mountain.
One of the natural highlights of the Laurel Fork Trail is its seemingly two-faced forests. One minute you may be walking through a dense, shaded Appalachian hardwood forest along a stream, while abruptly entering an open, sunny, scrubby woods the next. What’s going on?
You’re actually witnessing a phenomenon called succession – the ecological term for changes in a habitat over time – in these more open forests along the trail. Succession occurs most commonly in our region when a habitat is disturbed, or changed somehow from its natural ecological state. If left undisturbed, our forests most typically take the form of diverse hardwood forests with a closed canopy and ferns and wildflowers along the forest floor. Disturb that habitat somehow – say, to an open field – and succession almost immediately begins to occur.
Shortly after disturbance, grasses and other “weeds” begin to take over a forest clearing and, over time, grow taller and more dense (think about what happens if you simply stopped mowing your yard, for example). As these plants die and are replaced by new generations of grasses and herbaceous plants, their dead and decaying organic material helps to thicken and enhance the soil, eventually forming the right environment for shrubs and smaller trees to take over. These plants then die – enhancing the soil layer even more – until more and more trees populate the area. This process continues, with trees providing enhanced shade for new species to settle in the area, until the habitat eventually returns to the hardwood forests mentioned above. This, in a nutshell, is succession.
The more open areas of the Laurel Fork Trail are in early stages of succession thanks to both natural (in the form of a wildfire on the way up to the gap at mile 1.0) and human forces (clearings in the old Laurel Fork Campground at the trail’s end). As you hike, see if you can notice the different types of plants and forest structure in these areas relative to the more mature forests elsewhere on the trail. Can you think of how the animal residents of the forest might take advantage of these differences?
Directions: From the intersection of US-23 and US-58 Alternate in Norton, Virginia, travel north 15 miles to Old North Fork Road (a sign here points towards the Pound Boat Launch). Turn left onto Old North Fork Road and follow it, past the dam and the US Army Corps of Engineers office, to its end at the Pound Boat Launch. The trail begins just to the right of and above the boat launch if facing the lake.