Length/Type: Approximately 2.5 miles; loop; Difficulty: Easy (paved surface, flat to rolling grades); Other Considerations: The loop is open to vehicular traffic. Watch for oncoming vehicles if walking, riding, or running this loop.
If you’ve ever driven US Highway 119 from Jenkins to Whitesburg, Kentucky, you’ve probably seen a sign for the curiously (and repetitively) named Fish Pond Lake. Unless you’ve made the turn at this sign, though, you’ve likely never seen the lake yourself…and you’ve been missing out. Fish Pond Lake and its companion Little Laurel Park are a scenic piece of Letcher County tucked away at the foot of Pine Mountain near the settlement of Payne Gap. The lake itself is 45 acres in size and contains outstanding fishing opportunities and several picnic shelters nearby. Letcher County’s Parks and Recreation page even mentions that a population of freshwater jellyfish inhabits the lake alongside trout and other game fish.
While there aren’t any official foot trails at the lake of any length, the loop road around Fish Pond Lake makes for an outstanding route for foot and bike travel. Yes, it’s a paved road, but the scenery and low traffic flow make for a great trip. It’s the perfect easy walk for folks just getting into the outdoors and especially for those looking to ramp up their fitness level for eventually hitting true trails in the woods. It also could be a great place for a runner or cyclist to put down some miles throughout a few loops without having to worry about fast-moving traffic.
The loop road around Fish Pond Lake officially begins where the road into the lake from US-119 splits just above the lake itself. Limited parking is available in a gravel pull-out here, as well as at a larger gravel lot a short distance back down the entrance road. Scattered pull-off parking also exists at intervals along the loop road. We will tailor this write-up to start where the loop road splits, taking the left fork if coming in form US-119, and traveling in a clockwise direction around the loop.
From the split, the road quickly winds downhill to the Fish Pond Lake Dam at 0.1 miles. The road crosses the dam, providing an outstanding view to the north up the length of the lake, before bending right past a boat launch and a bridge where Fishpond Branch exits the lake at 0.2 miles. From here, the road enters the woods and travels uphill, passing what will be the first of several pull-outs on the right at 0.4 miles. This theme will continue for most of the remainder of the loop’s first half. The road stays mostly shaded under a thick forest canopy and winds above the lake and several inlet tributaries, passing a few overlooks back towards the dam and Pine Mountain around 1.0 miles in.
The road reaches the back of the lake at an open area 1.5 miles from its initial split. The loop bends right at this point (staying close to the lake), and passes several more pullouts that lead down to the lakeshore in the next half mile or so. The remainder of the loop’s last mile stays mostly under the forest canopy and above the water, rejoining the start of the loop at 2.5 miles.
Once you’re done with the loop, consider heading a few more miles south on US-119 into the city of Whitesburg, a town that in the past several years has become an arts and outdoor recreation hub. Check out Pine Mountain Outfitters as you come into town for outdoor gear and info, catch a live show at Summit City Lounge downtown, or grab some eats at the Thirsty Heifer, the Streetside Grill, or any of the other dining establishments in town. Heck, while you’re at it, pick up some moonshine at the Kentucky Mist distillery before you head home. Before you know it, a short jaunt around the lake can turn into an entire day out.
It’s hard to tell from down in the hollow where Fish Pond Lake sits, but this small reservoir is located almost right on the edge of the true Appalachian Plateau. The Plateau is one of three physiographic provinces (or areas with similar geologic, climatic, and biotic characteristics) in Appalachia; the remaining two include the Valley and Ridge Province where I-81 runs and the high summits of the Blue Ridge on the mountains’ eastern side.
The Appalachian Plateau technically continues to the east of Fish Pond Lake into southwest Virginia, but the true plateau – a roughly level to rolling landform with steeply-sloped sides – ends here when traveling from west to east. That’s because the steep slopes of Pine Mountain create a geologic distinction and a barrier to easy travel just beyond the lake on the Virginia-Kentucky border. Pine Mountain is one of the most imposing features in the Appalachian chain at 125 miles in length and is part of the Cumberland Mountains, a part of the region with differing geology than the rest of the Appalachian Plateau.
Why is Pine Mountain so different? Its long ridgeline is actually the result of something called a “thrust fault,” or a break in the Earth’s crust where rock strata are fractured and pushed up and over nearby, adjacent rocks. Here at Pine Mountain, a thrust fault was created roughly 300 million years ago, when the North American and African continental plates collided, creating the modern-day Appalachian Mountains. The force from this continental collision was so strong that the rocks making up Pine Mountain’s summit were forced westward, eventually fracturing and sliding up and over rocks to the north and west. Today, we see only the uppermost lip of this massive block of faulted rocks when we look at Pine Mountain’s summit – it’s actually the broken edge of the ancient thrust fault that helped shape the mountains as we see them today.
Even if you’ve never thought of Pine Mountain’s influence until now, you’ve still felt it if you live in southwest Virginia or eastern Kentucky. The mountain is only crossed in a few places by roads – US-23 at Pound Gap and US-119 west of Whitesburg being two of them – meaning that traveling from one side of the mountain to the other often means taking a laborious route around the mountain’s base until a gap with a highway is reached. Pine Mountain also influences the region’s weather, too, since its steep slopes form some of the first true high mountain terrain that storm systems face when moving in from the Midwest. The steep slopes you can see from the loop around Fish Pond Lake, in fact, help to “lift” incoming moisture, providing what can occasionally be a boost to storms bringing rain and snow.
Directions: If traveling from Pikeville, KY or southwest Virginia on US Highway 23, take the US-119 South exit towards Whitesburg just north of the Virginia-Kentucky line. From there, take US-119 south approximately 2.0 miles to KY-3400 on the right. A sign here denotes the turn towards Fish Pond Lake. Travel approximately 0.4 miles on KY-3400 and turn left onto Fish Pond Drive. Take this road into the park for 0.3 miles to where the loop road around the lake begins.
If traveling from Whitesburg, KY, take US-119 north approximately 8.7 miles from the Ky-15/US-119 split near the Pine Mountain Grill. Then, turn left onto KY-3400 at the sign for Fish Pond Lake. Follow directions as seen above from this point.