Editor’s note: This is the second part of the sixth article in an occasional series presenting the Kentucky river basins.
The Cumberland River Part Two: The Upper River Basin
About 700 miles long, the Cumberland River originates in southeastern Kentucky near the Virginia Line, flows southwest through Tennessee, and then turns north to join the Ohio River at Smithland in Livingston County.
The Cumberland River drainage basin drains 7,000 square miles of eastern and western Kentucky and 11,000 square miles of northern Tennessee.
The Cumberland River was named on April 17, 1750 by the Virginia physician, surveyor, and land speculator Thomas Walker in honor of William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland, son of George II and Queen Caroline.
Art Lander Jr. is the Outdoors Editor for the Northern Kentucky Tribune. He is a native Kentuckian, graduate of Western Kentucky University, and a lifelong hunter, angler, gardener, and nature lover. He has worked as a newspaper columnist, magazine journalist and author and is a former contributor to Kentucky Afield Magazine, editor of the annual Kentucky Hunting & Trapping Guide and Kentucky Spring Hunting Guide, and co-author of the newspaper column Kentucky Afield Outdoors.
Another early explorer in the region was Daniel Boone, America’s fundamental frontier, who first set foot in Kentucky in the fall of 1767 and made several trips hunting and exploring the interior in the years that followed. One of Boone’s most famous quotes was “Heaven must be a place in Kentucky.”
The Cumberland River headwaters are three forks—Martin’s Fork, Clover Fork, and Poor Fork—that converge in Harlan County.
In this article, the upper basin is defined as the Cumberland River from its upper reaches downstream to the Kentucky–Tennessee border. The upper Cumberland River drainage basin encompasses nine counties in Kentucky, approximately 2,336 square miles.
The riverside forests support towering timber with rich, colorful vegetation beneath the story – rhododendrons, mountain laurels and wildflowers.
The highest point in the basin and in Kentucky is Black Mountain in Harlan County, 4,145 feet above sea level.
Streams and Lakes in Kentucky
• Martin’s Fork Lake, a small reservoir in the upper reaches of the Cumberland River, was impounded by Martin’s Fork of the Cumberland River, which rises northeast in Bell County in the Cumberland Gap National Historical Park.
The lake is four miles southwest of Cawood in Harlan County. Its dam is located at mile 15.6 of the Cumberland River and dams water across a shallow valley on the Kentucky/Virginia line.
Opened in 1979, Martin’s Fork Lake is a 3.7-mile reservoir covering 334 acres with a summer pool at an elevation of 1,310 feet. Directly above the dam, the lake is about 45 feet deep. There is a 10 foot drop to the winter pool, an elevation of 1,300, reducing the lake to 274 acres.
• The three major tributaries of the upper Cumberland River Basin in Kentucky are the Laurel, Rockcastle and Big South Fork of the Cumberland River.
From Williamsburg in Whitley County downstream to Lake Cumberland, the Cumberland is classified as a Kentucky Wild River.
• The Laurel River is 42 miles long and drains portions of Whitley and Laurel counties. The town of Corbin is on the river about 15 miles east of its mouth.
Laurel River Lake is located in Laurel and Whitley counties, off Interstate-75, in the Daniel Boone National Forest.
The dam is about 20 miles east of Corbin and 2.8 miles above the confluence of the Laurel and Cumberland Rivers.
Craig’s Creek Bay is spectacular in the fall, when colorful leaves provide a backdrop to rocky islands and waterfalls.
The 5,600-acre reservoir, which opened in 1974, has 206 miles of shoreline and is 19.2 miles long at the summer pool, elevation 1,015 feet. The winter basin’s elevation of 982 feet reduces the lake to 4,200 acres.
The lake is 280 feet deep just above the dam and has an average depth of 65 feet, making it one of the deepest in the state.
• The Rockcastle River is 54.8 miles long. There are two forks. The Middle Fork rises in southern Jackson County and the South Fork in Clay County.
The Narrows of the Rockcastle is one of the state’s premier whitewater paddling destinations.
• The Big South Fork of the Cumberland River is 76 miles long and originates at the confluence of the New River and Clear Fork in Scott County, Tennessee, flows north into Kentucky and empties into Lake Cumberland, in McCreary County near Burnside .
Its tributaries drain about 1,252 square miles, 17 percent of which is in the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area.
Covering 125,000 acres, the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area offers visitors a wide range of outdoor activities including paddling, rock climbing, fishing and hiking.
The scenic area offers miles of gorges and sandstone cliffs rich in natural and historical features.
Visit the website at www.nps.gov for more information
• Lake Cumberland, Kentucky’s largest reservoir, is located in McCreary, Whitley, Laurel, Pulaski, Wayne, Russell and Clinton counties.
Lake Cumberland has 50,250 acres of water surface. Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley, which extend into Tennessee, are larger overall, but only 49,511 acres of Kentucky Lake are in Kentucky, and only 42,020 acres of Lake Barkley are in Kentucky.
Wolf Creek Dam was built at Mile 460.9 of the Cumberland River, 10 miles south of Jamestown.
Construction began in August 1941 but was delayed by three years during World War II. The project opened to the public in August 1952.
The main access roads are US 127, Ky. 90, Ky. 192, US 27 and the Cumberland Parkway.
The rocky, picturesque lake with its many islands and waterfalls is one of Kentucky’s major tourist attractions and particularly popular with house boaters.
Lake Cumberland is 101 miles (101 miles) long and has 1,255 miles (1,255 miles) of shoreline at Summer Pool (723 meters elevation). Winter runoff reduces the lake to 35,823 acres at elevation 673.
One of the deepest dams in the state, Lake Cumberland has an average depth of 90 feet and is about 180 feet deep just above the dam at the summer pool.
There are two state parks.
The year-round Lake Cumberland State Resort Park is located about 13 miles south of Jamestown, off US 127, in Russell County.
The park covers 3,117 hectares and was established in 1951. Facilities include a 63-room lodge, 20 cabins, a restaurant, a 129-site campground, an indoor pool with hot tub, and two hiking trails. For information phone 270-343-3111.
Open year-round, General Burnside Island State Park is south of Burnside off US 27.
Kentucky’s only Island State Park, covering 430 acres, was established in 1958.
Facilities include a 102-site campground that is open seasonally, an 18-hole golf course and a picnic area with two shelters.
For information phone 606-561-4104.
The upper Cumberland River flows through rocky, mountainous terrain and over time has carved narrow gorges, with valleys dotted with large boulders that have fallen from cliffs, rock overhangs and crags.
Cumberland Falls in Whitley County is 55 feet tall and is one of the few places in the western hemisphere where a moonbow can be seen on a clear full moon night.
Cumberland Falls is the centerpiece of one of Kentucky’s oldest state parks, dating back to the 1930’s. The 1,657-acre Cumberland Falls State Resort Park southwest of Corbin is located in the Daniel Boone National Forest.
Facilities include a 51 room lodge, 25 cabins and cottages, 49 campsites, a restaurant, walking trails and a swimming pool open to overnight and campsite guests and open to the public on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.
For information phone 606-528-4121.
fish and wildlife
Fish and wildlife resources are plentiful.
The remote, mountainous districts in the upper reaches of the Upper Basin support moose and black bear, and all districts support populations of white-tailed deer, wild turkey, and small mammals.
Fishing opportunities are varied and plentiful.
Martin’s Fork Lake has the unique distinction of being the only lake in Kentucky to have a population of Redeye Bass (Micropterus coosae), an introduced species native to Georgia and stored in Martin’s Fork of the Cumberland River around 1950.
As such, Martin’s Fork Lake is the only lake in Kentucky where an angler has a chance of catching four species of smallmouth bass (largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, spotted bass, and redeye bass).
The lake also supports populations of walleye, bluegill, two species of catfish (channel catfish and flathead catfish), and white crappie.
Laurel River Lake supports bluegill, two species of crappie (white crappie and black crappie), three species of smallmouth bass (largemouth bass, smallmouth bass and spotted bass), walleye and white bass. A 2018 survey of anglers’ attitudes found that 98 percent of anglers surveyed were fishing for smallmouth bass, 27 percent for walleye, and 13 percent for crappie.
Lake Cumberland is rich in cold water fisheries.
Its deep, clear, oxygen-rich waters support the state’s best striped bass fishery, the state’s largest walleye fishery, and a smallmouth bass fishery that ranks first with Dale Hollow Lake and Kentucky Lake.
The lake also supports populations of two other species of smallmouth bass (largemouth bass and spotted bass), two species of crappie (white crappie and black crappie), bluegill, white bass, and two species of catfish (channel catfish and flathead catfish).
A 2016 Creel survey found that striped bass anglers accounted for 49 percent of all fishing trips to lower lake, followed by smallmouth bass anglers at 34 percent and crappie anglers at seven percent.
In Lake Superior, 46 percent of all fishing trips were for smallmouth bass anglers, 17 percent for crappie anglers, and 11 percent for striped bass and white bass anglers.
For information on special fishing regulations for Upper Basin rivers and lakes, launch ramps for trailer boats, and launch sites for fishing kayaks and other small boats, visit the KDFWR Waters page.
The Upper Cumberland River Basin has it all – stunning scenery, whitewater rivers, challenging hiking trails, rustic campgrounds, house boating lakes, state and national parks and some of the state’s best fishing for smallmouth bass, striped bass and walleye.
The eastern mountains of Kentucky are calling.