Before researching our visit to Kentucky, I had never heard of a moonbow. There are only two places in the world where a moonbow can be seen. Cumberland Falls in southeast Kentucky is the only one in the Western Hemisphere. The other location is famous Victoria Falls in Africa. I had been wanting to visit Cumberland Falls for some years as it is noted to be the “Niagara of the South.” It just so happened that we were visiting in this area at a time when a moonbow is possible, during a full moon.
Cumberland Falls State Park has a website with dates of the full moon and times when a moonbow can best be seen. A moonbow is possible a few days before the moon is at its fullest up to a few days after. The times for best viewing vary, but usually begin about two hours after sunset. This phenomenon occurs when the moon’s light is reflected and refracted off water droplets in the air. Besides a full moon, several other factors must happen including good weather, water temperature, sufficient rising mist, wind speed and direction, water clarity and water volume. I watched the weather forecast carefully as to which evenings would be cloudy or clear and on October 23, the night before the moon was at its fullest, the sky was showing clear. We arrived at the State Park before 8:30 p.m. and joined a number of other people at the top overlook of the Falls, the best vantage point to see the moonbow. Above is a photo I took with my phone which shows how dark it was but also shows how an iPhone can’t capture the setting of the Falls and moonbow.
Mark had brought a tripod for our Nikon camera because taking photos of the moonbow can be a little tricky. It involves a timed exposure of about 45 seconds. With a little trial and error he was able to get some shots of the bow next to the Falls, although not a photo of the complete bow. What is so remarkable about photographing the moonbow is that the eye only sees the white line and not the colors. But the camera with the right exposure time can capture what the eye cannot clearly see, the colors of a rainbow. In addition, the camera captures the blue sky and landscape as if it is not in the dark.
What a wonderful sight it was to see the moonbow stretch from a point on the river below the Falls and arc to the top of the Falls before dropping down to the base. As it got later and the moon rose higher in the sky, the moonbow became larger and more pronounced. I was not expecting the moonbow to be as large and grand a sight as it was. Cumberland Falls is powerful at 125 feet wide and 60 feet high and standing before the plunging river and observing this rare appearance was quite magical, a one of a kind experience. We enjoyed the spectacle for a few hours until the moonbow started to wane and drop lower into the canyon.
I went back the next day as I wanted to see it in the daylight as well. There are a number of overlooks you can access by way of stairs which give different viewpoints of the Falls. I didn’t come during the best time of day for lighting and the huge amount of mist makes taking photos a challenge. In some ways, the Falls did remind me of Niagara with their large width and powerful spray. Below is a photo from the top overlook.
And here is a view from the lowest overlook next to the base of the Falls.
At this overlook I looked over the railing to the rocks below and saw a large pile of trash. The amount of it was shocking to me. Most of it seemed to be plastic – soda bottles, large laundry detergent jugs, gallon water jugs, cups, bags, etc. The garbage was nestled among logs and branches that floated over the Falls and became stuck against the sides of the cliff. There were several areas like this. An older looking sign at one of the overlooks explained that litter was a real problem and that it was not generated here but the result of trash from communities and homes upstream ending up in the Cumberland River.
The sign further explained that the State Park did have regular clean up days each year to remove the trash. Since this was my first visit I had no idea what the “normal” level of trash looked like, but it appeared to not have been cleaned in some time. Areas along walkways that would not have been reached by the river also had discarded bottles, cups and wrappers. I walked a path to the beach below the Falls. Here there were a great number of washed up logs and branches but also litter. People had come to enjoy a day by the water and just left some of what they brought on the beach. It was very disheartening and the thought that came to my mind was that this was the trashiest state or national park I had ever visited. A very beautiful park and falls, but a serious litter problem. Below is a photo downriver from the Falls and near the beach area.
Here is a photo of lovely Gatliff Bridge over the Cumberland River above the Falls.
Cumberland Falls State Park is located in the Daniel Boone National Forest, a rugged area of steep forested slopes, sandstone cliffs and natural bridges. I thought I would close this article with a few photos of the Natural Arch area. The photo below was taken from a viewpoint with the arch on the right. Stay tuned for my next post on our visit to Cumberland Gap, Kentucky.