Five nights a month, if skies are bright, the Man in the Moon and the misty waters of Cumberland Falls join forces to beget a natural phenomenon called a moonbow.
Also known as a lunar rainbow, this is the only moonbow that can be seen on a regular basis in the Western Hemisphere. It occurs at Cumberland Falls State Resort Park, about 165 highway miles from Lebanon.
“If you got moonlight, you have it. If not, you don’t,” park manager Joe Mounce says about the moonbow that potentially forms five nights a month. “On a busy night, 2,000 onlookers may show up. As for the best seat in the park, it is ‘first-come, first-served.’”
The best view and the best place from which to take photos of the nocturnal spectacular, which may last two to four hours, is a site called the Overlook.
Nicknamed “the Niagara of the South,” the falls normally stretches 125 feet across the Cumberland River before it plunges 65 feet into the boulder-strewn gorge below.
“The width can change quickly to 300 feet if it’s flood stage,” said Mounce, who has been with Kentucky State Parks 10 years. “The flow is measured in cubic feet per second. It is 150 feet cubic feet per second today, but there has been a drought. Late last February it was about 48,000 cubic feet per second.”
Asked what creates such a dazzling sight, he explained, “It’s a combination of the water and the light. The falls happens to be at the right place as far as the angle of the moonlight. It hits a peak one night a month and appears five nights a month if conditions are right.
“Also, any day around noon when the sky is clear and there is enough mist, a rainbow occurs at the base of the falls. Many visitors say, ‘I had no idea the moonbow was here,’ It’s a once-in-a-lifetime event, a magical moment for so many,” the park manager said.
Touching upon a bit of the lore of the falls, Mounce added, “The river gorge here features a lover’s leap. There are two different stories. One has it there was a bride was so happy she began dancing and she fell off the falls. The other version is that a bride and groom has just gotten married, and the groom had to leave quickly for some reason and was killed in car wreck. So, the bride jumped off the falls, a suicide.”
History of the park
Located inside the boundaries of Daniel Boone National Forest, the state park draws 750,000 tourists a year from across the nation and around the globe. Its majestic waterfall has been featured in three movies: “Fire Down Below” in 1997, “Raintree County” in 1957 and “The Kentuckian” in 1955.
The river and the falls were named by explorer Thomas Walker in 1758. Nobody seems to know whether they were named for the northwestern English county of Cumberland or the Duke of Cumberland. Previously, the river had been called the Wasioto by the Shawnee, who often used the site as a temporary hunting camp, thus early French traders dubbed it the Riviere des Chaouanons or River of the Shawnee, and early maps labeled it as the Shawnee River.
The Cumberland begins its 688-mile journey in Harlan County, Ky., as its headwaters (three separate forks: Martin’s Fork, Clover Fork and Poor Fork) converge in Baxter, Ky. Before merging with the Ohio River near Paducah, Ky., it flows through 15 Kentucky counties and 10 Tennessee counties, including 25 miles along the northern border of Wilson County.
(The Cumberland River provides water to the Lebanon Water System, Wilson County Water and West Wilson Utility District, and likely to the Laguardo Utility District, which has two wells on the banks of the Cumberland.)
According to a history of the falls compiled by the Kentucky Department of Travel, Matthew Walton and Adam Shepard were granted ownership of the falls by the Commonwealth of Kentucky in 1800. In 1850, Louis and Mary H. Renfro bought 400 acres “including the Great Falls of the Cumberland” and built a cabin nearby and later added a two-room lean-to for visitors who wished to fish and enjoy the beauty of the magnificent waterfall.
In 1875, Socrates Owens purchased the falls and 400 acres from the Renfros and built the Cumberland Falls Hotel. The property was bought in 1892 by J.C. Brunson, who renamed the hotel the Brunson Inn.
In 1927, Kentuckian T. Coleman DuPont offered to buy the falls and the surrounding land and make a gift of it to the state. His proposal came in the nick of time as a power company was seeking to build a dam above the falls. In 1930, DuPont’s widow bought the falls and 593 acres of land, and on Aug. 21, 1931, Cumberland Falls was dedicated as a Kentucky State Park.
Two years later, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) sent a small army of young men to make improvements. They built DuPont Lodge, 15 cabins for visitors, campsites, picnic areas, roads and trails. The lodge boasted 26 rooms with a two-story-high lounge and a huge stone fireplace. A fire consumed the building in 1940, and a new lodge was constructed in 1941.
Today, historic DuPont Lodge has 56 rooms and there are also 10 woodland units and 24 cottages. The structure features solid hemlock beams and knotty-pine paneling with massive stone fireplaces. Meals are served in the 300-seat Riverview Restaurant, and a large deck at back provides a fabulous overlook of the Cumberland River.
Other attractions at Cumberland River State Resort Park include whitewater rafting, 12 self-guided nature trails that cover over 20 miles, fishing, horseback riding, gem mining and birdwatching. But the star attraction remains the awesome falls with its nocturnal rainbow.
CUMBERLAND FALLS STATE RESORT PARK
Located near Corbin, Ky., this 1,657-acre Kentucky state park lies entirely inside Daniel Boone National Forest. It is named after its most prominent feature, a 65-foot-high waterfall that boasts the only lunar rainbow (moonbow), which can be seen on a regular basis in the Western Hemisphere. The moonbow can be seen only on a clear night during a full moon. The park is a bit more than a three-hour drive from Lebanon. Address: 7351 Highway 90, Corbin, Ky. Phone: (606) 528-4121. Moonbow dates and times (all times are Eastern): Nov. 13: 8:30-10:30 p.m., Nov. 14: 9-11 p.m., Dec. 10: 6:30-8:30 p.m., Dec. 11: 7-9 p.m., Dec. 12: 7:30-9:30 p.m., Dec. 13: 8-10, Dec. 14: 8:30-10:30 p.m.