Wild South: Cumberland Falls “Moonbow”

There are only two places in the world where you can see this phenomenon with some regularity—and one of them is right here in the South

By day, Cumberland Falls near Corbin, Kentucky, is plenty impressive. The powerful 125-foot-wide curtain of water in Daniel Boone National Forest plunges seven stories at a rate of 3,600-cubic-feet-per-second, earning it the nickname “Niagara of the South.” By night—in the five-day window surrounding the full moon each month—it can be downright magical. On those nights, when the moon is at its brightest, the light is refracted by mist coming off of the falls, creating a natural phenomenon known as a “moonbow.” Victoria Falls in Zambia is the only other place in the world where you can spy the spectacle with any regularity.

Courtesy of Kentucky State Parks

In Kentucky, the ghostly arch most often appears as an ethereal, glowing white to the naked eye. On the clearest of nights, there’s a chance to see the full spectrum of color. Otherwise, you’ll need the right photography equipment to capture the various hues. That sounds like a simple enough endeavor. Check the lunar calendar, grab your camera, and hit the road. Not quite. The “moonbow” can be elusive. Even during the designated window surrounding the full moon it might be a no-show.

The folks at Cumberland Falls State Resort Park are kind enough to recommend optimum viewing hours though—usually one to two hours after moonrise. (Check them out, here.) Cloudless nights provide the best moonbow viewing opportunities, so check the weather before planning your trip. Then, after a (hopefully) successful sighting, bunk down at the nearby DuPont Lodge—the park’s fifty-one-room hotel with views of the Cumberland River—for the weekend.

photo: Courtesy of Kentucky State Parks

Inside DuPont Lodge.

If you don’t succeed at Cumberland Falls, try again for some full-moon fun at one of these Southern spots:

Full Moon Lighthouse Climbs
Outer Banks, North Carolina
Grab your flashlight. The National Park service hosts monthly full moon tours at both the historic Cape Hatteras and Bodie Island lighthouses all summer. You’ll be hard pressed to match the view of the moon reflected on the Atlantic from either lighthouse balcony.

Full Moon Hike in Cades Cove
near Townsend, Tennessee
One of the most popular destinations in Great Smoky Mountain National Park, Cades Cove is busy pretty much year-round. To avoid the crowds, try a ranger-led full moon trek. The easy hike follows the loop road, which closes to cars at sundown.