Cumberland Falls State Resort Park
Called the “Niagara of the South”, this 125-foot curtain of water drops 60 feet, causing a mist on the boulders in the gorge below. The Western hemisphere’s only moonbow is a spectrum of color created by the moon’s reflection off the falls’ mist visible on a clear night during the full moon.
Cumberland Falls is a hiker’s paradise with 17 miles of hiking trails that wind through the park to scenic areas. The Moonbow Trail connects with many backpacking trails in the Daniel Boone National Forest.
It is believed that Cumberland Falls originated at the Pottsville Escarpment, near modern-day Burnside, Kentucky, and retreated to its current location approximately 45 miles (72 km) upstream. In its retreat, the falls cut what is now the Cumberland River gorge, reaching depths in places of up to 400 feet (120 m).:11 At its original location, the falls was taller than it is currently, and has lost height due to erosion as it moved upstream. It also carried a greater volume of water originally, because two major tributaries, the Laurel River and the Rockcastle River, both lie between the modern day location and the escarpment.:19 The erosion of the underlying rock, and movement of the falls downward in height, and upstream in location will continue until the falls eventually disappears, and the river again becomes smoothly graded.
In 1750 the Cumberland Falls was rediscovered by the explorer Thomas Walker who named it after the Duke of Cumberland and Strathearn. The first recorded landowners of the falls were Matthew Walton and Adam Shepard in 1800, both engineers who served under George Washington during the American Revolution. Walton and Shepard surveyed the land in 1814, and were issued a land patent in 1828.
The first landowners to settle permanently at Cumberland Falls were Lewis Renfro, a Baptist minister, and his wife Mary, who built a cabin there in 1850, which would later be used as a hospital during the American Civil War. The falls and 400 acres of surrounding land were purchased in 1875 by Socrates Owens, who there built the Cumberland Hotel, which was taken over by his wife Nannie and his son Edward following his death. The land and hotel were purchased in 1902 by Henry Brunson, who managed it along with his two daughters until 1931.
In 1928, a proposal to accept the falls as a park was brought to the floor of the Kentucky Senate but was defeated.
In the late 1920s, there were plans to build a hydroelectric power station upstream, and divert the river through a mountain tunnel to a point below the falls. However, the Cumberland Falls Preservation Association, formed by businessman Rober Blair, convinced T. Coleman du Pont to purchase the falls and surrounding land, and stipulate they were never to be used for hydroelectricity. In 1930, following his death, the family of du Pont made the decision to donate the 539 acres (218 ha) to the state. On March 10, 1930, the Kentucky House and Senate overrode the veto of Governor Flem D. Sampson, and voted to accept the land from the du Pont family. The park was officially opened on September 7, 1931.
In the 1950s, plans were again announced for the development of upstream hydroelectric power, but were again defeated by the Preservation Association
During or near a full moon on clear nights, a lunar rainbow or moonbow is sometimes formed by the water of the falls. The formation of a moonbow at Cumberland Falls is aided by a combination of steep gorge walls, which reduce dissipation of the waterfall’s mist by wind, and a wide gorge which allows increased levels of moonlight.
It is the only location in the Western Hemisphere where moonbows are known to appear with regularity, the Kentucky Department of Parks publishes schedules for visitors.
The ability of visitors to see a moonbow may vary with water level. At low levels, the falls may not produce sufficient mist for the phenomenon. Conversely, if conditions include substantial downstream wind, this may increase the level of mist and make a moonbow more likely to be visible.