Somewhere Over the Moonbow
Cumberland Falls in eastern Kentucky is only one of two places in the world to see a "moonbow."*
By Marilyn Green
Rainbows are magical enough, but lunar rainbows – moonbows – are in a class of their own.
There are only two places on the planet where the moonbow can be seen clearly around the time of the full moon: Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe and Cumberland Falls in southeastern Kentucky.
Full Moon Rising
During my childhood, my father worked with the U.S. Geological Survey in Kentucky. Whenever we could, our family would accompany him to Cumberland Falls. When I was a teenager, I wandered Cumberland Falls State Resort Park and the surrounding Daniel Boone National Forest while he measured the flow and quality of the water. And at night, when the full moon was near, we always looked for the moonbow.
Conditions have to be nearly perfect to create a visible moonbow: just the right amount of moisture in the air, just the right wind direction and just the right angle of light.
Usually, Cumberland Falls’ moonbow is seen – by as many as 300 people once the word gets out – as a phantom colored rainbow around the base of the falls at nighttime.
It's tough to catch a moonbow photo, but here's a glimpse courtesy of Kentucky State Parks.*
Pot of Gold
But once in my life, at the changing of the year, I saw it as a solid, brilliant bow of pure gold. The shimmering ribbon spanned the middle of the enormous waterfall. The effect lasted for hours.
I wasn't with my father on that cold, clear night. In fact, I wasn't even looking for the moonbow. I had come to the park with a friend to usher in the New Year. As midnight approached, we decided to take a walk and admire the falls.
When the path opened up by the water, we were stunned to see an immense moonbow. The gold was so shiny and solid it was impossible to believe it wouldn’t bear weight.
Bridge to Brigadoon
We walked all around the falls, expecting it to vanish as our angle changed. But it remained absolutely glorious – a bridge to Brigadoon. As far as I could tell, we were the only people there.
By 1:30 a.m., frozen and ecstatic, we headed back to our cabin. One last glance back showed the moonbow still shining. It has remained one of those few memories that stayed completely vivid over the years.
Even without the moonbow, Cumberland Falls, “The Niagara of the South,” is awesome. This wall of water measures about 125 feet wide and drops 60 feet into a gorge that often appears bottomless with mist at night.
If you go, we hope you are fortunate enough to see a moonbow, but if not, there is always the possibility of a spectacular rainbow during the daytime.*
The park, which does not charge a general admission fee, has a campground, individual cabins and the historic DuPont Lodge with its huge beams of hemlock and gorgeous view. Besides the falls, visitors can enjoy horseback riding, hiking, swimming, fishing, whitewater rafting, canoeing and dining at the lodge, a draw in itself.
According to Kentucky Parks, the best dates for potentially seeing a moonbow in 2008 are:
- Apr: 18-22
- May: 17-21
- Jun: 16-20
- Jul: 16-20
- Aug: 14-18
- Sep: 13-17
- Oct: 12-16
- Nov: 11-15
- Dec: 10-14
Naturalist staff from the park service are often on hand on Moonbow weekends to interpret the mysterious event
For more information, visit http://parks.ky.gov/resortparks/cf/index.htm.
*Photos are owned, copyrighted and used with permission of the Kentucky Department of Tourism and Kentucky State Parks. All rights reserved. Please do not link to nor copy. Thank you.