How to See the Spectacular Moonbow at Cumberland Falls State Resort Park in Kentucky

Written by
Jason Barnette
Posted on
March 28th, 2019
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The Cumberland Falls Moonbow is a spectacular lunar rainbow at this Kentucky state park. Here is how to see it yourself.

The camera shutter closed, a digital photo appeared on the LCD on the back of my camera, and suddenly a throng of people surrounded me. With wide eyes they glared at the photo, back to the thundering Cumberland Falls, and back to my camera again. Finally, someone shouted, “I see it! I can see it in your photo!”

The “it” she was referring to was the Cumberland Falls Moonbow, a spectacular lunar rainbow that can be seen in the mist at Cumberland Falls State Resort Park in Kentucky. But you have to know when to see it, how to get there, and what to expect. Keep reading to find answers to all that and more.

What is a Moonbow?

The first time I visited Cumberland Falls State Resort Park was on an overcast day in 2012. The waterfall was pretty amazing to see even if I couldn’t capture any decent photos that day. But just as I was leaving the park a ranger asked me a question that would change everything, “Are you coming back tomorrow for the moonbow?”

It was the first time I’d ever heard of a moonbow so I asked about it. A “moonbow” is when light from a full moon on a clear night reflects in the mist of a waterfall and creates rainbow colors in the moisture. But this doesn’t just happen during any full moon or at any waterfall; there are certain conditions that must be met to create a moonbow.

Cumberland Falls just happens to be one of the best places in the Western Hemisphere to meet all these conditions.

Full Moon

It takes quite a bit of light to create a rainbow. In fact it normally takes direct sunlight beaming through the sky to create the optical illusion in the sky.

But even during a full moon only about 13% of the sun’s light is reflected down to Earth. That’s why even under the best of conditions a moonbow is still a tricky and difficult thing to see.

Cloudless Night

Because a moonbow requires every lux of light available it really needs to be a cloudless night. Even a thin haze can prevent a moonbow from appearing if all the other conditions are met.

Lots of Moisture

Even on a cloudless night during a full moon you won’t see a moonbow above every waterfall. It takes a lot of moisture in the air to refract the light and create the optical illusion.

Cumberland Falls is known as the “Niagara of the South” because it is a rather large waterfall. It only has a 68’ drop but at 125’ wide Cumberland Falls has more water volume than any other waterfall on the East Coast south of Niagara Falls.

The Perfect Combination

In order to see the moonbow you need to visit Cumberland Falls when lots of water is flowing, within one or two days of a full moon, and on a completely cloudless night. Getting those three conditions to align is tricky, but it actually happens pretty regularly at Cumberland Falls State Resort Park.

Cumberland Falls is pretty spectacular during the daytime, too.

Seeing the Cumberland Falls Moonbow

About a year after learning about the Cumberland Falls Moonbow I returned to the state park to see it. I had spent my day nearby in the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area. I was exhausted from all the hiking but nothing was going to stop me from seeing the moonbow.

The large parking lot was brightly lit (but don’t worry it doesn’t ruin the moonbow) and nearly full. There were several park rangers helping people out and guiding them toward the moonbow. Just to let you know how much the park loves this natural event: the trail is called the Moonbow Trail.

Although there are several places to admire Cumberland Falls there is only one place to see the moonbow: the Upper Overlook. This overlook is less than a five-minute walk along a paved path from the visitor center. It’s located on exposed rocks beside the top of the falls so be careful walking out there at night.

That night I set up my tripod, dialed in the camera settings, and fired off the first photo. One thing you have to keep in mind is that it’s a little difficult to see the moonbow with your naked eyes. Long exposure photos actually work much better.

People were craning their necks, shining flashlights at it, hoping to catch a glimpse. The shutter clicked on my camera. A photo appeared on the LCD screen. Suddenly I was surrounded by a throng of people all eagerly looking at the brightly-lit long exposure photo. Finally, a nice old lady shouted, “I see it! I can see it in your photo!”

Just like that, I was a celebrity. Lasted about ten minutes.

The Cumberland Falls Moonbow I captured in 2013. I really need to see this again.

Moonbow Dates 2019

The absolute best day to see the Cumberland Falls Moonbow is the day of a full moon. However one or two days before and after are also good times and under just the right conditions can create a beautiful moonbow.

Here are the Cumberland Falls Moonbow dates for 2019.

January

197:00-8:00pm
207:30-7:30pm
218:00-10:00pm
228:30-10:30pm
239:00-11:00pm

February

177:00-8:00pm
187:30-7:30pm
198:00-10:00pm
208:30-10:30pm
219:00-11:00pm

March

188:30-10:30pm
199:00-11:00pm
209:30-11:30pm
2110:30pm-12:30am
2212:00-2:00am

April

179:00-11:00pm
189:30-11:30pm
1910:00pm-12:00am
2010:30pm-12:30am
2111:00pm-1:00am

May

169:30-11:30pm
1710:00pm-12:00am
1810:30pm-12:30am
1911:00pm-1:00am
2011:30pm-1:30am

June

159:30-11:30pm
1610:00pm-12:00am
1710:30pm-12:30am
1811:00pm-1:00am
1911:30pm-1:30am

July

149:30-11:30pm
1510:00pm-12:00am
1610:30pm-12:30am
1711:00pm-1:00am
1811:30pm-1:30am

August

139:30-11:30pm
1410:00pm-12:00am
1510:30pm-12:30am
1611:00pm-1:00am
1711:30pm-1:30am

September

129:30-11:30pm
1310:00pm-12:00am
1410:30pm-12:30am
1511:00pm-1:00pm
1611:30pm-1:30pm

October

118:30-10:30pm
129:00-11:00pm
139:30-11:30pm
1410:00pm-12:00am
1510:30pm-12:30am

November

107:00-9:00pm
117:30-9:30pm
128:00-10:00pm
138:30-10:30pm
149:00-11:00pm

December

106:30-8:30pm
117:00-9:00pm
127:30-9:30pm
138:00-10:00pm
148:30-10:30pm

Parking for the Moonbow

The visitor center parking lot at Cumberland Falls State Resort Park is pretty big, but you have to keep in mind sometimes there are thousands of people who try to witness the moonbow. Parking will go quickly.

My suggestion is to arrive as early as possible for the moonbow to guarantee a parking spot, but if all else fails give the state park a call. They usually have some plans set up for massive crowds.

Admission for the Moonbow

Maybe the second best part about the Cumberland Falls Moonbow is that it’s free! In fact access to this state resort park is always free.

The Upper Overlook can get crowded during the moonbow. Be careful. Be kind.

Tips for a Fantastic Experience

Here are a few tips to help you make the most out of your trip to witness the Cumberland Falls Moonbow.

  • Arrive early. You won’t be able to see the best effect of the moonbow until about an hour after sunset, but I would still recommend arriving early to snag a parking spot.
  • You won’t be able to see the moonbow until about an hour after sunset, so time your visit according to the Moonbow schedule above.
  • Because of time change (yuck) and the Earth’s tilt the moonbow is much earlier during the winter months, and sometimes well after midnight during the summer months.
  • Bring a flashlight or headlamp. For obvious reasons there are no street lamps or lighting around the Upper Overlook. But be careful not to shine the line in anyone’s face or toward any cameras.
  • For the best experience book a couple of nights at DuPont Lodge in the park. It’s just a 0.5-mile hike down from the lodge to the visitor center parking lot along the Cumberland Falls Trail.

Photography Tips for Capturing the Moonbow

Before I get into camera settings and equipment I have to stress one thing above all others: put your cellphone away. Seriously. You will not be able to capture a decent photo of the moonbow with a cellphone. But if you do just have to give it a try let me stress a second thing: turn the flash off. There is nothing worse than your eyes dilating, adjusting to the dim moonlight, trying to see the moonbow, only to have a flash pop off from a cellphone. Don’t be one of those people.

Here are a few tips for camera equipment and settings to capture a photo of the Cumberland Falls Moonbow:

  • Bring a tripod.
  • Bring a remote shutter release. You may need to do a very long exposure so the best shutter release would be a digital intervalometer.
  • Set your ISO to 400. If you have a newer camera model with better low-noise at higher ISO settings you can try 800 or 1600, but I wouldn’t recommend beyond that with even the best of cameras.
  • Start with an exposure of 2 minutes at 400 ISO, 1 minute at 800 ISO, and 30 seconds at 1600 ISO. Most camera models only allow for a 30-second maximum exposure with the built-in settings. This is why you need a digital intervalometer remote shutter release; these allow you to use the “bulb” exposure setting and shoot as long as you like.

Look closely. Can you see the stars? Headlights streaking on the highway? That bright light in the sky is the full moon over Cumberland Falls State Resort Park.

Have You Seen the Cumberland Falls Moonbow?

If you’ve seen this absolutely extraordinary natural event leave me a comment below and tell me all about it! Seeing the Cumberland Falls Moonbow was one of the most rewarding experiences all year and that photo has been one of my favorites ever since.

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