One of the world’s rarest wonders is just three hours from Nashville.
We gathered around the raft on a beach lit only by the full moon. Just around the river’s bend was the mighty Cumberland Falls, aptly nicknamed The Niagara of the South. As my husband and two children climbed inside the raft and perched on its edges, my stomach knotted. Months ago, I had found this rafting trip online and begged to go — Now, I wondered if it was a bad idea. Although we were all wearing life vests, the waterfall was truly massive and the silver-tipped waters swirling around its base looked dangerous. On the other hand, I reminded myself, this particular trip was sanctioned and promoted by the state park. It had to be safe. Right? I took a deep breath and climbed aboard.
We had driven to Cumberland Falls State Park to see a moonbow — an ethereal arch of white light produced by the combination of a full moon and rising mist from the falls. Cumberland Falls is one of two places in the world where you can see a moonbow if conditions are just right; the only other moonbow is found at Victoria Falls in Zambia. We couldn’t have known when we planned the trip weeks earlier whether the weather would cooperate, but on this count, we were in luck — Not only were the skies clear when we arrived, but a cold front had brought cool, dry air to an ordinarily warm and muggy August. If there was ever a night to see a moonbow, it was this one.
We’d reserved a 10 pm raft ride out to the base of the falls, but when we checked in for our trip shortly before ten, the moon was still hiding behind the trees that surrounded the gorge. We switched to the 11 pm trip and used the extra hour to head down to the park’s waterfall overlooks.
After descending winding steps that wrapped around massive boulders, we emerged onto a platform with a spectacular view of the falls. Illuminated only by the moon, the sight was incredible. The wide waters of the Cumberland River plunged 68 feet before us, creating a roar that echoed off the surrounding cliffs and a mist that felt like rainfall. As our eyes adjusted to the darkness, I saw what looked like a faint spotlight beam coming up from the bank, directly beside the falls. “Is that…?” I asked my husband, pointing to the wavering ray of light. It was. We were witnessing the birth of a moonbow.
As the moon crept higher in the sky, the beam slowly lengthened to form a half-arch over the river and the park visitors all around us grew still and silent. A minute passed, two, and then the shimmering moonbow disappeared.
A few minutes later, we headed back up to the shelter to get our lifejackets and follow a lantern-carrying guide to the river bank at the base of the falls. Once we got to the shore, we all climbed into a rubber raft bobbing in the water. As our guide began paddling us toward the falls, I scoured the mist around us for any signs of the moonbow — No luck. I turned my attention to the wall of water looming before us.
Given the waterfall’s intensity, I’d figured our guide would stop 100 or so feet away, allowing us to get close, but not too close. I was wrong. He kept paddling until we were 50 feet away. Then 30. Then ten.
“Are y’all ready?” he shouted. Ordinarily, I would have been terrified in that moment only because my children were with me — The animal instinct I feel to protect them generally has me clutching their shirts at overlooks and constantly tightening helmet and lifejacket straps when we’re outdoors. But in the face of that wild, moonlit torrent of water pounding down right in front of us, I was filled with a strange euphoria. Our guide paddled the even closer, far closer than I ever imagined I could come to a force this great. A torrent of water soaked us to the skin and we all laughed and whooped together. I looked straight up at the crashing falls, backlit by an enormous full moon, and the image seared itself forever into my brain. This was a moment I would never, ever forget.
A few seconds later, our guide reversed course — I turned to look out over the water, and there it was.
“The moonbow!” shouted, pointing. A full moonbow had appeared in the water, right before our raft. We all burst into spontaneous cheers and applause.Our guide quickly paddled to a point where he could stop and watch it along with the rest of us. He was as awestuck as we were.
Once again, the moonbow lasted only a minute or two before disappearing again into the mist. With ear-to-ear grins on our faces, we headed back to the riverbank, hearts full, teeth chattering, adrenaline pumping, thrilled at our unexpected brush with one of the great natural wonders of the world.
“How often do you see the moonbow on this trip?” I asked our guide once we’d disembarked and begun the walk back to the top of the falls.
“Almost never,” he admitted. “This is the third time I’ve ever seen it since I’ve been a guide — And I’m from here.” Only then did I realize our incredible fortune in seeing the moonbow not once, but twice that night.
Want to see the Cumberland Falls moonbow?
Make the drive to Kentucky to see a moonbow for yourself — The moon needs to be mostly full for it to appear. Cumberland Falls State Park lists all moonbow dates on its website, along with the times at which the moon will be high enough for a sighting. Flashlights are a must for this trip, as well as a sturdy pair of walking shoes.
Signs say the best place to spot a moonbow is on the upper overlook of the falls, which is just beyond the parking lot. However, we saw the moonbow from the lower overlook, located down several flights of stairs.
Reserve seats on a Rainbow Mist raft ride and you’ll get to experience the waterfall up close, like we did. These raft rides run day and night, Wednesday through Sunday from mid-June to Labor Day weekend. This raft ride is worth the money whether you see a moonbow or not; we had so much fun, we seriously considered coming back for a daytime ride before we went back home. Although we made reservations, there were plenty of openings on the night we arrived, and the park was packed. You can make arrangments for a raft ride at the Sheltowee Trace Outfitters hut, located at the waterfall entrance. This is a great adventure activity for your whole family — Even babies are allowed on this raft ride!
In the winter months, the moonbow sometimes appears in color, and this is a holy grail experience for photographers. To get a shot, you need a tripod and all sorts of technical wizardry that’s totally beyond me. If you’re interested in trying to capture a moonbow on camera, look it up on the Internet — There’s lots of information on how to go about it.
We spent the weekend at the park’s historic DuPont Lodge, a half-mile from the waterfall, and we loved it. It’s clean, affordable, and it has a wonderful old-fashioned mountain resort feel. I’d stay there again in a heartbeat. In addition to Cumberland Falls, there are several other waterfall hikes and a family river rafting trip in the area — I’ll write more about our trip in an upcoming post.
Header image via Don Sniegowski/Flickr Creative Commons