The Cumberland Falls moonbow is a beautiful phenomenon seen near the time of the full moon. Here are tips for a good viewing experience inside this Kentucky state park!
If you've heard of Cumberland Falls, you've likely heard of the moonbow.
What is a moonbow? It's rather like a rainbow, although the colors are usually so faint that you'll see it as white (although colors can be picked up by a long-exposure photo).
A moonbow is made by moonlight and mist, often from a waterfall. The one at Cumberland Falls is the only predictable moonbow in the western hemisphere!
The moonbow, however, isn't the only reason to visit this park. Actually, it's probably better to think of it as a bonus to your trip — since, being a natural phenomenon, it doesn’t always play along with our expectations.
So if you're at the park, I hope you also get a chance to enjoy hiking trails like the one to Eagle Falls and other adventures like rafting or camping. For a summary of food and lodging options, see my park guide.
As you make your plans, here are some things we learned that may help you have the best experience!
1. Plan Ahead for Lodging on Cumberland Moonbow Nights
The moonbow is a whole thing. Expect for rooms to book up more quickly on moonbow nights.
We did not plan ahead, but found an Airbnb in nearby Somerset, about 45 minutes away. (Somerset is also home to the Charred Oak Whiskey Grill, which was delicious!)
2. Know That You Might Not See the Cumberland Moonbow (And That’s Okay)
This phenomenon is only visible with a full (or almost full) moon on clear, cloudless nights. Honestly, that's sometimes a lot to ask for in Kentucky — we get lots of cloud cover and rain.
If you end up not being able to see the moonbow, spending some quiet time listening to the roar of the waterfall is still a pretty nice way to pass the evening.
3. If Conditions Are Perfect, It’s Spectacular
One of the locals we spoke to, who was waiting for the moonbow right next to us, said that he’s lived there his whole life and only seen it a handful of times. He also said that on a crystal clear night, there can be multiple moonbows and that they light up the whole sky.
4. The Parking Lot Often Fills Up on Moonbow Nights
Because of the likelihood of a crowd, I recommend finding a parking spot early in the evening. Then you can enjoy other parts of the park while you wait. We parked, walked the observation path, and visited the gift shop.
We also planned ahead and brought snacks in our picnic backpack.
5. Dress in Layers, and Maybe Bring a Blanket
It got down to about 60 degrees Fahrenheit the night we went in early May, which sounds fairly pleasant — but the cold mist from the waterfall made things pretty chilly!
6. Expect To Be Up Late Into the Night
The moonbow doesn’t appear until the full moon is high in the sky. The night we were there, we didn’t glimpse the moonbow until about 11:30 p.m.
The park posts potential viewing dates and times for the year on its Facebook page. Each month, there are about five possible nights when the moonbow might be visible, and the viewing window shifts a little bit later each successive night. The times are earlier in winter and later in summer.
We brought camp chairs and snacks to make the waiting more comfortable. My favorite camp chair is the Kelty lowdown chair, which is extra comfy with a large water bottle holder.
7. Don’t Expect a Solitary Experience
This is a popular event, and you’ll probably share it with a group. Plan for a community experience.
That said, the waterfall is pretty loud, and most of the time I couldn’t hear other people’s conversations.
8. The Moonbow Is Only Visible From Certain Locations
We were told that the best viewing areas are from the closest upper observation deck and the lowest lower deck. (These are the spots where you get the most mist from the falls.)
While you can see Cumberland Falls from the Eagle Falls trail (across the river from the observation decks), that isn’t a great spot for viewing the moonbow.
9. Photos of the Cumberland Falls Moonbow Are Tricky
For the best photos, you’d need to use a long exposure on a DSLR or a mirrorless camera on a tripod.
Your smartphone camera might do a decent job, especially if it’s a newer phone with low light photo settings. Even so, these photos will probably be a little grainy, as you can see in the example below.
10. Consider Not Taking Photos
Instead of taking grainy photos, consider enjoying the moment instead. Or, perhaps just limit how much time you spend taking photos, and focus on taking in the whole experience with your own senses. It's a beautiful one!