June 29, 2012 was the night before we left for our Kentucky road trip and a night we’ll never forget. We were preparing to leave the next day for Cumberland Falls and it’s famous “moonbow”, Mammoth Cave National Park, and Lexington, KY. While packing, the wind started to pick up and the sky rumbled, more like a train than thunder. Going outside, a massive black shelf cloud filled the sky and was closing quickly. We ran back inside the house and waited. After a fleeting eternity of of insane wind, rain, thunder, and lightning, the infamous 2012 Derecho had torn through our neighborhood. Now without power, we finished packing and let the last of our laundry to hang outside and hopefully dry.
The next morning we left on our trip hoping power would come back and everything in our freezer would still be okay. Everywhere you could see the damage from the Derecho. Our first stop was Blacksburg, VA where they had just gotten power back when we went to check in. After a couple of relaxing days in Blacksburg, we left for Cumberland Falls by way of Cumberland Gap National Historic Park. We’ll have a future dedicated post on Cumberland Gap National Historic Park, but in short, imagine a very hot day in the stunning mountains of southwestern VA and this song going through your head . . .
Leaving Cumberland Gap behind, we set out on Rt. 25, the Cumberland Gap Parkway, toward Cumberland Falls State Park. Driving through Corbin, KY a GIANT bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken high in the sky caught our eye. Underneath the GIANT bucket was quaint Tudor-style roadside cafe. We had stumbled upon the first restaurant to serve Kentucky Fried Chicken.
Outside Sanders Cafe, a sign told us everything we didn’t already know about Col. Sanders and his famous chicken. Walking inside, we were greeted by a giant Col. Sanders weathervane, a welcoming bench with a statue of a seated Col. Sanders, exhibits about the restaurant, and the smell of history, or in this case, delicious fried chicken.
Our first stop was Col. Sanders kitchen, where in 1940 he experimented with a pressure cooker to dramatically accelerate the cooking time for fried chicken. Pressure cooking, plus the Colonel’s “secret recipe,” led to the dramatic growth of Kentucky Fried Chicken as one of the first fast food restaurant chains.
It only took a few minutes in the store to succumb to the call of the chicken. So we shared an 8 piece fried chicken order and enjoyed the Col. Sanders memorabilia and learning more about this local legend. We left Sanders Cafe with a deeper appreciation of the man behind the iconic white suit and the business he built from this small Kentucky town. Getting back in the van, we continued on our journey to Cumberland Falls and the moonbow.
Cumberland Falls State Park
So why Cumberland Falls State Park? The dramatic falls? Historic Dupont Lodge? Hiking? All of these, but most of all, the moonbow. A moonbow is like a rainbow, but formed by the moon instead of the sun. Moonbows are very rare and can only be seen in a few places around the world. The conditions have to be just right with strong mist from a waterfall and the light of a bright full moon perfectly aligned. Other than Victoria Falls in Africa, Cumberland Falls at Cumberland Falls State Resort Park is the most common place in the world to experience moonbows.
One of the nicest features of Cumberland Falls State Resort Park is the historic Dupont Lodge and the surrounding rooms and cabins. We had hoped to stay in one of the cabins, but we were late with our reservation. So instead, we booked adjoining “Woodland Rooms” in cabin-like buildings around the Lodge. By the time we got to the Lodge from Sanders Cafe, it was nearly dark. We walked the historic Lodge and admired how the stone and timbers of the Lodge reflected the land around them. Along with our keys, the staff gave us a list of activities and the optimal times to see the moonbow. Given the time, we enjoyed a late dinner at the Riverview Dining Room. With a great view of the falls and an emphasis on locally sourced ingredients, the food was very tasty and the soft serve ice cream was fantastic! We returned there for all of our meals during our stay. Our rooms were pleasant and their location near the Lodge was perfect. The food and lodging at Cumberland Falls State Resort Park was not only nice, it was an exceptional value.
We had planned to be at Cumberland Falls for two nights, giving us two chances at a clear full moon to see the moonbow. However our first night was cloudy and after a late dinner along with a long day of driving, everyone was ready to just go to bed. We now only had one chance to see the moonbow.
The next morning we drove down to the falls and they were impressive. Called the “Niagara of the South”, Cumberland Falls are about 70 feet tall and 125 feet across, but their dominant feature is their power. Near the falls, there is constant roar of the rushing Cumberland River as it plunges into a sandstone gorge. We spent the hours enjoying the water, exploring the trails, and panning for gems and fossils as one of the many kid-friendly activities offered by the park.
To the Falls!
After a couple of hours down by the falls, we drove back to the Lodge for lunch. After lunch, we decided to split up. While we were both heading to the falls, Mr. Full Van Fun took the older kids on a hike down to the falls while Mrs. Full Van Fun and younger kids drove. While the hike between the lodge and the falls wasn’t very long, but it was very steep.
For the “Explorers Club” of Mr. Full Van Fun and the older children, the hike down to the falls provided great views of the forest, the river, the falls, and everything this beautiful part of Kentucky had to offer.
One of the really interesting aspects of the hike was a section that followed along and through the sandstone cliffs carved by the Cumberland River. It was tangible opportunity for the children to experience the power of water, a lesson they really appreciated in the summer of 2015 with our visit to the Grand Canyon.
When we reached the bottom of the cliffs, the trail followed the Cumberland River to the falls. The river was crystal clear and the light of the late afternoon sun danced on the water. With each ripple, a shimmer.
Joining the dancing light, the river teemed with life. Everywhere fish darted to and fro and small snails crawled along the rocks and the riverbed. We paused to watch the light and life dance with the water.
As the sun crept lower, the river sparkled with even more remarkable brilliance. Everything was alive and bright.
Walking down to the falls, Mr. Full Van Fun and the older kids met up with Mrs. Full Van Fun and the younger ones. Before the sun sank even lower, we followed a path to the bottom of the falls. Mist flew in our face and the water was deafening.
After the falls, we stopped at the Visitor Center and Gift Shop to get the latest weather prediction and suggestions for where to see the moonbow. We learned that the weather was going to be cloudy, but there was a good chance it would clear up later in the evening. Since we were leaving the next day, we picked up a couple of obligatory moonbow souvenirs along with some interesting local crafts. We went back to the Lodge for dinner and quick rest before returning for the moonbow.
We returned to the falls around 10pm to see the moonbow. Slowly the moon rose, but it was immersed in clouds. We found a great spot, based on a recommendation from a ranger, just down from the falls, and we waited. The younger kids fell asleep, and we waited. The moon climbed up the clouds with a diffuse glow, and we waited. Finally, to the west, the sky cleared and the first twinkling stars appeared. The stars chased the clouds away and the giant glowing moon continued to rise, and still we waited. Suddenly, the clear sky met the moon and the first rays of light hit the falls. Everyone looked around – is that the moonbow? Is that the moonbow? Is that the moonbow? Everyone pointed at glows created by the moon mixing with the mist, but none of them was the moonbow. A photographer next to us said that we’d see the moonbow soon and we’d know it when we saw it. Finally well after 11pm, with the moon clear and bright, high in the sky, a silent ghost jumped out of the waterfall. Every picture we had seen of a moonbow on the internet or in the gift shop was not what we saw.
The moonbow was a phantom. As a rainbow follows ROYGBIV, the moonbow was a thousand shades of white and gray in a perfect arc from the falls and down the river. There was no color. The moonlight danced with the mist to make a monochromatic whisper of a rainbow while the waterfall and river rumbled and roared. The grayness. The lightness. The stillness. The loudness. The moonbow and Cumberland Falls was (and is) unlike anything we’ve ever seen.
We left the next morning, July 4th, for Mammoth Cave and the rest of our Kentucky roadtrip. Checking in at home, there was still no power. Before we left on our trip, we had experienced the sound and fury of nature in the destructive water, wind, and lightning of the Derecho. Now, having visited Cumberland Falls and the moonbow, we experienced something else, the quiet strength of nature. Whether it was sunlight and the crystal clear river, or moonlight and the mist, water and light danced together and at Cumberland Falls, our hearts sung along.
Photo credits: Full Van Fun