The Spectacular Moonbow Event at Cumberland Falls State Resort Park in KY

Written by
Jason Barnette
Posted on
July 24, 2013
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Written by
Jason Barnette
Posted on
July 24th, 2013
Share story

Rainbows are created when sunlight is refracted through water molecules in the atmosphere, creating a colorful spectrum of light across the sky. But did you know during special events throughout the year you can see the same effect caused by moonlight? The spectacular Moonbow event at Cumberland Falls State Resort Park is one of the few places in the world with a predictable timetable for you to see a colorful spectrum of light long after the sun has set. Here are some tips, the story about how I got my photo, and a few photos I captured that night.

Cumberland Falls State Resort Park (7351 Kentucky Highway 90, Corbin, KY | 606-528-4121 | parks.ky.gov/parks/resortparks/cumberland-falls | Free Admission) is a beautiful park built around the raging Cumberland Falls, known locally as the Niagara of the South for the size of the waterfall. The park features an Upper and Lower Overlooks to view the waterfall, a beautiful trail called the Moonbow Trail that runs along the river, hiking trails, horseback riding, cabins for rent, a gorgeous lodge, and camping. The park is certainly designed to keep you busy for a day, a weekend, or even a week.

THE MOONBOW IS A SPECIAL EVENT surrounding the full moon each month throughout the year. The event begins about 2-3 days before the actual full moon and lasts until 2-3 days after. The effect is created the same as a rainbow from sunlight during the day: light is refracted through water molecules and creates a beautiful color spectrum above the mist of the falling waters. But you need good timing with the full moon to capture the effect. A full moon will rise within a few minutes of sunset each month, which provides some good timing. The area needs to be as dark as possible to really capture the moonbow. However, the moon will rise about 40 minutes earlier each day before the full moon, and 40 minutes later each day after the full moon. This provides a small window of just 5-6 days each month to capture this amazing event.

Not only do you have to choose the right day to visit, but you need to choose the right time as well. The moonbow is strongest when the moon is lowest in the sky. The moon will rise about 12-degrees an hour, so usually 1-2 hours after the moonrise is the best time to shoot the moonbow. The higher the moon rises in the sky, the lower the moonbow will appear across the waterfall until eventually it is undetectable from the Upper or Lower Overlooks.

Another factor in capturing the moonbow is clear skies. The powerful moonlight needs to fill the area to create the moonbow effect, so cloudy nights will not work. It is possible to capture the moonbow on partly cloudy nights, but it is tricky. First, you will have to wait for the moon to peak out from behind the clouds. Second, the moon will need to remain completely visible for 2-5 minutes to get a proper exposure. It is certainly possible, but less of a guarantee. Completely clear nights are your best bet.

Finally, an added bonus is shooting after a heavy rainfall. While the waters of the Cumberland Falls churn year-round, shooting after a heavy rainfall will guarantee more water and more mist to create a more pronounced Moonbow. This is not required, but makes for a better photo.

Cumberland Falls State Resort Park is an open park, with Kentucky Highway 90 driving through the middle. This means the park is easily accessible at night, and stays open 24 hours a day during the moonbow events. While most parks have a strict “Closed at Sunset” policy, Cumberland Falls allows people to stay out as late as they would like to view the moonbow. Getting to the moonbow is quick, easy, and accessible to most people. A large parking lot at the visitor center and gift shop provides plenty of parking. The paths leading to the Upper Overlook are hard surfaced and mostly flat. I will advise caution while walking across the Upper Overlook: the overlook is situation on natural rock that is uneven, which can make it difficult to walk at night. Please don’t use a flashlight unless absolutely necessary, though. The Lower Overlook can provide a great view, but is more difficult to reach: three flights of steps lead down to the overlook, which can be slippery at times.

People line up along the viewing area for the Moonbow, a natural occurrence when the light from a full moon causes a rainbow to appear at night in the mist of the waterfall, at Cumberland Falls State Resort Park in Corbin, KY on Friday, May 24, 2013. Copyright 2013 Jason Barnette

IT WAS AN OVERCAST DAY the first time I visited in 2012. I didn’t really know what to expect other than what I had seen on websites. I was amazed, my jaw hung open, as I first laid eyes on the thundering Cumberland Falls. It was an overcast day, but just every once in awhile the sun would peak out for a few minutes, which was just enough time for me to capture a photo of a rainbow hovering above the mist of the falls. Just as I was leaving, a ranger took note of my photo equipment and asked if I had ever shot photos of the moonbow. This was the beginning of a journey that would take a year to complete.

A YEAR LATER, I GOT MY SHOT when I visited the area for a Spring 2013 photo assignment. I had driven six hours that day and already spent the evening shooting sunset around the Big South Fork area at the Tenneessee/Kentucky border when I decided to just keep working. I went back to the room I was renting for the week, grabbed something to drink and loads of caffeinated soda, and hit the road after sunset towards the park. It was the day before the full moon, but it was still a great day for the shot.

I had never been to the park at night before. I had no idea what to expect. I kept driving along the narrow two-lane road making one sharp turn after another wondering what I would find when I arrived. Would I be the only person out there? Would the park be closed for some reason? Would I arrive only to discover this is one of those events everybody talks about, but it turns out to be completely lackluster?

I came around one final curve and saw the river down below the road. Then I saw it. At first, I wasn’t sure if I had seen it correctly. I was driving on an unfamiliar road at night so I had to slow down. I looked through the trees, across the river, to the parking lot at the visitor center. I saw dozens of cars. Hundreds of people. Flashlights, headlamps, car lights, all moving and weaving around one another. I started bouncing up and down in my seat. The parking lot is kept open during the moonbow events, street lamps burning bright, with a few rangers around to help people out. The parking lot can accommodate several dozen cars so it was not full, but it was close. I found a relatively good parking space, grabbed by gear, and was gone in the blink of an eye down the Moonbow Trail to the Upper Overlook.

I kept getting more and more excited as I joined an ever-growing crowd of people walking down the paths. Small lights built into the rails along the path help keep it lit until you reach the Upper Overlook. That’s when I noticed close to two hundred people standing, sitting, walking along the rock slab of the overlook. The moon had risen, but it was not over the tops of the trees shading the river just yet. I saw a dozen people with large tripods and remote shutter releases. Even more people with small bridge cameras trying their best to capture a photo. Every once in awhile someone’s flash would fire off from their cellphone or point and shoot and I could hear a disgruntled photographer shout a curse through the cold night air.

I set up my tripod and chose some camera settings. It was my first time out here, but I had shot night photos on city streets before. I used the same settings I would use while shooting streets or light trails. The first photos were pitch black. After a quick adjustment, I found my first moonbow. Capturing the moonbow took 30 seconds at f/4 and 1600 ISO.

SOME COMMON MISCONCEPTIONS about the Moonbow event may help you decide if you want to visit yourself. I found a lot of people confused when I captured my photo this year and clamoring around my camera to see a great photo, so maybe these can help you out.

  • You cannot see the moonbow with the naked eye. If you have seen an amazing photo of the moonbow and hope to walk out there at midnight and see the same, you won’t.
  • A flash from your camera will do absolutely nothing for capturing a photo of the moonbow and will, in fact, only serve to ruin other photos.
  • You cannot shoot a photo of the moonbow handheld without a tripod, no matter how steady your hands are.
  • It is impossible to capture a photo of the moonbow with a cellphone, tablet, point and shoot, or bridge camera. They are not capable of the correct settings it would take to capture the photo.

A FEW TIPS to make the best of the moonbow event. Please, at the very least, realize that you are not the only person standing out there trying to capture a photo. I think any hobbyist, amateur, or professional photographer should have equal access, but keep in mind not everybody is there to shoot a photo. Some people just want to watch the waterfall at night.

  • Give everyone a chance to stand near the edge of the overlooks. There is no reason for a single photographer, couple, or group to stand at the edge for thirty minutes at a time.
  • Turn the flash off. It will do nothing. You need a light source as powerful as a full moon and a five minute exposure to capture the moonbow. A flash the size of a business card pulsing at 1/4000th of a second is like shooting a train with a grain of sand.
  • Do not use flashlights or headlamps while walking around unless absolutely necessary. If you allow your eyes time to adjust, the full moon puts out plenty of light to help you see where you walk.
  • Never shine a flashlight directly toward a camera or person’s face. You will ruin a photo and temporarily blind a person.
  • Bring some rain gear with you, maybe even a sweater. The mist from the waterfall will get everyone wet and the temperatures can drop 20 degrees even during the summer.

SOME CAMERA TIPS that will help you make the best of your trip, and help you decide what kind of gear you need to take. As I have already stressed several times, you cannot capture this photo with a cellphone, tablet, point and shoot, or bridge camera. If you try, you will become frustrated. I met a young man with a Nikon bridge camera who became frustrated because the maximum 1-second exposure allowed by camera is not enough to capture the photo. Here are some tips to help you get that photo.

  • Use a DSLR or film camera
  • Bring a sturdy tripod
  • Use a remote shutter release or remote for your camera to prevent camera shake
  • Use a relatively wide lens around 12mm
  • Bring a lint-free microfiber cloth so you can clean the water from the lens between each shot
  • Camera Settings I: 400 ISO, f/8, 8 minutes
  • Camera Settings II: 1600 ISO, f/2.8, 30 seconds

IF YOU WANT TO GO, here are some tips to make the best of your trip:

When to Go: The perfect window is anytime from 3 days prior to the full moon to 3 days after. Each night, the best time to arrive is 1-2 hours after sunset.

How to Get There: From the East, take Interstate 75 to Highway 25, then take Highway 90 to the park. From the West, take Highway 27 to Highway 90. Once at the park, the waterfall is a ten minute walk down a smooth, paved path to the Upper Overlook.

How Much Does it Cost: This is a free event.

Best Tip for Best Experience: If time and weather permit, try to see the moonbow before or during the full moon. Each night after the full moon, the moon will rise about 40 minutes later. By the third day after a full moon, the moon is rising almost three hours after sunset, which can get quite late during the summer months.

IF YOU WANT TO SEE MORE PHOTOS of the moonbow and Cumberland Falls State Resort Park, please visit my website at http://jasonbarnette.photoshelter.com/gallery/Cumberland-Falls-State-Resort-Park/G0000IXN25SsG4Xw/C0000f.P.VXzs_.s

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