Tucked away in southeastern Kentucky’s section of the Daniel Boone National Forest, just 20 miles southwest of Corbin, Cumberland Falls forms a 125-foot-wide watery curtain that plunges 67 feet into a boulder-strewn gorge, making it the second largest falls east of the Mississippi and earning it the title of Niagara of the South.
And when Mother Nature cooperates, the full moon paints a shiny white moonbow across the roaring waterfall. Only Victoria Falls on the Zambezi River in Zimbabwe puts on a similar show. Water and air clarity, barometric pressure, wind speed, amount of rising mist, and weather all affect this natural phenomenon. Though the water droplets act as tiny prisms just as in a rainbow, a moonbow appears white.
“On a real good night you can see a bit of color in it,” says Bret Smitley, Cumberland Falls State Resort Park naturalist, “but the human eye needs light to be able to see color and can’t focus on color at night. In pictures of the moonbow, a camera cheats because the lens stays open for a long exposure and captures all that color.”
Spectacular rainbows can dance across Cumberland Falls daily as long as the sun shines bright. But even if it’s cloudy, there’s plenty to see and do in and around Cumberland Falls State Park.
With advance reservations at Sheltowee Trace Outfitters in Whitley City, visitors can put in right below the falls for rafting or canoeing on the Cumberland River, 16.1 miles of which is Kentucky Designated Wild River. Wending through the park, 25 miles of hiking trails include terrific views of Cumberland as well as Eagle Falls, which plummets 44 gorgeous feet into the river.
To learn about the park’s history, geology, and wildlife, take a guided hike. Ogle wildflowers on walks from March through May, and from Memorial Day through Labor Day activities include archery, horseback riding, crafts, and wildly popular snake shows.
“Whether you love ’em or hate ’em, everybody wants to see live snakes,” laughs Smitley. “It’s funny. People who are terrified of them sit there in fear. But they come. It’s human nature.”
A hit for 15 years, the nighttime dance program features line, folk, and sometimes square dancing on Tuesday, Friday, and Saturday nights in DuPont Lodge, a 52-guestroom, rustic treasure with beautiful wood, massive fireplaces, and a 300-seat river-view dining room with a Kentucky buffet (call ahead for dates). A well-appointed museum features area history and Native American artifacts, as does a new Visitor Center nestled near the falls.
Learn how to capture a bit of the beauty of this outdoor wonderland each April during Photography Weekend, take a challenging hike through the Cumberland River Gorge in October on the Moonbow Trail Trek, and stay in a one- or two-bedroom cottage.
Encompassing 1,294 acres within the park’s boundaries, Cumberland Falls State Park Nature Preserve protects several species of unusual plants and animals, including the 30-foot-long “legless lizard” that wriggles like a snake.
Cumberland Falls State Resort Park
About 20 wooded miles off I-75 near Corbin
Sheltowee Trace Outfitters
Spring, summer, and fall rafting and year-round canoe trips on the Cumberland and Big South Fork rivers, and lunch cruises on a riverboat.
Corbin Tourist & Convention Commission
Williamsburg Tourist Commission
Area AttractionsLaurel River Lake, (606) 864-6412, the Rainbow Trout Capital of Kentucky and home of the state smallmouth bass record. Get your boat and bait at Holly Bay Marina, (606) 864-6542. If you’d rather be a fish, suit up for cool Kentucky Splash Water Park, (866) 812-1860 or www.kentuckysplash.com, in nearby Williamsburg.
Replenish all those paddling, cruising, casting, and sliding calories big time at the Harlan Sanders Café & Museum, (606) 528-2163, in Corbin, the birthplace of Kentucky Fried Chicken. Or for what one local customer deemed “the best cheeseburger in Kentucky” as well as steaks and seafood, tuck in your napkin at The Depot on Main, (606) 523-1117 or www.depotonmain.com.
When your tummy’s full and you’re plumb tuckered out, catch a few overnight winks above a Corbin antiques shop at Antiques & Accents Bed & Breakfast Inn, (606) 526-9765.
Katherine Tandy Brown is a regular contributor to the Traveling Kentucky column.
The two-year old Laurel Gorge Cultural Heritage Center, designed to look like a tobacco barn and perched at the edge of a gravel drive off Route 7 in Sandy Hook, feels like it is in the middle of nowhere—yet visitors from 37 states and eight different countries have found their way to the museum.
“Keith Whitley brings a lot of visitors,” says Gwenda Adkins, Elliott County Extension agent.
Sandy Hook’s beloved native son and country music singer is given his due at the Center with an exhibit that includes concert clothing, guitars, boots, awards, concert tickets, photo albums, videos, sound bites, and other items. Tragically, the 34-year-old Whitley died on May 9, 1989, not long after the first three singles from Close Your Eyes (including the title track When You Say Nothing at All and I’m No Stranger to the Rain) shot to number 1 on Billboard Magazine’s country charts.
The 3,400-square-foot Center, a “work in progress” as volunteer director Flo Whitley (Keith’s sister-in-law) calls it, is located on property owned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Huntington District and is part of the Grayson Lake Project.
Owned by the Elliott County Fiscal Court and staffed by volunteers, it opened two years ago and interprets the people, culture, history, and natural world of this Appalachian region.
It does so through a series of hands-on exhibits, like a wood coyote sculpted by local wood carver Charles Keaton, whose “coat” feels like suede; a water table that beckons busy fingers to play in the sand while exploring river and delta formations; and a puzzle whose pieces fit together only if the correct wood species are identified in order.
“We try to have as much ‘touchy-feely’ as we can,” says Whitley as she strokes a thick clutch of animal pelts.
As much as the Center emphasizes hands-on, it also shines the spotlight on area artisans who contribute their handiwork to give contextual meaning to exhibits like Early Farm Life, Moonshine Still, One Room School House, and Folk Art.
Adkins explains that the Center’s exhibits are correlated to Kentucky Core Content so students of all ages can learn about the biodiversity of the mixed mesophytic forest through interactive displays that include flora and fauna, geology, and water quality.
But anyone can enjoy what the museum has to offer: adding a stitch to one of the folk art quilts; picking up a turtle; caressing the velvety softness of club moss in the garden, so soft that, according to legend, the Native Americans lay their babies on it to sleep.
The knock-your-socks-off exhibit—the Kentucky Native Flora Garden—is where 300 or more native species of the state’s wildflowers flourish, offering fragrant blooms and splashes of color from early spring through late fall. The garden is accessed through a viewing room just off a combination classroom/meeting room. Visitors can catch the flower show through the looking glass or step outside to the path and hike right into the heart of nature.
A full mile of the trail with a combination of plank bridges and compacted earth (wheelchair-accessible for 1/4 mile) offers a lovely trek overall to see Mother Nature gone wild.
Laurel Gorge Cultural Heritage Center Sandy Hook
(606) 738-5543 or 738-5576
Open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday; and 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday. Free admission. Take I-64 to exit 137. Take Route 32 approximately 32 miles. Turn left onto Laurel Curves Road, then turn right into the drive and go 1/4 mile. For more information contact the Elliott County Cooperative Extension Office at (606) 738-6400.
Hungry hikers can grab a table at the family-owned Hungry Jack’s Pizza & Grill, (606) 738-6661, located nearby on Highway 7, where Danny Fraley puts out a daily hot buffet in addition to the menu items.
For overnighting in the area, check into the new Laurel Gorge Inn in Sandy Hook, (606) 738-5515 or www.laurelgorgeinn.com, just half a mile from the Center. Charmingly rustic, it is owned by Kay and Leif Boggs, who set out to create Arcadia with an Appalachian twist: waterfalls splash on the back 40, blossoms carpet the surrounding woods, and rockers line the front porch.
Elliott County is within an hour’s drive or so of seven Kentucky state parks: Grayson Lake, Greenbo Lake State Resort Park, Cave Run, Carter Caves State Resort Park, Jenny Wiley State Resort Park, Natural Bridge State Resort Park, and Paintsville Lake. Go online to http://parks.ky.gov for more information.
According to Gwenda Adkins, Elliott County is home to the largest colony of folk artists in the state and possibly the country. With prior notification, the artists will open their homes to visitors.
The Kentucky Folk Art Center in Morehead is the only one of its kind in Kentucky. The anchor of the Center is Minnie Adkins, an internationally known Elliott County folk artist. For more information, contact the Center at 102 W. First Street, (606) 783-2204, or the Web at www.kyappalachians.com.
Kathy Witt is a regular contributor to the Traveling Kentucky column.