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Cumberland Falls

    A post about Cumberland Falls might seem more like a tourism promotion scheme since the falls is a well known land mark of southern Kentucky. Cumberland Falls is probably known by most Kentuckians as well as many visitors from around the world. I have included in my list of interesting places around the state because of  some unusual items associated with the falls.  The Falls not only is a wonder to behold but holds two unique records. East of the Continental Divide it  is the second only to Niagara Falls in the volume water that plunges over the sandstone rock outcrop. The Falls have been referred to over the years as the "Niagara of the South." I suspect that is more of a tourism promotional statement.  Most everyone calls it Cumberland Falls, or locally, the Falls. It is pretty fantastic in the shear amount of water that drops over the ledge every second. Easily on average a quarter of million gallons of water per second plummets over the crest of the water falls in the Cumberland River's never ending journey.
    The Cumberland River valley and the region is rugged and the southern part of the massive Corbin sandstone and conglomerate. Inter-bedded with softer shale and silt stone the hard sandstone conglomerate resists erosion and weathering much more than those other types of stones. Over eons of time a ripple in the river became a small water fall and continued to grow as the softer underlying rocks were eroded away by the relentless force of the river. Geologist speculate that the falls actually began several miles down stream from its present location and probably due to the elevation of the sandstone strata, would have been a much larger water falls in those ancient times. But nature and erosion are relentless. In time and from time to time the tough conglomerate would finally blink and a chunk would break off and fall into the river below and then by only inches the falls recedes yet further back upstream on the mighty Cumberland River.
Moonbow captured by time exposure

     It is also one of only two water falls on earth that exhibit the phenomena known as a "moonbow." The only other naturally occurring moonbow happens at Victoria Falls on the Zambezi River in Africa. Now to capture a photograph of the rare event one must be at the falls on the nights of a full moon. The skies have to be clear and the mist has to be rising over the falls as the water plunges into the deep pool below the falls. And the moon has to be at the just the right angle that the view can see the event. To photograph the pale rainbow (same effect as a rainbow) a tripod and time exposed shot are required. I have noted that the very best months of the year are February, March and April.  It is during these months that the moons location in the sky places the angle of refraction  close to the falls. This allows for those great photos of the moonbow hovering over the falls and both can be photographed.
Victoria Falls
    During the early 1970's I had the opportunity and good fortune to work at Cumberland Falls State Resort Park. And by living right there near the falls I had a great opportunity to photograph and visit the Falls practically everyday. I had of course heard of the limit of only two observable moonbows' on the planet. Here at Cumberland Falls and the other one was in Africa on the Zambezi  River in the country of Zimbabwe. Well, being a fellow of a curious nature, I could not simply accept hearsay, so I sat down one day and wrote a letter to the government of Southern Rhodesia. In those days the country was Southern Rhodesia and later through political changes changed to the new country of Zimbabwe. Anyway, after many weeks I did receive a reply back from officials of the Victoria Falls Park there indeed confirming they have moonbows on a regular basis but most tourist do not get to see them because it was much too dangerous to go out at night in the area of the falls because of the wildlife!

Official letter head  on letter describing the Moonbow at Victoria Falls National Park
    The Cumberland Falls was formed as the large blocks of sandstone conglomerate fracture and erode away. The softer sand stone and shales underneath the waterfall  erode away and the large blocks of fractured sandstone eventually break off and fall into the river gorge thereby causing the falls to recede up stream ever so slightly.  Geologist say this has been going on for tens of thousands of years.  The falls likely originated several miles down stream from its present day location.  The fractures in the rock are very noticeable today and the process continues. Such breaks in the rock are cause by forces of earth tremors as well as freezing and thawing the water trapped in the stone. The result is a never ending and active process of change.
The large rock pile by waters edge fell in 1972

    There have been reports of placer type gold and silver found in the sands and gravel of the Cumberland River in the area of the Falls. The Swift legend has also been tied to this area of the state. Many of the alleged rock formation landmarks can be identified in this region.  The proximity to the Pine Mountain, aka as Jellico Mountain in this area.
    Make no mistake the Falls are still actively retreating upstream. In February 1972 a huge section of the cliff fell into the river just below the Falls. The rock fall took out a large section of the Eagle Falls Trail and was certainly a massive rock fall. Thousands of tons of rock and debris fell into the river and ever so slightly widening the river valley.  When one stands near the falls joint fractures can easily be seen. Water continually erodes these joints and the underlying rock until eventually another section of the rock creating the falls breaks away. Then the massive water fall retreats a bit further upstream.
Joint fracture just upstream a few feet from falls will eventually break away
    Geologist say that because of the angle the beds of the tough, water resistant sandstone conglomerate, eventually the falls will bet smaller until eventually it will be little more than a rapid in the river. This, of course, will be many lifetimes away from our present day situation. Tens of thousands of year is the time table the Falls lives by.

The rugged rock eventually proves to be no match to the  millions of gallons of water that plummet over the ledge every minute of every day 

Down the Cumberland River below the Falls are the remains of eroded rocks many of which were once part of the Falls.

Cumberland Falls, the Niagara of the South is the second largest waterfall in the eastern part of the U.S.


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