Here's the Best Place on Earth to Catch an Ultra-Rare Moonbow

An elusive phenomenon is just regularly scheduled programming.

Jim Vallee/Shutterstock
Jim Vallee/Shutterstock
Jim Vallee/Shutterstock

Maybe-if you’re the lucky type-you’ve caught a moonbow arcing over the base of Yosemite Falls at night. Perhaps you’ve spied one hanging in Costa Rica’s cloud forests, or hovering in the rolling mist of Victoria Falls. But there’s only one place in the Western Hemisphere where the elusive phenomenon occurs predictably and regularly: southern Kentucky’s Cumberland Falls.

Even if you’ve seen a moonbow-an arc of ghostly white light varying from imperceptible to undeniable-you might not have known what it was. Sometimes called a lunar rainbow or a white rainbow, moonbows are a rare phenomenon requiring very specific conditions to appear. At Cumberland Falls, they’re part of the park’s regularly scheduled programming.

Scott Kunath / shutterstock
Scott Kunath / shutterstock
Scott Kunath / shutterstock

Bret Smitley, Park Naturalist at Cumberland Falls State Resort Park, walks us through the science behind the phenomenon. 

“As a moonbeam enters a droplet from the falls,” he writes, “the higher density of the water slows down and refracts the light. The inside surface of the droplet acts as a mirror, reflecting the light back to the observer.” 

Essentially-just like a rainbow-a moonbow is “a result of light passing through the cumulative effect of millions of droplets.”

For moonbow potential, two things are needed: a full moon and a body of water. That’s not exactly a unique combination, but it also leaves a lot to chance. For surefire moonbows, the stars aligned at Cumberland: the water source is in front of you and the moonlight behind. The gorge walls are low and wide enough that they don’t block the moonlight but high enough they block the wind. Even better, Smitley adds, “Most waterfalls do not produce enough mist. Cumberland produces a lot.” 

Cumberland Falls, it’s worth noting, is the “Niagara of the South,” a 68-foot-tall, 125-foot-wide waterfall cascading into a rocky gorge at 3,600 cubic feet of water per second. And sitting in south-central Kentucky’s Daniel Boone National Forest, the area is remarkably free from light pollution, the last necessary ingredient in the moonbow “recipe.” 
(The actual Niagara Falls, it turns out, used to have a consistent moonbow, but light pollution has made that a phenomenon of the past.)

The only other place on the planet to have reliable moonbows? Victoria Falls, on the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Patrick Jennings / shutterstock
Patrick Jennings / shutterstock
Patrick Jennings / shutterstock

Cumberland Falls’ moonbows are so reliable there’s a calendar for them-dates surround the full moon, with two or three days on either side. To catch the brightest ‘bows, hope for a clear night on the full moon, and keep an eye on sunset and moonrise times.

“The moonbow can usually be seen about an hour after dark, after the moon has cleared the top of the ridge,” explains Smitley. Each subsequent night, though, the moon rises later and later-expect to add 30 minutes for each successive night in the moonbow’s five- or six-day tour.
And if you’re already planning that Instagram shot, be prepared to see with your eyes something totally different than what pops up on your camera. 

“To most people, it looks like an arc of white light, with some color fading in and out,” Smitley notes. “Photographs sort of cheat, because long exposures will pick up the color.” (Note: Cell phone cameras can pick up the phenomenon, but DSLRs-and a tripod-usually warrant the best results.)

As for where and when to go, though the moonbow can technically be seen from the Lower Overlook, the Upper Overlook on top of the falls is the best viewing spot, according to Smitley. Winter is a great season to check off the quest, as the crowds have thinned and the moon rises swiftly, as early as 6pm. 

And while little remains in the lunar dregs of 2020, a moonbow is expected on December 31st until 11pm-should you want to ring in the New Year with moonshine and moonbows, you found your chance.

Jacqueline Kehoe is a writer, photographer, and geology geek. See her work on Instagram at @j.kehoe.

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Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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