In late October, we spent several days hiking Cumberland Falls State Resort Park in Kentucky. The 12 numbered trails in the park provide 17 miles of moderately challenging forest hiking. Keep your dog leashed, and note the signs warning of bears in the area.
Watch our companion video:
Estimated reading time: 8 minutes
Finding the Trail
Our home base was the park’s Ridgeline Campground, where we stayed in a very cool motorhome (check it out in our Chinook Class B+ RV Tour and Review).
After we set up camp, we were so anxious to hike to the Falls that we didn’t study this excellent map to learn where the trail begins. So, on our first trek, we just wandered back down the campground road until we met up with the horse-riding trail. That finally led us to Trail 4 which loops around duPont Lodge and connects you to the river.
It was only on our way back — several hours later — that we discovered the trailhead for Trail 5. It’s nestled in amongst the tent sites near the entrance to Ridgeline Campground, and the sign marking the trail is easy to miss. It’ll be down the hill to your right (north) as you round the final curve driving into the campground.
However, you get to learn from our lack of preparation! Assuming you set out from the correct spot, Trail 5 immediately drops down into beautiful, thick forest. You may see a short section near the start with a hand-written sign warning about hornets. We didn’t see any, though, and it was easy to go around this section. It was a joy to romp through the fall leaves covering the trail and breathe the clean forest air.
You’ll cross the horse trail a few times as you make your way, and may even see a group of riders ambling quietly along. The horses leave deep, muddy hoof prints and manure in their wake, so I don’t recommend walking on their trails. As of this writing, a 45-minute horseback ride cost $20/person.
After a half mile or so, you come to an intersection where it’s surprisingly easy to get confused. Just turn left, and Trail 4 will lead you toward DuPont Lodge and the Falls.
Civilian Conservation Corps Memorial Trail
Trail 4 is designated the Civilian Conservation Corps Memorial Trail and you can thank the Corps for making your hike in Cumberland Falls Park possible. In addition to forging the trails in the park, the Corps also built the lodge and cabins. You can read a brief history of the CCC here. You’ll find small signs periodically that describe various trees and plants, such as Hemlocks and Sweetgums. Then, below DuPont Lodge, you descend a series of stone staircases built by the Corps in the 1930s.
When you reach the bottom of the stone stairs, enjoy the beautiful cliff wall rising above you. Descend another 50 yards or so to the pavement, then turn right and walk several hundred feet until you reach Cumberland Falls Road. Gatliff Bridge will be to your left as you cross the road into the Visitors Center Parking Lot.
Make your way to the sidewalk alongside the Cumberland River and continue walking downstream to the Visitors Center. There’s a gift shop, snack bar, and restrooms, as well as a plaque describing the famous “Moonbow” that appears at the Falls.
What’s a Moonbow?
A moonbow forms when light refracts through the tiny water droplets produced at the base of the Falls. We didn’t witness this “lunar rainbow,” but you can enjoy it if you plan a nighttime visit at either end of a full moon. Go to the Cumberland Falls site and scroll down to the Moonbow section to see future dates.
At the main viewing platform, enjoy a closeup look at the “Niagara of the South.” Cumberland Falls is 125 feet wide and 68 feet high, making it “the largest waterfall as measured by water volume in the Eastern United States, south of Niagara Falls.” (There’s also a photo of a moonbow at that Wikipedia link.)
If you brought snacks, there are a number of picnic tables in this area to lunch at. Next, continue walking north on what is now Trail 1, the Moonbow Trail. The wide, asphalt-paved path seems to float in the trees above the river, and you can take in the view from multiple platforms that jut out from it. You can also take some selfies.
The Sign for Dog Slaughter Falls
It’s hard to miss the sign for Dog Slaughter Falls. Located three and a half miles north of here in Daniel Boone National Forest, these 15-20 foot high falls occur where Dog Slaughter Creek joins the Cumberland River. I wasn’t able to track down the story behind the Falls’ colorful name, which is maybe a good thing? The pictures of Dog Slaughter Falls are beautiful, though, and we plan to make the hike on our next trip to the area. Here’s a good post about accessing and hiking Dog Slaughter Falls off of state highway 90.
Now You’re Hiking the Sheltowee Trace
Cumberland Falls’ Moonbow Trail (Trail 1) forms part of the Sheltowee Trace National Recreation Trail. Established in 1979, this 333-mile trail system runs through Tennessee and Kentucky, and includes Cave Run Lake, Red River Gorge, Natural Bridge State Park, Laurel Lake, Cumberland Falls State Park, and the Big South Fork Recreation Area. You can support the Trace and find more Hiker Resources at the Sheltowee Trace Association site.
By the way, “Sheltowee” is the name the Shawnee gave to Daniel Boone when they adopted him into their tribe. It means “Big Turtle.”
The Gift That Preserved Cumberland Falls
Keep going north and you’ll soon come to a tablet honoring T. Coleman duPont and his family for donating 539 acres around Cumberland Falls to the State of Kentucky in 1930. It turns out there was a little plotting and intrigue involved with this gift. In the late 20s, the Cumberland Falls Preservation Association was trying to prevent the construction of a hydroelectric dam upstream of the Falls. They convinced duPont to purchase the area for $400,000 in order to protect it. And thank goodness. The dam would have diverted the river through a tunnel to a point below the Falls, reducing them to a trickle.
A bit further downstream, the paved portion of the trail gives way to steps that descend to Cumberland Falls Beach. Nola enjoyed going in the water here (ever so briefly) and running on the sand with MT. The size of the beach and all the driftwood leads me to think this area must flood occasionally.
Go back up the stairs to trail level and continue north. The pavement ends and you’ll likely encounter fewer people. We followed this forest trail for perhaps another mile, until we reached a sewer treatment plant (you’ll hear the drone of machinery). Look across the river here to see Eagle Falls.
Prepare for Next Time
We decided to head back to the campground at this point, knowing it would take at least an hour and a half with the dog. I’m looking forward to our next visit to Cumberland Falls and the chance to enjoy more of its trails. Beforehand, we’ll take a good look at this map from Kentucky State Parks and plan several hikes on both sides of the river.
I also recommend checking out the trail advice and info at AllTrails. Note that the trail numbering at AllTrails differs from the actual trail numbers at the park.
We hope you enjoyed this look at the beautiful hiking trails in Kentucky’s Cumberland Falls Park. We definitely recommend you traverse them yourself and share your experiences. Be sure to leave us a comment below if you have questions or suggestions about this area of southern Kentucky! – Dave
As I set in the cumberland falls ridgeline campground. Behold a well written article beautify describing the trails in park. I would also like to recommend the Fire Tower trail. I like to hike up late at night while the suns going down.
Thank you, DAVID, for the kind words! Let us know how you enjoy the park (and I’m also curious if the Hornet nest warning is still there).
Also there is Eagle Falls and trail on the far side of Cumberland falls visitors center. Its a demanding hike with tons of stairs. It also provides a commanding view of Cumberland falls from above.
Thank you, Raymond! I’m hoping we can do Eagle Falls the next time we’re at Cumberland. – Dave