Day 9: NIAGARA OF THE SOUTH
It was 5:30am when I awoke, but Julie got up a little later so she could take a shower that she managed to miss last night due to fatigue. So a good chunk of time was used to ensure we were fully packed. I had to turn off the fan because it was on all last night to drown out banter and TV sounds coming from adjacent motel rooms through the paper-thin walls here.
At 6:40am, we finally left the Red Roof Inn and embarked on a long drive into Southeastern Kentucky. It was essentially the end of the first half of the trip as this second half we were about to embark on would take on a different flavor than the first.
You see, the first half was dominated by waterfall hunting as there were limited opportunities to mix it up thanks to the quantity of major waterfalls to check out. But in this second half, there were more caves and arches in addition to waterfalls so for sure, we were mixing it up in the Blue Grass country of Southern Kentucky and Tennessee.
Before we drove off, I went into the BP gas station adjacent to the Shell station. I thought Shell was dishonest when it touted $3.69 per gallon for gas but then tricked you into coming there when it became apparent that the signed rate was cash only (it was $3.79 per gallon for credit card). But in the BP station next door, it stated $3.69 per gallon and it remained that way at the pump.
Well, regardless of haggling over 10 cents per gallon (which in grand scheme of things was probably about $1 total difference on a whole tank of gas), just about all the gas rates in these states were easily $1 per gallon less than whatever we were paying in California. And the prices we were paying in the name of pollution control probably didn’t do anything (or made it worse if you objectively quantify net pollution emissions from cradle to grave of the entire life cycle of the fuel extraction, processing, and consumption).
So the drive going west on the I-40 was in the dark and in between fog and hazy dawn. The outside temperature was in the high 30s and low 40s, which was probably why the fog was there. Aside from my worries of deer jumping out onto the high speed highway, it was uneventful and we made it to our accommodation at the Cumberland Inn and Museum at 9:40am.
Our accommodation was as close as we could get to the Cumberland Falls, which was what we were looking forward to do on this morning. And after some local driving on some Kentucky highways, where speed limit signs seemed to be very rare, we finally made it to the main car park area for Cumberland Falls at 10:20am.
By this time, it was still relatively low key at the falls area though there were plenty of people out and about. The sun was starting to warm up the temperature into the 50s, which was warm enough to allow me to leave my jacket in the car.
Anyways, we hastily made our way over to the many overlooks of Cumberland Falls along the river. Greeting us immediately near the brink of the wide 68ft tall, 125ft wide falls was a full arcing rainbow.
Moreover, there were beautiful fall colors across the river benefitting from the morning sun. Indeed, it looked like we had arrived right at the peak of Autumn colors in this part of Kentucky. Most of the waterfall itself was in shadow due to the falls facing north while the sun was positioned behind the falls towards the south.
As we were taking photos and going from overlook to overlook, we couldn’t help but notice that Cumberland Falls didn’t charge an admission fee. For an attraction like this, that was quite amazing since we had seen far lesser attractions on this trip (e.g. Biltmore Estate, US Forest Service fee areas, etc.) that costed quite a bit of money.
Anyways, there were signs here indicating that this was one of the few places where you could see a lunar rainbow or “moonbow.” Actually, I swore I saw some of those signs say this was the only place in North America where you could get to see one.
However, these claims seemed to be a bit boastfully inaccurate since we knew it was possible to see moonbows in Yosemite Falls, and I was certain just about any other waterfall kicking up mist under enough enough moonlight could do it. Nonetheless, we happened to be here a week too early for the full moon so there wouldn’t be a moonbow for us. However, the big bright sun rainbows of this morning did the job just fine.
We lingered here at Cumberland Falls for quite awhile as there were many ways to take photos and movies of it. It wasn’t until about 11:45am when we returned to the car following a hasty lunch where we took a few bites of our food then retreated towards the car with food in hand when the yellow jacket wasps were swarming about and bothering us.
After the Cumberland Falls experience, we could totally envision this waterfall shaking up our US Top 10 list. That also got us to reconsider our current list and to start figuring out which waterfalls should go and which ones should get on our list.
Next, we drove towards the Natural Arch of Kentucky, which was west of Cumberland Falls. We’d eventually reach the well-signposted and developed car park area at 12:15pm (EST). We paid the $3 fee to park here though in truth, it seemed like no one was really checking on this day. Nonetheless, we did the honest thing to help out this park.
From there, we walked to a couple of overlooks where we could get distant views of the arch amidst Autumn colors. We couldn’t get the sky-through-the-span shot given our position, so we had already thought about taking the mile-long (return) trail leading to the base of the impressive arch.
After having our fill of reading the interpretive signs at this overlook, we walked back towards the car park, and then followed some paved pathways within the main picnic and car park area before we had finally found the correct trail leading to the arch’s base.
However, there was a trail lined by wooden fences going through the span of the arch then providing an angled view of the backside of the span. It turned out that this backside of the arch was where I had seen many brochures and web literature take photos from.
When we were done with this attractive arch, we hiked uphill back to our car. Julie said that while I was busy taking photos of the backside of the arch, she conversed with some folks with that Kentucky-Southern accent proclaiming that they were lost doing a long loop that led from the arch and ended right back at the arch. They were gone when I was finally done with my business behind the arch, but that prompted Julie to say to me that sometimes you just have to go back the way you came if you think you’re lost.
Anyways, we were back at the car at 1:20pm (EST). The next stop was Yahoo Falls and Arch, where the turnoff for the scenic area was off the KY 700. We were briefly stopped by a long cargo train at 1:35pm (EST), but when that passed, we took the highway and then the last 1.5 miles of unpaved road towards the Yahoo Falls Scenic Area unpaved car park, and arrived at trailhead at 1:45pm (EST).
The signs at the trailhead made it seem like it was only 1/4-mile from the trailhead to the Yahoo Falls. But I had anticipated a much longer hike than that for both the waterfall and the arch (something like over a mile hike to the falls and then the anticipated 1.6 miles return for Yahoo Arch). I guess the unpaved road leading to the scenic area was something new.
When Julie and I were at one of the overlooks of the falls, we were dismayed to see how light-flowing Yahoo Falls was. So we continued to go past the falls, over the falls’ stream upstream from the falls itself, and towards the Yahoo Arch, which was 1.6 miles return from the Yahoo Falls trail loop.
That spur trail was pretty moderate because somewhere along the way, I nearly lost the trail where fallen leaves conspired to obscure what would probably be a well known and easy-to-follow path. Plus, it was mostly uphill and narrow on this spur trail.
After confirming with a family who was just coming back from the Yahoo Arch that I was indeed on the right path, I continued my haste on the gradually uphill and narrow path. Ultiamtely at around 2:45pm (EST), I made it to the Yahoo Arch, which was really composed of a sink hole merged with an alcove.
When I had my fill of Yahoo Arch, I returned back to the trail junction where I had previously punted the path to the base of the falls for later. Well now that I was back, I descended the trail and eventually got into a very tall alcove over which the Yahoo Falls free falls across the front of the alcove.
It wasn’t easy to get satisfactory photos of the falls because it was very light flowing. Well, at least we could walk underneath the falls as well as see it from different angles beneath the alcove.
I wondered whether this was more of an ephemeral waterfall or if it had reliable (albeit light) flow and only grew in width and volume during significant storms. Or perhaps this waterfall was a victim of the severe drought of 2012, which plagued the majority of the country.
At 3:40pm (EST), I was back at the car. While Yahoo Falls itself was a bit of a dud, at least we docuented and could write about it from a first-person perspective.
The 1.5-mile (3 miles round trip) Eagle Falls Trail had very limited parking, but since we showed up late, parking was nowhere near the problem it was when we drove past this area earlier this morning.
It became painfully apparent that this trail had the profile of an upside down V (i.e. climbing initially, then descending sharply towards Eagle Falls and getting all that elevation change on the way back). Most of the people we encountered seemed to be heading back to the trailhead, but given that all types of people were doing this trail (including a big Amish family), that was an indication to us that this trail shouldn’t be too bad despite our tired bodies.
A short distance beyond the trail loop junction on the Eagle Falls Trail, the path passed beneath many alcoves and overhanging cliffs. It was in one of these streches that we were able to see Cumberland Falls from the opposite side of the river than we were at this morning. Clearly this side was best seen in the afternoon since the sun’s morning rays would’ve caused us to look directly right at the falls with the sun in our line-of-sight.
Eventually, the trail descended several flights of steps before ending off at a slight boulder scramble. I had read that parts of the trail would be submerged in high water, and I supposed that was why the last short stretch of trail wasn’t really a trail at all (more like the aforementioned boulder scramble with some of the boulders painted red as trail markers).
Anyways, when we had our fill of this waterfall, we now had to go uphill and then downhill before returning to the trailhead. Indeed, we did this hike as a simple out-and-back hike, and a Kentucky family who were catching their breaths while we were about to descend the stairs warned us not to do the entire loop. I guess that was reinforcement of our decision not to do the whole loop, especially since we were short on time.
And so ended this rather eventful day to kick off the second half of our trip. It was a long day so even though we looked forward to talking to our daughter via Skype, I was personally out of it for a bit thanks to fatigue from all that driving and hiking from today (and the cumulative effects of consecutive days of such exertion on this trip)…