Southern Living list cites three Kentucky 'Wonders of the South'

The "moonbow" phenomenon at Cumberland Falls is believed to only occur in one other place on earth: Victoria Falls in Africa.
The "moonbow" phenomenon at Cumberland Falls is believed to only occur in one other place on earth: Victoria Falls in Africa.

Kentuckians are living in a state chock-full of wonders — at least when in competition with its fellow Southern states.

In a Southern Living magazine online listing, three Kentucky attractions — Mammoth Cave, the Cumberland Falls moonbow and the Red River Gorge — are among its Seven Wonders of the South.

The others are Palo Duro Canyon, Texas, which looks like the red-rock country out of a John Ford western; Everglades National Park in Florida; Padre Island National Seashore in Texas, the longest undeveloped barrier island in the world; and the coastal reef of Florida.

Although the listings were compiled by a freelancer several years ago, Kentucky nonetheless managed to outscore anything in Tennessee, Georgia, the Carolinas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.

"We think Kentucky has a great many things that are unique," said Scottie Ellis, communications manager for the Kentucky Department of Travel and Tourism. The Southern Living list "is very positive for us in promoting those areas of the state."

Ellis, herself a kayaker, hiker and rock climber, praised the gorge for "this great atmosphere it has to offer for people who are interested in outdoor adventure at all levels."

The Cumberland Falls moonbow "is a very unique phenomenon. We believe there's only one other place in the world where you can see that," said Gil Lawson, director of communications for the Kentucky Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet.

That one other place would be Victoria Falls, on the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe. At 355 feet, it's roughly twice the height of America's Niagara Falls.

A moonbow occurs when there is a full moon and a clear sky. To look for dates when you may see a moonbow, visit the Cumberland Falls State Park Web site at

"Whether you're there in the daytime or nighttime, it's ... one of the more picturesque and photographed falls," Lawson said.

He called it "a very iconic scene for Kentucky ... and a very popular place among all our attractions."

The Red River Gorge has more than 100 natural stone arches, making it a very popular "wonder," said Kim Morgan, a U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman.

Tim Eling, manager of the Red River Gorge in the Daniel Boone National Forest — considered a separate entity from Natural Bridge State Park nearby — said that the gorge's beauty comes from its Corbin sandstone, which creates the area's arches and rock shelters because it is "a little bit erodable."

The gorge draws not only hikers, backpackers and campers but also kayakers because of Red River, Kentucky's only wild national scenic river. Eling said the area is "world-renowned for rock climbing" — including "traditional" rock climbing with ropes and removable tools and "sport" climbing with permanent anchors and bolts affixed to the cliff face.

The gorge also includes a whole range of difficulty levels, from easy to "world-class climbs," Eling said.

"If you're really into climbing and you travel the world doing it, this is probably one of the places you will come in your life," Eling added.

The "rock bridge arch" area is Eling's favorite because it's the only arch over a stream and is also near a waterfall.

Some other areas of the state jump out as, if not unsurpassed natural wonders, then at least worthy of a drive-by on a clear summer's day: the lovely knob hills around Bardstown; the Kentucky River Palisades; and the man-made canyon of the Pikeville cut-through, which moved 13 million cubic feet of rock and dirt out of Peach Orchard Mountain for roadways.

Best-of lists are as numerous as mosquitoes in humid summers, and some differ from the choices of Southern Living.

For example, Blue Ridge Outdoors Magazine lists as its seven natural wonders of the South Whitewater Falls and the Blue Ridge Escarpment in North Carolina (counted as a single attraction); Seneca Rocks in West Virginia; BLK 69 in North Carolina (the oldest dated tree east of the Rocky Mountains, a bald cypress in a stand of 1,700 year-old trees); Cranberry Glades Botanical Area in West Virginia; Stone Mountain in Georgia; and Virginia's Natural Bridge Limestone Arch. Mammoth Cave in Kentucky also makes the cut.

Mammoth Cave is grateful for the free publicity that comes from being part of a list. Being a federal park, Mammoth Cave has no advertising budget, and Vickie Carson, the park's public information officer, said that lists like the one in Southern Living benefit not only the park, but also businesses near the park.

Mammoth Cave also profits from having been a tourist location for 200 years. In fact, Carson said, it's the second oldest national U.S. tourist attraction, after Niagara Falls.

"It was adventure tourism long before we started calling it that," Carson said. "Even in the 1800s it drew people from all over the world."

Mammoth Cave also is ranked among North American's Top 10 Natural Wonders by the Discovery Channel. That list includes Utah's Red Rock Country; the Acadia coast in Maine; Death Valley; the Everglades; California's redwood forest; Yosemite Valley; Denali in Alaska; Yellowstone, including the "Old Faithful" geyser; and the Grand Canyon.

Kentucky tourism promoters are happy to have had their moment in the sun via domination of Southern Living's natural wonders list.

"It would be hard to pinpoint another addition for the list" in Kentucky, Ellis said. "Thankfully Southern Living did that for us."