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Upper Cumberland



The Cumberland is a different kind of Kentucky river. It's big, with a huge watershed extending through three mountain ranges and 17 counties in three states. It feeds into four huge lakes thanks to dams built by the Tennessee Valley Authority. The Big Sandy and Kentucky are similar in size. What makes the Cumberland special is its shallow bed. Powerboats, especially tugs and tows, can push barges up and down the Big Sandy and Kentucky. The Cumberland flows wider and shallower, so only canoes, kayaks and rafts can travel it for any distance. For the 28 miles above Cumberland Falls, the river flows over rock ledges and gravel bars. It never gets very deep, except in sudden "holes." The width allows for various eddies and currents, setting up interesting canoeing problems. Most of the drops have multiple routes, some of which work, some of which don't. So it's an entertaining day's run, well worth the drive in and the overnight stay.

Access to the river is through Sheltowee Trace Outfitters, a family business which has offered rafting and canoeing on the Big South Fork, Cumberland and Russell Fork for 32 years. They can be reached at 1-800-541-7238, or www.ky-rafting.com. They offer three lengths of trips on the Upper Cumberland, a half day, full day and two day run. All three take out at the parking lot just above Cumberland Falls. Sheltowee Trace Outfitters are headquartered at the intersection of routes 25W and 90, five miles west of I-75 from either Exit 25 (coming down from Lexington) or Exit 15 (coming up from Tennessee), or five east of Cumberland Falls State Park.

You could drive in, make the run, and drive home in one day if you live within 90 miles of Cumberland Falls. But if you're further away, you need to stay overnight, and even if you live closer, overnighting makes for a much more pleasant trip. You need to either camp, rent a cabin, or stay at the Cumberland Falls State Park Lodge. Sheltowee Trace Outfitters offers camping and rents cabins. They have small one bedroom cabins for $40 a night in Spring and $50 a night all Summer. They also have larger cabins for youth groups or big families. On the night of arrival or morning of departure, you can eat dinner or breakfast at the Cumberland Falls State Park Lodge. There are no good outdoor supply centers, so you need to bring all food and equipment if you plan to cook and/or camp.

This photo, taken in April, and the one above left, taken in May, show the Cumberland in Spring runoff. As you get into late May and June, the water drops, the current slows, and the river becomes a peaceful float, as you see above right. As a matter of fact, you'll see people riding inner tubes alongside you for the last five miles.

There is a neat pulloff to the left a few miles above the falls. In April and May you can see a large side waterfall. There's a sandbar at the mouth of the side stream where you can beach your canoes and walk up below the falls, or climb up a path alongside or above it. If you make this stop, as you return to the river, it would be a good time to caution everyone in your group to move river right and stay there for the rest of the trip.

The entire trip on the Upper Cumberland is through forested hills with some farmland along the ledges right and left of the river. There are no cliffs until the very end. When you see cliffs appear on your left, they signal that you are approaching Cumberland Falls.

The most important aspect of canoeing the Upper Cumberland is that you MUST move FAR RIVER RIGHT as soon as you see the cliffs appear and the river curving to the right. You will also notice the steel cable railing, the parking lot on the right, and signs warning you that you are approaching the Falls. This is a wide river and it takes a while to move across it. You need to be ALREADY moving to the right half of it as soon as you see the cliffs rising on your left in the distance. Once the river begins sweeping right, the normally slow current picks up speed quickly, and the left half of the river races ahead along the base of the cliffs. If you get caught in that current, you absolutely will not be able to escape it. The right hand current remains slow a little longer, until the river passes the parking lot, so as long as you're on the right side, you have time to leisurely pull over and haul your canoe ashore. But this is a deceptive waterfall. Usually, as you approach a waterfall, you can see the fall line ahead; there is a discontinuity from the water level to the scenery beyond. Here, the river curves sharply right and drops over the falls out of your sight until the very last minute. By the time you can see it, it's too late.

When you pull out at the parking lot, you're only a few steps from this scene. You have to walk down, look at the falls from several vantage points, take some pictures and enjoy this Kentucky landmark. If you visit Cumberland Falls several times a year, it still looks different each time. If you'd like to see the Falls up close and personal, Sheltowee Trace offers a short rafting run right to the edge, where you'll be under the mist and almost under the falling water. If you can schedule your trip to coincide with a full moon, then stay overnight at Cumberland Falls State Park Lodge, you can come down after dark and see the world's only Moonbow over the falls, an amazing natural phenomenon. While visiting the Falls, you may see canoeists and kayakers putting into the pool partially seen in this photo and continuing on downstream. Resist the temptation. We don't recommend the trip. The river is strewn with house size boulders severely undercut, setting up treacherous currents that draw boats into those undercuts and trap them there. It is a run for very advanced boaters. If you want to see that part of the river, Sheltowee Trace Outfitters offers a rafting run over the same route. Their trained guides can maneuver the larger rafts through that obstacle course without danger, they feed you a nice lunch and the guides teach you a lot of natural history along the way.

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