Forming just north of Harlan, Kentucky, from three headwater forks that rise in the Appalachian Plateau of that State, the Cumberland River begins its tortuous, 690-mile journey to the Ohio River. After snaking westward and passing through the Pine Mountain ridge at Pine Mountain State Resort Park (Kentucky's oldest), the river angles to the NNW, where its spectacular falls (known for its seasonal moonbows) is protected within Cumberland Falls State Resort Park.
Winding westward once again, the river receives flow from its Big South Fork (which is surrounded by a National Recreation Area) and soon enters Lake Cumberland (home to another Kentucky State Park) before turning south just west of Dale Hollow Lake and entering Tennessee. Curving to the southwest, it leaves the Appalachian Plateau (known locally as the Cumberland Plateau) at Carthage and flows westward into Old Hickory Lake, just south and east of Hendersonville. The Cumberland River then curves through Metro Nashville before angling to the northwest, entering Cheatham Lake and then passing Clarksville, Tennessee.
Crossing the karst plain of western Kentucky, the Cumberland then enters Lake Barkley, which forms the eastern edge of Kentucky's Land Between the Lakes, before joining the Ohio River a couple miles east of the mouth of the Tennessee River. Few Eastern U.S. rivers connect so many well-known parks and recreation areas as they sculpt our landscape; of course, the dams that created some of these human playgrounds have significantly altered the river's ecology.