Here Are The 17 Most Magnificent Places Across The U.S. To Enjoy Nature At Night
Most of us choose to visit a
national park of natural wonder during the day, when these magnificent places are on full display in all their glory. And indeed, the options for day treks and recreation at these picture-perfect places are numerous. However, there are some sites that shine brightest at night, whether it’s superlative stargazing, nocturnal wildlife, or after-hours phenomena like the elusive moonbow. When the sun sets, make a point of visiting these magnificent places across the U.S. for an unrivaled and wholly wondrous experience of nature at night.
Firefall at Yosemite National Park, California
El Capitan, California 95389, USA
Yosemite National Park
is a bucket-list destination for most -- especially waterfall chasers, as the park's 1,200 acres house some of the most extraordinary falls in the country. But none are as wondrous as Horsetail Fall, a seasonal waterfall that descends into two side-by-side streams, with one dropping 1,540 feet and the other dropping 1,570 feet. It's a gorgeous sight from winter to spring, but especially during February when it makes a spectacular transformation into a firefall. During this time, it appears that fire -- not water -- is flowing over the side of El Capitan. Of course, it isn't actually fire, but an amazing visual phenomenon that occurs when conditions are just right. To this end, the firefall appears only if the sun illuminates the waterfall from the right angle, weather conditions need to be perfect, and people need to be viewing the falls from a certain spot, ideally when it's dark. However, if the stars align, it's an awe-inspiring spectacle you won't ever forget.
Bioluminescent Tide at Newport Beach, California
California is hailed as the Golden State, but some of SoCal's brightest and most brilliant colors shine when the sun goes down. The
glowing blue waves
at Newport Beach happen seasonally, and never fail to dazzle. Formerly known as bioluminescence, this is a natural phenomenon created by bioluminescent phytoplankton in the water. Hypnotic and otherworldly, just watching the colorful, undulating waves is enough to make you stop and appreciate the magic and mystery of the sea.
Full Moon Hikes at Joshua Tree National Park, California
Joshua Tree National Park, California, USA
A place that could easily fill an entire bucket list on its own,
Joshua Tree National Park
is undoubtedly a true Southern California treasure. As a desert wilderness, the park stretches up to 800,000 acres, with the full spectrum of experiences available for the picking. Must-take hikes include the Barker Dam Trail and Panorama Loop, but if you
want to savor the park's total splendor, there's nothing better than a full moon hike at Joshua Tree. Not only is this a fantastic way to beat the heat (summertime highs can exceed 100 degrees Fahrenheit), but the park’s wild desertscapes transform into something wholly otherworldly in the moonlight, in their stillness and quietude. The Hidden Valley Trail is a popular nighttime hike; just be sure to exercise caution and bring the proper gear to ensure your safety.
Stargazing at Great Basin National Park, Nevada
National Forest Development Road 448, NF-448, Nevada 89311, USA
While Nevada is best-known for the glitz and glam of the Las Vegas lights, the nighttime skies are the state's true star.
Great Basin National Park
is one of Nevada's greatest treasures; it's not just a place of incredible natural beauty and varied geography, but it's also one of the darkest regions in the country. The preserve was given Dark Sky status in 2016 by the International Dark Sky Association, and if you've ever visited this park at night, you know it's well-earned. Come nightfall, a deep, onyx black seems to blanket the desert landscape, lit only by the glow of an endless sky of stars. This is what night sky might've looked like before electric light was invented, and stargazing here truly an experience for your bucket list.
Stargazing at Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona, USA
Most visit the Grand Canyon by day to take in this worldly wonder in its entirety. But at night? That's when the park quite literally shines. In addition to being one of the seven wonders of the world, the
Grand Canyon is a certified Dark Sky Park
with perhaps the best stargazing in the U.S. When night falls over the deserts of Arizona, trillions of stars and celestial bodies shine bright, creating a sublime scene that doesn't look real. The best part is that you can witness this dazzling spectacle with the naked eye -- no fancy equipment necessary. Stargazing at the Grand Canyon is definitely a must-do when exploring this bucket-list-worthy park.
Queen of the Night at Tohono Chul, Arizona
Tohono Chul | Gardens, Galleries, and Bistro, 7366 N Paseo Del Norte, Tucson, AZ 85704, USA
Sometimes, the most beautiful experiences in life are the most fleeting; moments you simply must take in, fully present and aware, with the knowledge that it's a moment never to be relived again. Case in point: when the Queen of the Night blooms at Arizona's
. A 49-acre oasis in the heart of the Sonoran Desert, Tohono Chul is a paradise for plant lovers. This botanical garden is home to the world’s largest collection of Peniocereus greggii, also known as Queen of the Night. When the summer heat begins to build, the buds of the night-blooming cereus begin to appear. After a period of start-and-stop growth, the buds blossom in a mass blooming on one night between the end of May and late July. It's fleeting, fantastic, and truly worth planning a trip around.
Overnight Camping at Canyonlands National Park, Utah
Canyonlands National Park, Utah, USA
While Utah may be best-known for its extraordinary winter recreation, when the sun sets and moon rises, this state puts on quite a show. Lauded as perhaps the
best stargazing site in Utah
, Canyonlands National Park offers an experience that's wondrous. For those seeking a bucket-list-level adventure, there are two campsites located within the park. These sites, known as The Needles and Island In The Sky, offer the most impressive stargazing in the state, as well as the chance to watch the sunrise over the canyons in the morning.
Bat Colony at Congress Avenue Bridge in Austin, Texas
Congress Avenue Bridge, Congress Ave., Austin, TX 78704, USA
One of the most iconic places in Texas,
Congress Avenue Bridge
is a beautiful piece of architecture that spans Lady Bird Lake and is celebrated for, among other things, bats. The bridge opened in 1910 and is best known for sheltering the largest urban bat colony in North America. On summer nights at dusk, you can see over a million bats fly out from underneath the bridge and blanket the sky in a swarm of darkness. It's an experience unlike any other, and the energy and movement of this swarm of fluttering, flying mammals is positively electric.
Stargazing at Big Bend National Park, Texas
Big Bend National Park, TX, USA
When Gene Autry sang of the stars in Texas, he most certainly was describing Big Bend. Boasting some of the
darkest skies on Earth
, Big Bend affords visitors the opportunity to see more than 2,000 stars with the naked eye. Located hundreds of miles away from the nearest civilization, Big Bend is among the most remote, and least visited, national parks in the Lower 48. Its remote location makes it well-suited for stargazing, a detail that's not gone unnoticed by the International Dark Sky Association. The park earned its Dark Sky stars in 2012; more impressively, the organization ranked Big Bend fourth on its list of the top seven stargazing destinations in the world. Hot Springs Canyon Trail and Rio Grande Village Nature Trail provide some of the least obstructed vistas, and three different campgrounds within the park give gazers somewhere to sleep after their extraterrestrial adventure.
Stargazing at Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota
Voyageurs National Park, Kabetogama Township, MN 56669, USA
One of the underrated treasures of the American National Parks,
Voyageurs National Park
is also one of the best places in the world for stargazing. Much of the park is pristine wilderness, and it’s surrounded by nothing but more lakes and woods. The air is relatively clean, and there are no major cities within 100 miles, making the park a superb, or, pardon the pun,
Dismalites Hike at Dismals Canyon, Alabama
Dismals Canyon, 901 County Rd 8, Phil Campbell, AL 35581, USA
Tucked away in Alabama’s northwest corner lies a lush sandstone gorge known as Dismals Canyon. This tranquil treasure was designated as a National Natural Landmark in 1975, and it’s a desired destination for both locals and visitors from across the country. One of the first things you'll notice is that Dismals Canyon appears more like Middle Earth than the Deep South. Alabama is actually the fourth most biologically diverse state in the nation, and Dismals Canyon is surrounded by one of the few remaining old-growth forests in the state. It's also a place teeming with fascinating fauna, including the rare and elusive insects known as dismalites. During daylight hours, visitors can follow the canyon's 1.5 mile hiking trail that meanders through the beautiful canyon. During nighttime hours, Dismals Canyon offers something truly special - a dismalite
. This nocturnal adventure allows visitors to see these enchanting glowworms up close, for a magical experience straight out of a fairy tale.
Synchronous Fireflies and Bioluminescent Dinoflagellates in Central Florida
Florida evenings are nothing short of sublime, when the heat melts away and the wildlife comes out. Each spring, as the Florida sun sets low in the sky, the nightly firefly show enchants and delights spectators in lush, forested areas like Lake Kissimmee State Park and
Blue Spring State Park
. Meanwhile, along Eastern Florida's Cape Canaveral, warm summer days give way to a fantastic nighttime spectacle: the boluminescent dinoflagellates and comb jellies that paint the sea a shockingly neon blue.
Bioluminescent Mushrooms - Congaree National Park, South Carolina
Congaree National Park, South Carolina 29061, USA
Bioluminescence, the production of light by a living organism, is not unique to fireflies. While walking at night at
Congaree National Park
at various times of the year, you may find other things glowing in the dark, including mushrooms. Some types of fungus glow in the dark and are commonly called foxfire or fairy fire. However, there are several types of fungi that bioluminesce. These fungi are typically found growing on or in decaying logs and branches lying on the forest floor. While on your night hike, you might even see what looks like a glowing caterpillar crawling along the ground in the dark. This is the larval form of a female beetle from the genus Phrixothrix, and it's a truly magical spectacle to behold.
Moonbow at Cumberland Falls State Park, Kentucky
Cumberland Falls State Park, 6 Kentucky 7, Kite, KY 41828, USA
In the middle of the beautiful Bluegrass State, there is a natural phenomenon that's so rare, it's only experienced at a few places in the world. At Cumberland Falls State Resort Park, you'll find the eponymous Cumberland Falls -- Kentucky's "Niagara of the South" -- a majestic 68-foot waterfall on the Cumberland River. And not only is Cumberland Falls an awe-inspiring force; it's also the site of a rare natural phenomenon. Known as a
, Cumberland Falls is one of the few places on the planet that regularly produces this prismatic phenomenon, created when light is refracted in the waterfall's spraying water droplets. The moonbow lingers above the falls for up to two days as long as the sky is clear, on either end of the full moon. One of the most spectacular and accessible waterfall trails in the country, the Moonbow Trail is a Kentucky bucket list must -- especially at night.
Synchronous Fireflies at Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina and Tennessee
Great Smoky Mountains, United States
Glowing and graceful, fireflies are Mother Nature's very own tiny dancers. One of the best places to behold this magical nighttime dance is
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
. Each summer, lucky visitors to Great Smoky Mountains National Park gather near Elkmont Campground in late May and early June for the park’s brightest, buzziest nightlife: watching rover fireflies light up in their synchronous mating dance. This park is perhaps the most famous place to watch synchronous fireflies work their magic. The park is such a popular spot for firefly gazing, in fact, that officials have set up a lottery system to allow visitors timed access to the park during firefly season, which, if you ask us, is a bucket-list experience worth pursuing.
Cadillac Mountain Sunrise - Acadia National Park, Maine
Cadillac Mountain, Bar Harbor, ME 04609, USA
There's a well-known saying that "it's always darkest before the dawn," and anyone who's seen the
sunrise from Cadillac Mountain
most certainly knows what this means. There's nothing like experiencing the sunrise atop Cadillac Mountain, a place that, from around the second week in October through the first week of March, is the first place to see the sun peek over the horizon in the U.S. Accessible by car, it's the highest point on the East Coast, and even if you visit during the "off" season, the sunrises here are truly worth seeking out, even though such an experience requires waking up in in the darkest, coldest, quietest hours of the night.
Northern Lights at Denali National Park, Alaska
Denali National Park and Preserve, Parks Hwy, Denali National Park and Preserve, AK, USA
A region of rugged and untouched beauty,
Denali National Park and Preserve
is one of the best places to witness the beauty of Alaska's night skies. There are a number of year-round campgrounds located in the park, providing the opportunity to stay and gaze into the skies all night long -- any time of the year. But Denali takes it to another level; this park is a bucket-list destination for stargazing where you'll marvel at some of the most amazing spectacles on the planet, including -- if you're lucky -- the elusive Northern Lights.
These pristine places across the U.S. offer once-in-a-lifetime ways to enjoy nature at night, and are worth staying up late to experience!
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