National parks offer remarkable experiences no matter the hour or the season. Sometimes, though, it helps to be in the right place at the right time to witness something extraordinary. You have to think ahead to catch these nine ephemeral delights — so start planning now!
1. The firefall
Yosemite National Park, California
Around the second week of February each year, the light from the sun hits at just the right angle to cast a magical orange glow on Horsetail Fall, a 1,575-foot cascade that plummets from one of the park’s most famous rock formations, El Capitan, in winter and early spring. Even when the sun is in perfect position, however, this “firefall” effect is dependent on other factors — namely, a clear sky and enough snowmelt to keep the waterfall flowing. Though this stunning spectacle is never guaranteed, it’s worth the patience and planning to try to see it.
2. Bisected sunrise
George Washington Memorial Parkway, Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C.; Washington Monument National Memorial, Washington, D.C.
Twice a year, if the sky is clear enough, visitors to the Netherlands Carillon in Arlington, Virginia, can see the Washington Monument perfectly bisect the sun as it rises. The Netherlands Carillon is an open steel bell tower that was given as a gift to the United States from the Netherlands after World War II; the structure is now part of the George Washington Memorial Parkway, a national park site. Washington Post journalist and photographer Kevin Ambrose recently captured this spectacular sight, which occurs within a few days of the spring and fall equinoxes, and shared some of his tips for documenting the experience. (When does it happen exactly? It depends on the precise position of the sun; Ambrose uses the Photographer’s Ephemeris app to predict the day.)
3. Synchronous fireflies
Congaree National Park, South Carolina, and Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina and Tennessee
For a brief time in late May to mid-June, certain fireflies pulse in unison across the landscape instead of twinkling intermittently. These insects only exist in a few places in the world, including Congaree and Great Smoky Mountains National Parks, where the synchronized flashes signal where the insects can find each other to mate. These annual events have been gaining popularity, so be sure to plan early, especially at Great Smoky Mountains, where park staff offer a limited number of parking passes to witness the spectacle.
4. Thunderous water
Acadia National Park, Maine
Seeing the ocean is one of the top activities at this classic New England park. But listening to it? This can also be a memorable experience. Visitors can hear the “thunder” at Thunder Hole year-round, but only at times of day when the tide is high and the waves are active enough. This small inlet sits atop a cavern carved naturally into the rocky coast, and as the waves rush into the cavern, air and water come rushing out, sending the tides as high as 40 feet and creating an impressive roar. Be sure to check the tides or ask at the visitor center for the best time to hear the sea at its most powerful.
5. Rutting season
Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado; Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming; Yellowstone National Park, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming; among others
Early fall is the time to hear the sounds of thousands of North American elk, or wapiti, as they prepare to mate. The term “rutting” comes from the Latin word for roaring; the animals’ distinctive mating call is also known as “bugling.” Adult male elk use these sounds as a signal to compete for the ability to breed with female elk during their limited cycles of receptivity. The noise begins in deep, resonant tones, rises to a squeal and ends in a series of grunts. The bulls also display their antlers and attempt to run off competing males, sometimes sparring for dominance.
6. Celestial doorway alignment
Chaco Culture National Historical Park, New Mexico
The ancient architects who built the historic structures at this Southwestern park aligned their kivas and great houses precisely with the cardinal directions. The great kiva at Casa Rinconada is the largest structure of its kind at the park and may have been used as a community gathering space. The kiva’s two doors open exactly on the north-south axis, meaning that every spring and fall equinox, the sun rises precisely in the center of these doors. The park sometimes offers special ranger-led talks on these dates — be sure to check in advance for the precise time of the dawn and any related park events.
7. Aurora Borealis
Denali National Park, Alaska; Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota; among others
When particles from the sun meet magnetic and electrical forces from the earth’s core, the atomic reactions in northern latitudes can sometimes create a shifting, colorful light show known as the aurora borealis (named for Aurora, the Roman goddess of dawn, and Boreas, the Greek name for the north wind). These phenomena are unpredictable at best and can’t be planned far in advance, though determined travelers can make efforts to maximize their luck. Auroras occur more frequently near the equinoxes, and the deeper darkness in the winter months can create more intense color displays. Staying up extra late, especially on the night of a new moon, can provide better opportunities to see this rare and exciting event. Some websites also offer science-based prediction services.
8. Bioluminescent boating
Point Reyes National Seashore, California
Boating in the ethereal blue glow of bioluminescent marine creatures is a rare and exhilarating way to spend an evening. Single-celled microorganisms known as dinoflagellates shine silvery blue when oars stir the water and agitate them, creating bright ripples in the water. Concessioners at Tomales Bay in Point Reyes National Seashore offer kayak tours exploring this special phenomenon, but the best experiences are dependent on water temperature, air temperature, winds, currents and tides. The ideal time to visit is in late summer and early fall, an hour or two after sunset on or near a new moon, when the sky is darkest.
9. Hatchling watching
Canaveral National Seashore, Florida; Padre Island National Seashore, Texas
National parks offer critical nesting sites for several threatened and endangered sea turtle species, including the Kemp’s ridley sea turtle, the most endangered sea turtle in the world. Park staff take an active role in monitoring and protecting sea turtles and their hatchlings, which are vulnerable to raccoons, birds and other predators — and even cars. Visitors wanting to help the turtles and catch a special glimpse of these rare animals can volunteer at Canaveral to help with night watches in June and July — ask a park ranger for details. At Padre Island, park staff regularly solicit help from volunteers on early mornings from mid-June to August to help hatchlings make it safely to sea; check the park’s hotline at 361.949.7163 or the program’s Facebook page for details.
- Acadia National Park
- Canaveral National Seashore
- Chaco Culture National Historical Park
- Congaree National Park
- Denali National Park & Preserve
- George Washington Memorial Parkway
- Grand Teton National Park
- Great Smoky Mountains National Park
- Padre Island National Seashore
- Point Reyes National Seashore
- Rocky Mountain National Park
- Voyageurs National Park
- Washington Monument National Memorial
- Yellowstone National Park
- Yosemite National Park