Blog Post Jennifer Errick Aug 3, 2015

Parks after Dark: 9 Ideas for Nighttime Fun

Summer nights may be short, but national parks often host extra activities to educate and entertain visitors during this popular tourist season. Whether you’re exploring on your own or hanging out with a ranger, try a few of these excuses to stay out late in special places.

Some activities require additional fees. Use these ideas to browse events at parks near you, or search the National Park Service event calendar for more information.

1. Hike by moonlight

Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah; Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico; Effigy Mounds National Monument, Iowa; Joshua Tree National Park, California (shown here); Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota; White Sands National Monument, New Mexico; and many others.

During the full moon, the glow of the night sky can illuminate a path through the darkness with minimal need for artificial light. At Bryce Canyon, rangers lead these special night hikes year-round, and the program has become so popular that visitors must enter a lottery to obtain tickets. Other parks offer similar hikes during the peak tourist season, though the schedule doesn’t always correspond to the lunar cycle. This month at Carlsbad Caverns, for example, two of the park’s guided dark-sky wilderness explorations will take place during the Perseid meteor shower to catch glimpses of shooting stars.

2. Prowl for owls

Congaree National Park, South Carolina

Park visitors need to hit the trail by early morning for the best chance of spotting birds, right? Wrong! At least, not when your ideal bird to watch is a wide-eyed, majestic owl in its natural habitat. Congaree has a popular Friday night ranger program featuring guided twilight hikes through the forest to see and hear the park’s plentiful barred owls, as well as other nocturnal wildlife (reservations required). Other parks, such as Sequoia and Yosemite National Parks in California and Obed Wild and Scenic River in Tennessee periodically have nighttime wildlife hikes as well. Note that some places host owl prowls in the summer, but others wait for the fall when juveniles have learned to fly and the birds can be easier to spot.

3. Paddle in a bioluminescent bay

Salt River Bay National Historic Site, Virgin Islands; 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. The most common sources of bioluminescent light are single-celled microorganisms known as dinoflagellates, which shine silvery blue when agitated—for example, by rippling the water with an oar. A few places like Channel Islands National Park in California also host larger animals that glow, such as comb jellyfish (shown here). Concessioners at both Salt River Bay and Tomales Bay (just outside of Point Reyes National Seashore) offer kayak tours exploring this special phenomenon; the best experiences tend to be an hour or two after sunset on or near a new moon, when the sky is darkest.

4. Tour a historic site by oil lamp or candlelight

Fort Larned National Historic Site, Kansas; Fort Point National Historic Site, California; Fort Vancouver National Historic Site, Oregon and Washington; Tumacácori National Historical Park, Arizona (shown here); and many others.

What was it like to serve in a tiny Army barracks or remote trading post on the American frontier in the 1800s? How did indigenous O'odham people of the Sonoran desert learn to adapt to life in a Jesuit missionary community in the 17th century? It can be difficult to leave modern life behind and become immersed in the stories of the past—but sometimes something as simple as an oil lamp or candle flame can help capture the feel of the long nights before electric light. Some evening tours even feature staff and volunteers in costume, sharing more insight into the everyday rituals of these bygone eras. Tumacácori National Historical Park in Arizona (shown here) even offers family sleepovers inside its historic mission.

5. Party under the stars

Cedar Breaks National Monument, Utah; Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve, Idaho; Great Basin National Park, Nevada; Lassen Volcanic National Park, California; Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site, New Hampshire; Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, California (shown here); Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan; and many others.

Enjoy a date with the galaxy at a haven of natural darkness. Many national parks protect night skies from urban light pollution and offer stargazers an exceptional glimpse into the universe beyond. Visitors can often find astronomy talks, guest lecturers, and hands-on demonstrations with telescopes at various parks around the country. A few even have “star parties” and astronomy festivals with bigger lineups of events. Get a greater insight into the cosmos while also enjoying the terrestrial wonders of Earth.

6. Enjoy an outdoor concert or performance

Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Ohio; Fort Dupont Park, Washington, D.C.; Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site, New Hampshire; New River Gorge National River, West Virginia; White Sands National Monument, New Mexico; Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts, Virginia; Yosemite National Park, California; and many others.

National parks host a range of musical acts in the summertime, as well as dance and theater performances and other inspiring outdoor events—many of them free. Wolf Trap National Park in Virginia (shown here) is the only national park site dedicated exclusively to presenting the performing arts; the park offers an even broader schedule of music, dance, and theater performances in the summer than it does during the rest of the year by making use of several outdoor amphitheaters. Numerous other parks offer a special lineup of summer events, from jazz, bluegrass, and even chamber music by moonlight to educational films on an array of topics like rock climbing and the history of the Buffalo Soldiers.

7. See historic monuments lit up at night

Mount Rushmore National Monument, South Dakota; National Mall and Memorial Parks, Washington, D.C.

It’s staggering enough see four larger-than-life faces carved into a granite mountainside. Between May and September, visitors to Mount Rushmore can make this extraordinary experience even more special by attending the park’s popular evening lighting program. Learn about the monument’s history, sing along with patriotic music, and honor the veterans in the audience as park staff members lower the flag and light up the mountain. In Washington, D.C., the wealth of historic monuments that commemorate a range of historic figures and events on the National Mall are also lit in the evening, offering more dramatic views of some of the most remarkable spots in the nation’s capital. Take a ranger tour or just enjoy an evening stroll to take advantage of this unique nighttime spectacle.

8. Share a campfire with a ranger

Cape Cod National Seashore, Massachusetts; Gettysburg National Military Park, Pennsylvania; Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming; Great Basin National Park, Nevada; Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado; Redwood National and State Parks, California; and many others.

How can a classic evening sitting around a campfire get even better? By sharing a conversation with a master storyteller and historian: a national park ranger. Many parks offer these popular programs, and the activities are often as different as the sites themselves. Campfire talks can include storytelling, songs, games, and educational presentations that bring different aspects of the park’s history to life. It’s a rite of passage and an opportunity for learning all rolled into one, as well as a perfect activity for families.

9. Watch rare synchronous fireflies

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina and Tennessee

Each year, the Smokies are home to a rare and spectacular sight: fireflies that pulse in unison. Instead of twinkling intermittently, these particular fireflies light up all at once in a wave of tiny dots that glow simultaneously across the landscape. These kinds of insect only exist in a few places in the entire world, and they only put on this special phosphorescent display for a limited window of time. At Great Smoky Mountains, this event usually happens between late May and mid-June, and park staff offer a limited number of parking passes to witness the spectacle. Even though these dates are months away, it’s worth putting this popular attraction on the calendar now to catch this ephemeral wonder next spring before it blinks out again for another year.

About the author

  • Jennifer Errick Managing Editor of Online Communications

    Jennifer co-produces NPCA's podcast, The Secret Lives of Parks, and writes and edits a wide variety of online content. She has won multiple awards for her audio storytelling.