All Articles The essential nightlife guide to America's national parks

The essential nightlife guide to America's national parks

The real fun starts once the crowds depart.

Jacqueline Kehoe
By Jacqueline Kehoe22 Nov 2022 6 minutes read
A person looking at the milky way in Death Valley National Park, California
Death Valley National Park, CA
Image: Carlos Fernandez/Getty Images

This article has been updated with new information.

Bright lights, buzzy rhythms, you and a hundred neighbors vying for elbow room—it’s not a nightclub scene, it’s the synchronous firefly show at Great Smoky Mountains National Park. All across America's favorite public lands, the night brings a host of fresh outdoor adventures, from dancing with those glowing bugs to epic stargazing parties, full-moon hikes, and more.

Though a few of the ideas below are wildly popular—even lotteried, so mark your calendars now—others will get you the rarest national-park experience of them all: one that happens all by yourself. Watch the crowds depart, and then, with this list, let the adventures begin.

See lava turn the night sky orange at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Lava flow at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Lava flow at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Image: Eachat/Getty Images

Parking lots in national parks usually start to empty as the sun goes down, but a few spots in Hawaii Volcanoes actually start filling up—and fast. Visitors are searching for easy ways to view the park’s glowing lava, a fantastic experience by day that becomes a phenomenal, otherworldly experience by night. Especially during a new moon.

There are several ways to catch the glow: the Uēkahuna (old Jaggar Museum) parking area or nearby Kīlauea Overlook parking area both get you roughly 1,000 feet from the viewpoint, with the lava about a mile away. The Devastation Trail and Puʻupuaʻi parking areas (both limited) get you views of the Keanakākoʻi Crater from about 0.5 miles away; the former requiring a one-mile hike, the latter 1.5. Lastly—the least visited of the three—park at the Kīlauea Visitor Center and walk along the Crater Rim Trail, the glow about two miles away.

Tip: To decrease your odds of packed parking lots and crowded overlooks, rangers advise to arrive after 9 p.m.

Go midnight-sun hiking in Denali National Park

Hiking down to Wonder Lake in Denali National Park and Preserve during the Midnight Sun
Hiking down to Wonder Lake in Denali National Park and Preserve during the Midnight Sun
Image: Mark C Stevens/Getty Images

Come summer at Denali National Park and Preserve, days are 20+ hours long. On the summer solstice (usually June 21), the sun sets around 12:30 a.m. and rises again around 3:30 a.m. Stay anywhere in the area, and you’ll likely be going to sleep in full sun.

Unless you stay up and go hiking past midnight, you’ll never see full darkness. With little infrastructure, you’re welcome to wander the park’s social trails—similar to game trails, but carved by humans—that criss-cross the backcountry wilderness at all hours of the night. Or stick to the park entrance around Riley Creek, a more maintained area, and hoof it on the Triple Lakes or Savage Alpine trails.

Witness the country’s first sunrise at Acadia National Park

Sunrise at Cadillac Mountain in Maine's Acadia National Park
Sunrise at Cadillac Mountain in Maine's Acadia National Park
Image: Matthew Huang/Getty Images

From October to March, Acadia’s Cadillac Mountain is the first spot in the U.S. to witness the sunrise. Get to the top via Cadillac Summit Road—3.5 paved miles—and you’ll be the first to witness it, too.

While it may not be the first sunrise in the U.S. during the summer months, Cadillac Mountain is still worth a visit, though it comes with a few catches. First? From May to October, you’ll need a reservation, which you can get on recreation.gov. The second catch? In June and July, the sunrise comes early, around 3:30 a.m.

You can hike to the summit without a permit, via the Cadillac North Ridge Trail, which comes in at an elevation gain of 1,128 feet over 4.2 miles. With rocky terrain and nothing but darkness, only serious hikers should attempt a midnight trek up Cadillac’s slopes.

Note: Otter Point and Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse may not be the first to see rays, but they’re still excellent for catching an Acadia sunrise.

Go full-moon hiking at Death Valley National Park

Moonrise over Zabriskie Point, Death Valley National Park, CA
Zabriskie Point, Death Valley National Park, CA
Image: Don Smith/Getty Images

For nearly half the year, California’s Death Valley, the hottest, driest, and lowest spot on the planet, hovers at or above 100 degrees Fahrenheit during daytime hours. In order to survive, the park’s creatures look to the cooler nights to do their greatest adventuring. And you should, too.

If you can, time your visit to sync up with the full moon. By doing so, you can hit the park’s trails after dark in the moonglow, when the desert takes on an eerie wildness, empty of humans and still absolutely alive. Watch for kangaroo rats, howling coyotes, kit foxes, and lightning-fast jackrabbits hunting, playing, and taking advantage of the sun’s brief hiatus from the sand. Flatter trails like Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes will likely be your best bet. Pack a headlamp with a red light function to keep your eyes adjusted to the darkness.

Catch a Grand Canyon star party

Milky way in the sky, over the North Rim of the Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
The North Rim of Grand Canyon National Park, AZ
Image: Matteo Colombo/Getty Images

Though Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona offers exquisite dark skies year-round, for one week in summer—June 10–17 in 2023—the telescopes come out, the astronomers line up, and the rim turns into a star party. (Even the Village Route shuttle runs until 11 p.m.)

Free and open to the public, each day’s line-up starts with a show at the South Rim Visitor Center, led by folks working with NASA, the Lowell Observatory, International Dark Sky Association, and others. Then come the ranger-led constellation talks, night-sky photography workshops, and plenty of telescope-viewings to catch those fiery giants in their brightest glow. A smaller celebration takes place on the North Rim as well, with presentations in the Grand Canyon Lodge.

If you can’t come in June, no problem—as an International Dark Sky Park, Grand Canyon National Park runs regular stargazing events, or you can stargaze on your own. On a clear night, spots like Mather Point will offer views of the Milky Way so distinct you’ll be able to see various star clouds, the Interstellar Medium, and more.

Go night boating at Everglades National Park

Moonrise in the Everglades National Park in Florida
Everglades National Park, FL
Image: James Keith/Getty Images

Just like the desert, the Everglades in Florida is a nocturnal ecosystem that comes alive at night after the heat of the day has subsided. Once the sun sets, countless birds begin to roost, frogs start calling, insects start singing, barred and horned owls start hunting. Even the bobcats, mink, and panthers become a little less elusive, even if all you catch is their rustling off the water.

You can troll the waters on your own—look to Turner River or Nine Mile Pond—or hop on a guided tour by kayak, canoe, or poleboat to comb the marshes and mangrove chutes for a fully sensory experience, sound taking over sight as the moon rises over one of the largest wetlands on the planet.

Witness the fireflies at Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Synchronous fireflies flashing light at the Great Smoky National Park, TN
Fireflies in Great Smoky National Park, TN
Image: Putt Sakdhnagool/Getty Images

Hang out in Great Smoky Mountains’ Elkmont Campground in late May and early June, and you’ll be in for one of Mother Nature’s rarest light shows: synchronous fireflies lighting up the forest floor in pulses of electric yellow. In their early-summer mating dance, rover fireflies start their flashing around 9 p.m., taking but minutes to sync up with their neighbors. With a roughly eight-second pause between each set of five-to-eight flashes, the Tennessee darkness pulsates with electricity for hours every night in a show that can last up to two weeks.

For this one, you’ll need to win a lottery ticket; the competition opens around late April. Elkmont campers and backpackers can also get access to the show, with gates closing to visitors after 4 p.m. on designated viewing dates.

Catch the aurora at Voyageurs National Park

Northern Lights in Voyageurs National Park, MN
Northern Lights in Voyageurs National Park, MN
Image: BlueBarronPhoto/Getty Images

One of the least-visited national parks in the country, northern Minnesota’s Voyageurs National Park doubles as an International Dark Sky Park. Four and a half hours north of Minneapolis, the stargazing here is supreme, even just from parking areas like the Voyageurs Forest Overlook. All campsites and anywhere with a clear view to the horizon will offer chances to commune with the Milky Way.

But in winter, when things appear to slow down, a new scene-stealer arrives: the northern lights. You’ll need a clear night to stand a chance at spotting those ribbons, but with enough persistence (and some warm-weather garb), you can catch the sky dancing with glowing waves of white, purple, and green.

While catching the aurora is technically possible year-round, it’s much more likely with winter’s longer nights. That being said, the park offers excellent ranger-led stargazing events during summer if a winter visit isn’t in the cards.

Go sunset sandboarding at Great Sand Dunes National Park

Sand dunes at sunset in the Great Sand Dunes National Park, CO
Great Sand Dunes National Park, CO
Image: Cavan Images/Getty Images

Why sandboard by day—in the endless sun with hot sand all up in your business—when you can sandboard by night as Great Sand Dunes turns pink and purple in the hues of sunset, fading to light blue in the glow of the moon. Rent your boards in nearby Alamosa, grab dinner in town, and then hit the park for a wild, vertical adventure up and down the park’s massive sandscapes.

Nighttime is a surprisingly wild period for this Colorado park, with parkgoers’ waving flashlights, cell phones, and thumping music contrasting with the dunes’ dark stillness. Visitors gather in greatest numbers near the visitor center—the farther out you go, the more the lights around you will be nothing but stars.

Catch Old Faithful in the waning light

Eruption of Old Faithful at Sunset, in Yellowstone National Park
Eruption of Old Faithful at sunset in Yellowstone National Park
Image: Parker Bogues/Getty Images

If there’s one park to avoid because of summer crowds, it’s Yellowstone. And if there’s one place in Yellowstone to avoid because of summer crowds, it’s Old Faithful. Roughly during business hours, the boardwalk surrounding the park’s most famous geyser fills up shoulder to shoulder, tourists waiting expectantly to see its boiling water skyrocket up to 184 feet. (Predicted eruption times can be found at the Old Faithful Visitor Education Center.)

But Old Faithful erupts roughly 20 times a day—with crowds usually dissipating by dinnertime. While sunset is a fantastic time to geyser-watch for photography, this geothermal, sulfur-ridden hellscape wears a fitting spookiness around dusk. The crowds depart, the geysers still blow, and you could be around to prove that, like a tree falling in the forest, they still make a sound.

Jacqueline Kehoe
Jacqueline Kehoe is a writer, editor, and photographer based in Wisconsin. Focusing on the environment and public lands, her work can be seen in National Geographic, AFAR, Sierra, Travel + Leisure, Thrillist, and more.