There are 5 types of night hikes you should add to your bucket list: full moon, stargazing, blue ghost firefly, glow-worm, and owl. Each offers unique experiences that you can’t get by hiking during the day.
Hiking after dark initially sounds creepy and does propose additional dangers that day hikes don’t have. When going on a night hike, it’s best to look for group hikes professionally guided by local outfitters or park systems.
There are amazing adventures ahead if you’ll open yourself up to hiking at night. The beauty, peacefulness, and sounds of nature can often surpass day hikes.
Let’s look at the full moon, stargazing, blue ghost firefly, glow-worm, and owl hikes in greater detail.
Full Moon Hikes
Check out the events pages at your local outfitters, parks, and groups on Meetup and Facebook. Many parks around the country offer full moon hikes.
I’ve been on many full moon hikes and highly recommend these hikes whether in the city or in rural areas. Other night hikes on this list are best when you’re further away from the light pollution of urban areas.
Some full moon hikes are free. Some have a fee. Some provide gear and on others, you bring your own.
Distance, terrain, elevations, and difficulty will all vary depending on the park and trail.
You can find full moon hikes in parks with dunes, mountains, canyons, dense forests, prairies, and desserts during the heat of summer or the cold of winter. Even full moon snowshoe hikes are offered.
Full moon hikes will offer plenty of stops to observe the moon and the beauty of the park as it’s bathed in soft moonlight. The moonlight views can be spectacular!
Stargazing hikes offer an amazing opportunity to view the stars, planets, satellites, and meteors.
The best stargazing hikes are in parks certified by the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA), an authority in the protection of our night skies. A list of IDA International Dark Sky Parks can be found on their website.
Unfortunately, many of us don’t live close to an IDA International Dark Sky Parks certified park. For us, it’s best to look for star gazing hikes at parks within a reasonable distance with minimal light pollution.
Stargazing hikes can be found on the events page of parks. Many of these parks offer multiple stargazing opportunities during the year, presented by astronomers, rangers, and knowledgeable volunteers. Some even set up telescopes for viewing.
Tips for stargazing hikes:
- The best views don’t appear until 60 to 90 minutes after sunset.
- Pick a night with minimal cloud cover. Hikes will probably be canceled in the event of adverse weather events or cloud cover.
- The best trails for viewing have minimal tree canopies and other obstructions like mountains.
- Avoid areas with high light pollution.
- The moon can interfere with your view of the stars. It’s best to schedule a hike close to a new moon.
- Your eyes take time to adjust to the night sky. Avoid the use of light sources when possible especially at stops along the hike designated for viewing the sky.
- Stargazing apps can be helpful for learning but they will disrupt your ability to see the night sky and will annoy others in your group.
- Headlamps, flashlights, and phones can all cause you and nature light blindness. Use a redlight setting on headlamps and flashlights when possible or put red plastic wrap over your light source to minimize this problem.
Firefly Night Hikes
Lightning bugs are disappearing in many areas of the country, so you should get in on firefly night hikes while you can. These hikes are often open to all ages and lead by local parks, outfitters, or hiking groups. If you can’t find a sponsored firefly hike, you can look for a park with extended hours and plan your own firefly night hike with your favorite hiking buddy or hiking group.
Synchronous Fireflies / Blue Ghost Fireflies
Common fireflies flash at different times but have you heard of blue ghost fireflies otherwise known as synchronous fireflies? These are a unique species of firefly that can be found in the Appalachians as well as parts of Tennessee, Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina.1
Male blue ghost fireflies illuminate in unison and stay lit up to a minute at a time. Blue ghosts get their name from the male’s dim bluish light.
The blue ghost larviform female and larvae are bioluminescent too… Glow-worms! They can be found hunting for food in moist leaf litter on the forest floor.
If you want to see the amazing light show of hundreds or even thousands of blue ghost fireflies light up at once, consider one of the tours in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. The park organizes a shuttle service from Sugarlands Visitor Center to the viewing area at Elkmont. This tour is so popular they have a lottery system. Be sure to sign up early!
Blue ghost fireflies can typically be seen around the middle of May to the middle of June around 9:30-10:00 pm.
Find Out More About Fireflies
For more information about fireflies and glow-worms, check out these books at Amazon:
- Fireflies, Glow-worms, and Lightning Bugs: Identification and Natural History of the Fireflies of the Eastern and Central United States and Canada by Lynne Faust
- Silent Sparks: The Wondrous World of Fireflies by Sara Lewis
- Firefly Experience by Radim Schreiber
Glow-worm Night Hikes
Glow-worm hikes are otherworldly. If you have the opportunity to experience a glow-worm hike, you should jump at the chance especially the fungus nat variety.
There are two general types of glow-worms. One from beetles and the other from nats.
Beetle Larvae and Larviform Females
There are four families of beetles that have bioluminescent larvae and wingless larviform females that are known as glow-worms. They are Lampyridae, Elateridae, Phengodidae, and Rhagophthalmidae. The first three of these can be found in various locations in North America and the Lampyridae family has winged male beetles we know as fireflies or lightning bugs.
Beetle glow-worms have a faint glow and can be found in moist areas like a north-facing slope of a wet forest floor or marshy areas. They are predators in leaf litter.
Fungus Nat Larvae
There are three families of fungus gnats that have bioluminescent larvae otherwise known as glow-worms: Arachnocampa, Orfelia fultoni, and Keroplatus.
In North America, we have Orfelia fultoni which are related to the Arachnocampa glow-worms in Australia and New Zealand though their bioluminescence systems are somewhat different.2
Fungus gnat glow-worms are bioluminescent fly larvae that live in moist areas along stream banks and in caves. These larvae secrete mucilage for building sticky webs in which they capture and later eat insects attracted to their bluish glow.
Yep, glowing larvae in goo. Sounds nasty right?! I agree but it’s well worth the view!
I’ve found two locations in North America for viewing fungus nat glow-worms one is Hazard Cave Trail in Tennessee at Pickett Civilian Conservation Corps Memorial State Park and the other is Dismals Canyon in Alabama where they are colloquially known as dismalites.
Owl Night Hikes
Owl night hikes are a great way to learn about these beautiful nocturnal predators.
These hikes often begin with a lecture that will review which owls you might see, their habitats, their calls, and even the dissection of owl pellets to see rodent bones.
Owl hikes are best when lead by experts. When I went with my family, the guide made owl calls or played owl calls in order to pinpoint their location along the trail. Specific calls were made at particular times to protect different species. Some larger owls in our area will hunt the smaller owls.
Night Hikes May Include…
Group night hikes may offer different ways to connect with nature and your fellow hikers. Your hike might include:
- Lunar lectures
- Lectures on creatures of the night… No not vampires.
- Hot cider, cocoa, or coffee
- Jennifer Frick-Ruppert and Joshua J. Rosen. Morphology and Behavior of Phausis Reticulata (Blue Ghost Firefly). Journal of the North Carolina Academy of Science. 124(4), 2008, pp. 139–147.
- V. R. Viviani, J. W. Hastings, T. Wilson. Two Bioluminescent Diptera: The North American Orfelia Fultoni and the Australian Arachnocampa Flava. Similar Niche, Different Bioluminescence Systems. Photochemistry and Photobiology. 2002 Jan;75(1):22-7.