The line between day person and night person is probably drawn around 4am. I’m a day person. If I’m up at 4am, I’m going to do something, not returning from something I’ve already done. The opposite is true for night people. The problem with knowing and accepting your place in the circadian cycle is that it can set up a blind spot that hides a lot of great opportunities. Anyone who’s ever been on a nighttime SCUBA dive will tell you it’s a very different experience from submerging during the day. There’s a kind of “shift change” that happens underwater in low light conditions, and this can make a familiar spot look completely different.
Hiking is another experience that’s very different after dark. Tackling a trail under low light conditions awakens dormant feelings of wonder for many outdoor enthusiasts who find themselves relying on their lesser-used senses.
Here are five great night hikes around the country to inspire your adventures, but odds are there’s a group gearing up near you wherever you are. Grab a headlamp and join them — it’s time to stop being afraid of the dark.
Steamboat Rock State Park
This dark side adventure is all about planning. One of the main rules regarding night hiking is that it’s only fun when attempted on purpose. As too many of us know, unintentional night hiking can be a treacherous endeavor involving ankle sprains and unseen head-level tree boughs, whereas properly planned night hikes are almost always spectacular. According to the Washington Trails Association, Steamboat Rock boasts the best sky views in the West and is a gathering place for stargazers. It’s also a fairly mild hike at six miles round-trip, which makes it a very low-risk, high-reward proposition for first-time night hikers. I suggest a moonless night and a meteor shower, or a full moon and something snuggly to pull on.
Los Angeles, California
One of the most popular night hikes in the Los Angeles area, this is also a great first-time adventure for families. (More experienced hikers may enjoy San Gabriel.) The excursions are led by the Sierra Club on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, and begin at the Griffith Park Merry-Go-Round at 7pm. One of the most popular endpoints is Mount Hollywood and its view of the city’s lights, but hikers seeking solitude can also target Mount Bell or Mount Chapel. If you live in the East, by the way, don’t attempt this hike in a tank top. It’s cold in California at night, and laughing at northerners who didn’t layer up is a time-honored tradition.
Twin Cities Thursday Night Hikes
Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota
Members of the Minnesota Rovers, the Sierra Club, and the North Star Ski Touring Club post proposed routes and meeting times on a shared site and invite interested newbies to join them for an “evening of conversation and conviviality.” (Warning: It gets cold out there. Be sure you bundle up.) The Thursday Night Hikes average about four miles at a moderate pace and are a great place to practice your headlamp etiquette, like covering your light when looking at others so you don’t ruin anyone’s night vision.
There’s no rule that says a night hike has to be a survival experience. From the “moonlit stroll” end of the spectrum comes Hilltop Orchards in Massachusetts. The winery offers full moon hikes year-round and snowshoe excursions during winter. The events last about an hour and teach about Native American traditions as well as offering bonfires, entertainment, and wine tastings. The cost is $14 per person, and the hikes are only for adults 21 and over. These trips are also a good chance to show off niche, luxury camping gear like your telescoping wine glasses or that backpack picnic basket in the attic.
South Kaibab Trail
Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
The South Kaibab Trail to Skeleton Point in the Grand Canyon offers perhaps the best sky view in an area renowned for sky views. (Read the fascinating history of the trail here.) Hikers walking this three-mile route often head out from the Yaki Point trailhead at dusk. Timing the excursion this way allows them to watch the sunset from the exquisitely-named Ooh-Ahh Point on their way to the starry playground of South Kaibab. I suggest taking it slow and making sure to spend some time with your flashlight off on this trail. Taking your time and feeling your way along is what night hiking is all about.