Millions of people will visit one of America’s national parks this year. For many, the typical visit involves arriving in the morning and leaving that afternoon. But that travel agenda misses a truly unique park environment, as these parks come alive at night, with nocturnal wildlife, incredible sunset vistas and ultra-dark skies full of constellations most city dwellers can’t even imagine. So this year, do yourself a favor and plan to spend a night (or two) in a national park. If you’re not the camping type, book an overnight stay in a cabin or a more luxurious park lodge. To motivate you to get this done, here’s a photo essay of stunning nighttime images from some of America’s most popular national parks. We’re not saying you’ll get the same results with your camera … but you’ll never know unless you try.
10. Delicate Situation
Delicate Arch in Arches National Park is Utah’s most iconic image, featured on the state license plate and on U.S. postage stamps. With its unique blend of towering sandstone arches and dark skies, it’s no wonder the park’s 50 campsites are reserved well in advance of the busy spring-summer travel season, but plenty of other camping and lodging options are available in nearby Moab, one of America’s great adventure towns. (Photo credit: Jacob W. Frank Photography)
9. Hoodoos You Love
Bryce Canyon National Park’s most famous natural attraction is its hoodoos, eerie limestone rock spires towering up to 150 feet in height. For three nights during each full moon, rangers in this southern Utah park lead 1-2 mile-long moonlit hikes to see the hoodoos as they take on what the park service calls “spooky personalities.” (Photo credit: Bhanu Tadinada)
8. Glow in the Dark
Horsetail Falls, on Yosemite National Park’s famous El Capitan, takes on a surreal fiery glow at sunset under rare conditions. The odds are against even the best photographer capturing this spectacular shot of what’s known as the “Firefall.” First, the phenomenon happens only a couple of weeks each year in February. The day must have been warm enough to melt snow to fuel the 2,000-foot falls, and clear skies are required, of course, for the sun’s setting rays to reflect off the rock and set the water ablaze. There are numerous lodging options in Yosemite, from primitive campsites to a more upscale experience at Yosemite Lodge at the Falls. (Photo credit: Dale Carlson)
7. Big Sky in Big Bend
The Milky Way rises above Casa Grande in Big Bend National Park, Texas. Big Bend earned designation in 2012 as an “International Dark Sky Park,” honored for having the darkest skies in the lower 48 states. It’s one of only 10 places in the world so honored by the International Dark Sky Association. The universe isn’t the only thing that comes alive in Big Bend at night; wildlife lovers will appreciate the howl of coyotes and sightings of owls, deer and javelina. (Photo credit: Costa 1973)
6. Beach Party
Everglades National Park is an otherworldly place by day, but the show gets even more surreal at night. For an unforgettable adventure, check out one of the local outfitters and sign up for a multi-day kayak/camping tour through this mysterious landscape. Here, campers enjoy the dark skies on Middle Cape Sable Beach, the southern-most tip of the mainland United States. (Photo credit: Nate Bolt)
5. Green Lights Ahead
The Northern Lights (aurora borealis) are an eerie yet incredible sight. Here, photographer Jacob W. Frank captured a particularly colorful burst of this celestial light show in Alaska’s Denali National Park.
4. Purple Reign
Night falls over Moormans River Overlook in Shenandoah National Park. The Virginia park offers many great vistas of the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Shenandoah Valley, with abundant hiking trails leading through old growth forest and past cascading waterfalls. There are many camping options, both at campgrounds and in the backcountry, plus three popular lodges. (Photo credit: National Park Service)
3. Staying Faithful
Yellowstone National Park’s most famous attraction, Old Faithful, erupts roughly every 60 to 90 minutes, thrilling onlookers. And the geyser continues that schedule around the clock, so long after the big daytime crowds have moved on, those staying overnight can move in for a great nocturnal show. Spend the night nearby in the historic Old Faithful Inn (opened in 1903), believed to be the largest log structure in the world, boasting an incredible stone fireplace towering over the lobby. Many of the rooms in this lodge sell out up to a year in advance, but there are many other lodging and camping options in the park. (Photo credit: Howard Ignatius)
2. Blue Moon
Like an image from an alien world, Oregon’s Crater Lake shines here under a full moon. That’s Wizard Island in the foreground. One of the deepest lakes in the world with a maximum depth of 1,949 feet, Crater Lake formed almost 8,000 years ago in the caldera of a collapsed volcano, Mount Mazama. For the ultimate experience, stay at the Crater Lake Lodge situated on the caldera rim, overlooking the lake some 1,000 feet below. You’ll have to book well in advance to score a room at this prime spot. (Photo credit: Gonzlaught)
1. Crowd Pleaser
Early risers are treated to a colorful sunrise atop Cadillac Mountain in Maine’s Acadia National Park. There are several camping options available in the park itself, but many nocturnal park visitors prefer to spend the night a couple of minutes away in the resort town of Bar Harbor. (Photo credit: Leo Nemirovsky)
One More: Reach for the Stars
Andromeda and the Milky Way sparkle above the Oregon Tree, a giant sequoia in Kings Canyon National Park. Unfortunately, such views in Kings Canyon and adjacent Sequoia National Park are often obscured by air pollution; the two parks, located about 250 miles southeast of San Francisco, are generally regarded as having the worst air quality of any U.S. national park. (Photo credit: Justin Kern)
The author has traveled extensively throughout the United States and has never failed to be amazed when visiting one of the National Park Service’s 400-plus units.