If you are already into hiking or running, you are probably familiar with all the physical and mental health benefits. It strengthens your muscles and core, improves balance, helps regulate blood pressure and blood sugar, improves your mood, reduces anxiety, and lowers the risk of heart disease – and that’s just the start.
What you might not know is that night hiking offers all of these same benefits, plus several more. Exploring nighttime hiking trails helps sharpen your senses, increases self-confidence, and improves skills, including survival and orientation. And of course, you’ll also get to experience the scenery in a whole new way on some of the best night hikes.
If you’re ready to give night hiking a try but don’t know where to start, literally you’ve come to the right place.
The basics of night hiking
ActionHub has published a guide to safely exploring nighttime hiking trails, but it’s also worth reiterating a few key points here.
- First and foremost, it is important to know that you have to take all the same precautions and prepare in the same way for the night hike as for the day hike. Drink plenty of water and wear appropriate clothing, including diapers and sturdy shoes. Leave the hiking sandals at home for this special adventure.
- Do not walk a new trail for the first time at night; stick with those you are familiar with. Likewise, don’t venture too far from home on an overnight hike.
- Wear a headlamp with a red light function, as it is much less harsh on the eyes and actually improves night vision.
- Use the buddy system if possible. We’re all for solo hiking, but at night everything is inherently a little more dangerous. Bring a friend and if you absolutely must hike on your own, at least tell a few people about your plans. Be specific and let them know when and where you plan to hike, as well as when you should be back. And most importantly, don’t forget to send a follow-up SMS when you’re done!
- Consider camping overnight to make the most of the experience on the overnight hiking trails. This will allow you to both star gaze and catch the sunrise on the trail!
Best Nighttime Hiking Trails in the United States
From coast to coast (literally) there are some truly breathtaking night hikes in America:
Joshua Tree National Park, California
You might not associate Southern California with the best night hikes – after all, it’s one of the most densely populated areas in the country. And where there are people, there is light pollution. Joshua Tree National Park, however, has some of the darkest skies in the state. In fact, it is an official International Dark Sky Park.
Visitors can enter the park day or night, but remember this is a fragile desert environment and use extreme caution. Wear closed-toe shoes, watch your steps, and carry emergency supplies even if you go for a short hike. The park has plenty of roadside setbacks with easy access to the best night-time hiking trails, but be aware that the day-only areas are just that – they’re closed from dusk until dawn.
In particular, discover the section of Pinto Basin Road that runs between Cottonwood and Cholla Cactus Garden.
Mackinac Island, Michigan
Northern Michigan’s scenic Mackinac Island is unique in that there are no cars allowed. No taxis, carpools, or even golf carts, outside of the actual golf courses. In fact, the island’s M-185 is the only national highway in the whole country that prohibits motor vehicles! Instead, people get around on foot, by bicycle or in horse-drawn carriages.
This lack of cars keeps light pollution to a minimum and means Mackinac Island has some of the best nighttime hiking trails in the country. Climb up to Fort Holmes, the highest point on the island, for the best views of the sky and shore. The hike itself is short and relatively easy, but requires climbing up a steep hill, so wear sturdy shoes and a headlamp.
Cherry Springs State Park, Pennsylvania
Home to some of the darkest and clearest skies east of the Mississippi River, Cherry Springs State Park is designated an International Dark Sky Park. North Central Pennsylvania Park is located in the Susquehannock State Forest and includes several areas dedicated specifically to stargazing and night sky viewing.
The combined park and state forest offer over 85 miles of trails, including several shorter ones considered to be the best night hikes on the east coast. Hike the short and pleasant 1.5-mile interpretive trail, then head to the public night sky viewing area if you’re only staying a few hours. There’s also the Overnight Astronomy Observation Field, available to those who register in advance. Whichever area you choose, you will enjoy stunning 360 degree views.
Hiking is a major pastime in the Phoenix metro area – more like a way of life, really. And with warm weather all year round, you can almost always enjoy the nighttime hiking trails. In fact, let’s be honest, it gets so hot for much of the year that if you want to hike you almost have to do it at night!
The locals call Phoenix “The Valley” because it is completely surrounded by mountain ranges. There are no less than seven surrounding the sprawling city, plus a small range (aptly named the Phoenix Mountains) running through it. With such easy access, you would be hard pressed to find a better night hike.
For some of the best night hikes in Phoenix, try Piestewa Peak, Moonlight Trail in the San Tans, or one of the loop trails in the McDowell Mountains.
Shining Rock Wilderness, North Carolina
Western North Carolina, home to the Blue Ridge Mountains, Appalachians, and Great Smoky Mountains, is full of epic hiking trails. However, none offer the best night hikes like the Shining Rock Wilderness. The area is defined by a high rock ledge that literally shines with a high concentration of quartzite. This smooth rocky peak is a popular spot for meteor showers and stargazing.
The hike to the top isn’t particularly difficult, but it’s 6.5 miles long. You may want to start before sunset so you only hike in the dark, or even consider camping overnight along the trailhead. Since Shining Rock is a dedicated wilderness area, you don’t have to get a permit or pay a fee, but all of the Leave No Trace principles still apply.
Big Bend National Park, Texas
Located directly on the US-Mexico border, Big Bend is perhaps the most unique national park in the country – and by far the most remote. And just like Phoenix, the mild (i.e. rather hot and dry) weather year round makes it ideal for exploring the park’s nighttime hiking trails.
With the mighty Rio Grande running through the park (and, fun fact, serving as the official international border), countless distinct rock formations, and some of the darkest skies in all of America, Big Bend is a night hiker’s paradise. In fact, Big Bend has the darkest sky, a certified Class I dark sky on Bortle’s map – quite literally as dark as it gets.
Park rangers offer moonlit walks and guided night hikes throughout the year; check at the visitor center for information on upcoming events.
Point Reyes National Seashore, California
Just an hour north of San Francisco, Point Reyes is a nature lover’s paradise who feels removed from civilization. The coastline features spectacular rocky cliffs, deserted sandy beaches, beautiful old growth forest, and a wide variety of wildlife. The area also has dozens of hiking and backpacking trails, a few of which are some of California’s best night hikes.
Discover Abbott Lagoon, Bass Lake, and the Limantour Beach Trail for some of the most expansive views of the clear, unpolluted night sky.
There are a few important things to note about the night hiking trails in Point Reyes. First, there are often wildlife on or near the roads, including deer and elk. Drive slowly and carefully. This region is also notoriously cold and windy, even in summer, so dress appropriately.
The coast of Maine
There is very little light pollution in Maine to begin with, so you’ll find spectacularly clear and dark skies just about anywhere in the state. Along the coast, however, and particularly the central coast, you’ll also find craggy cliffs, nearly empty beaches, historic lighthouses, and windswept sand dunes. In other words, Maine has some of the best night hikes in the country.
One of Maine’s best-known nighttime hiking trails is Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park. You can choose between the South Ridge Trail (7.1 miles) and the North Ridge Trail (4 miles), but either way you’ll want to schedule your night hike to be at the top at sunrise. Maine has the first sunrise over the continental United States, and Cadillac Mountain is one of the best places to see it!
Taryn Shorr is an avid outdoorsman, frequent traveler and aspiring photographer based in Southern Arizona. She lives for the opportunity to explore the great outdoors, both at home and in new destinations, and firmly believes that nature is a form of both therapy and religion.