The purple-and-pink sky that accompanies sunset is just the opening act of a more spectacular show, courtesy of Mother Nature. Here are some truly stellar nocturnal main attractions:
Bathe in a meteor shower: Although any night of the year with a clear, dark sky is good for star watching, the Perseid meteor shower in August is outstanding. Debris from the tail of the Swift-Tuttle comet produces at least 10 shooting stars per hour, and sometimes as many as two per minute. For information on the Perseid shower and other galactic events: www.kalmbach.com/astro/SkyEvents/99Highlights.
www.skypub.com/sights/meteors/meteors.shtml. Prime time: This year, August 11 to 13. Where: Guadalupe Mountains National Park, TX, (915) 828-3351; Theodore Roosevelt National Park, ND, (701) 623-4466; Cape Hatteras National Seashore, NC, (919) 473-2111.
Give a hoot: The growing outdoor pursuit known as owling involves tromping around in the woods, attempting to get owls to respond to mimicked or recorded owl sounds (note: recorded owl sounds are illegal in many parks and other areas). The best time is just before dawn in late summer and early winter. Do not imitate owl calls during late spring and early summer, because you don’t want to disturb breeding patterns. Prime time: August through January. Where: Allegheny National Forest, PA, (814) 723-5150; Chequamegan National Forest, WI, (715) 762-2461; Shasta-Trinity National Forest, CA, (916) 246-5222.
Stop and smell the cactus flowers: In June, when daytime Sonoran Desert temperatures soar, greenish buds appear on the trunks and arm tips of the towering saguaro cactus. At night, these buds explode into star bursts of delicate sweet-smelling white flowers, which quickly wilt in the next day’s heat. The night buzzes with bats, birds, and moths feeding on the flowers during the month-long cycle. Caution: Rattlesnakes are roaming during this time; be especially aware of their buzz-like warnings. Prime time: first two weeks in June. Where: Superstition Wilderness/Tonto National Forest, AZ, (602) 379-6446; Organ Pipe National Monument, AZ, (520) 387-6849.
Listen to frogs sing: In spring, New England marshes come alive with the nocturnal croaking, peeping, and singing of at least 12 different amphibian species. Among the most vocal are the western chorus frog, wood frog, and spring peeper. Keep your ears tuned for the musical trills of American toads and green frogs, too; the bass section will likely come from bullfrogs and leopard frogs. Prime time: April through May. Where: Adirondack Park, NY, (518) 582-2000; White Mountain National Forest, Ammonoosuk Ranger Station, NH, (603) 869-2626.
Step up to bat: At dusk, near caves or water, you might be lucky enough to catch a thrilling spectacle: bats exiting en masse from their daytime roosts. Despite popular myths, there’s nothing to be afraid of. “Bats won’t lay eggs in your hair, and they won’t bite you. I’ve had them accidentally bump into me a few times,” says Mike Rabe. Prime time: May through August. Where: Colorado Bend State Park, TX, (915) 628-3240; Ozark National Forest/Buffalo National River, AR, (501) 741-5443; Grand Canyon National Park, AZ, (520) 638-7888.
Watch the dancing rainbows: The aurora borealis is one of the most spectacular nighttime displays in the northern hemisphere. The closer you get to the North Pole, the better the show. It’s entirely possible to see the ghostly, colorful lights in the upper reaches of the Lower 48, especially in winter, when nights are longer. Local weather forecasters are often the best folks to contact about when the lights will be occurring. Prime time: October through February. Where: Glacier National Park, MT, (406) 888-5441; Isle Royale National Park, MI, (906) 482-7860; Baxter State Park, ME, (207) 723-5140.
If you think that night life consists of smoky bars and tacky pickup lines, then you haven’t discovered the wondrous, star-lit world thats waiting for those willing to try twilight hiking.