Night hikes: what’s so cool about being in the dark?

On July 4th, I was camping at Sugarloaf Ridge State Park in Sonoma with family and friends. After the burger and corn BBQ, my husband and I kissed good night to our girls, left them with our friends and started the 2.9 mile trip to the top of Bald Mountain with a heart-pumping 1,500 feet elevation gain. At 2,729 feet, Bald Mountain towers over Napa and Sonoma valleys, 360 views all around.

We set off right before dusk and arrived at sunset an hour later. On the way, we saw deer, wild turkeys and quails. On top of Bald Mountain as chill was settling in, we saw the sun melt away in the crimson horizon.

Right under the top we heard laughter. We were not alone on top of that mountain but we already knew it. The ranger had told us there was a hiking club of about 20 people doing the hike that night.
Individuals were pulling wine bottles and home-made cookies out of their bags, waiting for their leader who was staying behind with the slowest revelers. They were greeting each other and laying big lens cameras on their blankets. We didn’t partake in their celebration (all we had was a water bottle) but our motivation was the same.
In the starry night, we were treated to the fireworks of a dozen cities from the Bay Area and the Carquinez Strait to the Sonoma or Napa valleys.  Though the Bay Bridge fireworks were barely more than red blurs in the night, Santa Rosa’s were closer, Sonoma’s made it above Red Mountain in front of us and we enjoyed St Helena’s pyrotechnics in full view. Everybody’s comments on how each city compared with the previous years added spice to the visual enjoyment.

Once the final explosion over, headlamps on our forehead we darted down into the dark of night. No moon in sight. We chose to go the long way all along the fire road so as not to miss a trail junction. We arrived at the campground when our friends just got back from Santa Rosa. They probably had a better view from the ground on that night’s fireworks but we saw handfuls of them. Over both I still pick the mountain view. While the next July 4 fireworks are a year away, I am sharing this experience because night hikes are cool and you may want to give it a try.
At night nature is different. It smells different. It sounds diffferent. When our shadow on the trail comes a silver moon, you appreciate the surroundings differently. We are so used to being outdoors in broad daylight that we tend to forget what night really is like. Owls hooting. Bats flapping their wings. Coyotes howling. Quails scurrying away, mom and dad in front of triplets in a row. Animals getting out for their errands, protected from daytime raptors by a nocturnal cloak. Night hikes are, in a way, more sensory experiences than day hikes because you have to rely on different perceptions of the terrain around you. Perspective is altered, your usual landmarks disappear.

Organizing a night hike

Obviously, you need to be prepared, especially if you are going with children. I took friends on a night hike in the Marin Headlands last year and in hindsight, I could have thought about bringing flashlights. I knew it was going to be a full moon night so thought we’d have no problem finding the trail. Big mistake. The moon doesn’t pop out right in the middle of the sky full floodlights on as soon as it gets dark. Yes Galileo, the moon orbits around the Earth. It rises and declines. From that night on, I made a headlamp a permanent staple of my backpack. Other items to pack: good trail map, compass, extra layers.

Explore the Bay Area outdoors by night: Moon walks and night hikes 
There are lots of local organized night hikes that you can join. Make sure you check restrictions before going but here is a short list to give you an idea:

  • The Marin Moonshiners, a hiking & picknicking meetup group, organize monthly hikes on full moon nights. The next date is on August 25 at 7pm, meeting at the Pelican Inn.
  • The Mt Tamalpais Interpretive Association organizes Saturday moon hikes around each full moon to enjoy the beauty of Mt Tamalpais. Led by Rob Ross, the 2-mile hike starts at Pantoll and lasts 2 hours. The next date is “Ripe Corn Moon” on August 21st, 8pm.
  • The Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy organizes full moon hikes or night tours at the following parks: Muir Woods, Point Bonita,  Alcatraz Island. The thing is, they are so popular that getting a spot is like winning a jackpot. Check the calendar and call the rangers to reserve your spot.
  • The Midpeninsula Open Space District organizes evening hikes in the Santa Cruz mountains. The next date is August 1, 4pm, “Sunday Eve Coming Down” at Montebello Open Space Preserve. There are also evening night for children such as  “The Bats of Alpine Pond” on August 21st at 6.15pm.
  • The San Francisco Botanical Garden organizes two yearly full moon hikes to explore the gardens and enjoy the reflection of the full moon next to the Japanese moon pond. It is a lovely way to increase your appreciation for this wonderful place. The next Japanese Moon Viewing Party is on September 22nd at 7.30pm. Note that the event might last beyond the announced hours if the moon feels shy that night.
  • The East Bay Regional Park District organize night hikes at their parks. The next date is August 29th at Sunol Regional Park, “Extreme Evening Hike” at 5.30pm.
  • The California State Parks open some of their parks after hours to explore special themes. The next date is August 7 from 5 to 10pm, “Olompali Bat Night” at Olompali State Park.  

There are many other night hikes I don’t know about so if you want to share other ones, please add them to the comments below this post.

Now tell me: is there a night hike in your future?

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Laure Latham

Laure is an author, environmental advocate, blogger, open water swimmer and now mother. She's passionate about inspiring families to enjoy the outdoors with their children, learning to unplug and living a healthy lifestyle, giving kids life skills and exploring the world around us sharing Family Friendly, Fun Ideas for the whole family on Frog Mom.

2 Responses to “Night hikes: what’s so cool about being in the dark?”

  1. July 26, 2010 at 10:04 pm, Anonymous said:

    Santa Clara County Parks had a "Blind As a Bat" at Calero County Park past Sat 7/24/10 that I missed, I asked on FB if they’ll do it again, will have to wait & see.

    Reply

  2. July 30, 2010 at 11:03 pm, Anonymous said:

    I found out they only offer "Blind As a Bat" at Calero County Park two days out of the yr: 1 day in June, 1 in July. Sadness, will have to wait until June 2011!

    Reply

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