Stars at Stephen C. Foster State Park
Thanks to its next-to-nonexistent level of light pollution, this remote park at the entrance of the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge is one of the best places in the country to stargaze. In fact, it’s the only Gold-Tier International Dark Sky Park in the Southeast. During the day, you can hike, bike, fish, or journey out on the blackwater swamp on a guided boat tour. At night, book a stay at a cottage or campsite to see the magnificent night sky. Summer is the best time to gaze at the Milky Way, but stunning celestial views await year round.
Synchronous fireflies at Elkmont Campground
Watch as tens of thousands of fireflies illuminate the twilight sky—all at the exact same time and tempo—at this popular campsite in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, home to the largest population of synchronous fireflies in the Western Hemisphere. Their coordinated flashes occur in short bursts every few seconds, then the light show ceases and viewers are left in darkness for about eight seconds before the dazzling display starts up again. The phenomenon takes place during an approximately two-week window between May and June, and you’ll need to enter a lottery through the National Park Service for a coveted vehicle pass.
Bioluminescent Plankton at Indian River Lagoon
Indian River, Florida
Navigate the waters of Florida’s Space Coast by night to see a mesmerizing display from resident dinoflagellates (bioluminescent plankton). Knowledgeable guides lead you to secluded spots where you’ll see manatees, dolphins, and fish from your clear-bottom kayak. Everything that comes into contact with the dinoflagellates—from a kayak paddle to wildlife to your own hand—emits a stunning blue-green glow. Peak season is between July and September, but visit during a new moon for the most vivid display.
Moonbows at Cumberland Falls State Resort Park
Often called the Niagara of the South, seven-story-tall Cumberland Falls is the site of the only regular moonbow in the Western Hemisphere—and one of only a few in the world. Also called lunar rainbows, moonbows occur on a cloudless night with a full moon and plenty of moisture in the air. Under these precise conditions, water droplets refract moonlight to create a breathtaking spectacle. Adventurers can hike a 13-mile trail for the view, but if trekking in the dark isn’t your thing, opt for the half-mile route instead.
Glowworms in Dismals Canyon
Phil Campbell, Alabama
The rare glowworms known as dismalites are right at home in this National Natural Landmark—and they’re hardly found anywhere else in such abundance. (Their close cousins reside in Australia and New Zealand.) Dismalites flourish in these dark, humid, windless caverns on the canyon floor, emitting a striking blue-green glow to attract food. The light show peaks when the larvae hatch in late spring and early fall; guided tours along a 1.5-mile walking path take place every Saturday.
This article appears in the Spring & Summer 2022 issue of Southbound.