Best Places to See Nature After Dark

The sun may power most of our world—but some things come alive only at night

Barn Owl by moon
A barn owl by the light of the moon. © HOP Photo/Ocean/Corbis

Whether you’re someone who loves being up late or the type who gets sleepy by dinner, some things are worth staying awake for: the pulse of the rainforest as night creatures start roaming, the wild sound of a pack of wolves or even the unfurling of nature’s most unusual nocturnal flora. Sure, night isn’t for everyone, but for many of the world’s fascinating species, you won’t see—or hear—their best performance till dark.

In certain habitats, the majority of animals are night-dwellers. Head to the rainforests of Costa Rica, for instance, and you’ll find that a whopping 70 percent of inhabitants are nocturnal, including tiny, incredible insects and larger four-legged mammals. Last year a team of researchers found that our own mammalian ancestors may have been nocturnal—something to keep in mind if the thought of animals leaping from darkness gives you the creeps.

Other spots are thrilling at night even without the fear factor. If you’ve never watched a night-blooming flower like the cereus open up, you may be surprised by just how spellbinding a plant can be.

Check out these six spots for the most bewitching nighttime displays around the globe.

Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, Costa Rica

The Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve is one of Costa Rica’s after-dark gems. Go on a tour in the daytime and you’ll see plenty of nifty tree species and, occasionally, a monkey or two—it’s a pleasant enough hike. But go at night, and the entire rainforest throbs with sounds you can’t otherwise hear and with organisms you can’t otherwise see in the wild. Highlights include the olingo, a raccoon-like omnivore that struts through the treetops and whose eyes have a particularly beguiling gleam. Make sure to look above you into the canopy with your flashlight and to listen for the swish of branches overhead. Sloths, too, may make an appearance, but a lot of the action is closer to the ground. Fuzzy tarantulas (your guide will remind you that the ones in Monteverde are not lethal), impressively camouflaged stick bugs, tiny scurrying mice and a host of other small critters line the trails. If you’re grossed out by cockroaches—even the most seasoned naturalist sometimes has that primal fear—know that you’ll probably see a few. But know, too, that even a roach looks otherworldly and beautiful in the misty rainforest at night.

Mosquito Bay, Puerto Rico, and Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, Florida

(© Sonke Johnsen/Visuals Unlimited/Corbis)

Want to see bioluminescent sea creatures, but not quite ready to plunge deep into the ocean? Head to Puerto Rico or Florida for areas rich with dinoflagellates, a type of plankton that lights up due to an enzyme called luciferase, which helps produce a photon of light.

While there are three different bodies of water in Puerto Rico where you can see bioluminescence, the largest and brightest is Puerto Mosquito, or Mosquito Bay, on the southern shore of Vieques Island, commonly referred to as Bioluminescent Bay. In fact, the Guinness Book of World Records says the bay is the most bioluminescent bay in the world. Visitors can sometimes take a quick swim and find themselves clad in the sparkling plankton, but ecologists have discouraged the disruption, since tourists’ sunscreen and DEET-filled bug spray have contributed to the death of the plankton. To help conserve—but still witness—the stunning display, go by kayak instead.

In Florida, you can find luminous water at the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. The lagoon is bright all year long, though lit up by different creatures depending on the season. Between June and October, dinoflagellates produce the water’s glow. But from October to May, the water shines because of an influx of comb jellies, which light up in two separate ways: a blue-green bioluminescence plus a pulsing, rainbow-like pattern created when their comb-like cilia scatter light. Go when there’s a new moon phase—in other words, when the sky is darkestto get the most out of the view.

Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, Wisconsin

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(© Staffan Widstrand/CORBIS)

If you’ve only heard wolf howls in nature documentaries—or in cheesy fright film soundtracks—head to Wisconsin’s Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest and find a guide who can direct you to the sound. While wolves do howl during the day, they’re especially active at dawn and dusk. But contrary to popular belief, they don’t howl to terrorize you—or their prey. Their eerie call is actually how they communicate with each other. And it’s during the breeding season (late January through early February) that they make the most noise. Turns out that haunting sound is more of a love thing—though you may have trouble remembering that when all the hair on your neck stands up straight.

Congress Avenue Bridge, Austin, Texas

What scare-fest wouldn’t be complete without bats? As with wolves, you may not be able to shake the feeling that you’re in danger, but these flying mammals are actually threatened by us: they’re at risk of extinction due to loss of habitat as well as disease.

Whether you want to help out the conservation effort or just can’t wait for your favorite vampire book to come to life, check out the Congress Avenue Bridge in Austin, Texas to see an especially large flock. The bridge is home to the largest urban bat colony in the world. And there’s now an observation center on the southeast corner of the bridge from which visitors can watch the Mexican free-tailed bats soar each night. The colony, which migrates each spring from central Mexico, consists mostly of females, who each give birth to a single pup in early June.

Northern U.S. and Southern Canada

(© Nick Saunders/ BIA/Minden Pictures/Corbis)

The sounds that owls make depend on their species, so you may want to track down a few different types to hear the range of calls. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, long-eared owls make “low, breathy hoots and strange barking calls at night,” which you can hear year-round in the upper Northwest states as well as in Canada.

The northern saw-whet owl, on the other hand, which is highly nocturnal, makes more of a too-too-too sound. You can find high concentrations of that species throughout the year in places such as Washington State, New England, and Montreal, among others. And though you might not think of owls as particularly urban, keep a lookout in New York’s Central Park and you might score a glimpse of the long-eared variety.

Fort Worth, Texas, and Tucson, Arizona

Of course, not everything that comes alive at night is part of the animal kingdom. Check out the Fort Worth Botanic Garden to see several night-blooming flowers, such as sambac jasmine, brugmansias and four o’clocks, scattered among the non-nocturnal plants. And to catch the cereus flower—famous because it blooms for just one night—travel to Tohono Chul in Tucson, Arizona, which prides itself on being home to the nation’s largest cereus collection. In summer, the buds of the plant begin to appear, then burst in a mass bloom on one night sometime between late May and late July. Because the momentary unfurling of the flowers is hard to predict, the garden sometimes announces the date as little as 12 hours before the buds bloom. Luckily, email updates (a sign up is available here) can help you keep track of when to head over. The petals usually begin to open at five p.m. and the bloom reaches its peak just three hours later that same evening.