Posted by: James Wapotich | July 5, 2013

Trail Quest: Night Hiking

Summertime with its warmer weather can often make hiking during the heat of the day less appealing. One alternative with these longer days is to hit the trails in the evening and enjoy some night hiking.

Many of our local trails lend themselves well to night hiking, particularly when paired with a full moon. Activities can include savoring the sunset, watching the moonrise or taking in the stars. And with a keen eye one can also see wildlife that only comes out at night.

Places that make for good sunset and night hiking can include trails that follow dirt roads, which make for easier hiking, and many of our local beaches when the tides are low.

For example the hikes to Gaviota Peak and Knapp’s Castle both follow unpaved access roads and can be relatively easy to follow at night. In addition to our local beaches, open spaces such as Douglas Family Preserve and Ellwood Mesa Open Space both offer great sunset views as well as fairly open trails.

Santa Barbara Hike Trail Los Padres National Forest Gaviota State Park Peak

Sunset colors paint the mountains near Gaviota Peak

When exploring the trails at sunset and at night, just as during the day, it’s important to come prepared. Know the area beforehand, bring a map, water, and cellphone (and know that while cellphones can be useful on front country trails they generally don’t have reception in our backcountry). Both a flashlight and an extra layer of clothing are essential for night hiking, but also worth bringing along when going for a day hike. Santa Barbara County Search & Rescue has an excellent list of hiking tips and gear essentials available on their website at www.sbcsar.net/index.php?module=Hiking.

There are a number of groups that offer night hikes. Santa Barbara Group of Los Padres Sierra Club, in addition to their regular day hikes offered on Saturdays and Sundays also offers night hikes every Wednesday and Friday evening. The Friday night hikes are considered easy to moderate and are usually 2-4 miles roundtrip. The Wednesday night hikes are more strenuous, typically 4-7 miles roundtrip. Many of the night hikes take place on our front country trails. For more information go to http://www.lospadres.sierraclub.org/santabarbara/outings/.

Santa Barbara County Hikers, www.meetup.com/Santa-Barbara-County-Hikers/, in addition to their regular Saturday morning hikes, occasionally offers full moon hikes.

Full moon hiking, with its additional light combined with warm weather, can make for enjoyable hiking along many of our trails. The next two full moons this summer are July 22 and August 20.

Night hiking can bring increased opportunities to see wildlife. Many of our local animals are crepuscular, meaning they are most active at dusk or dawn. And while many of these animals can also be sighted during the day, a few are more commonly seen only at night. In additional to more the familiar skunks, opossums and raccoons we might see in our neighborhoods, night hiking can give one a chance to see our local bats in action.

Bats can be found along most of our trails and open spaces and can typically be seen chasing down insects. In our local area there are around 18 different species of bats, and of those about five that can be observed in the early evening, with the most common being the Mexican Free-tailed Bat and California Bat.

While on the trails you may also notice glowing lights on the ground. During the summer California Pink Glowworms (Microphotus angustus) can be seen on a number of trails at night. Although technically not glowworms, these firefly beetles do emit light. The pink females are larviform and wingless and are found on the ground. And at night they emit a bright green light near the caudal end to attract the winged males for mating. The males will occasionally emit light as well.

Night hikes also offer endless opportunities for stargazing. For those interested in learning more about the night sky, the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, in additional to the wide array of programs available through its Gladwin Planetarium, also offers monthly Star Parties. Held on the second Saturday of each month, these Star Parties are hosted by Santa Barbara Astronomical Unit, which brings their telescopes and provides knowledgeable experts to help view and interpret the evening sky. For more information go to www.sbnature.org.

There are also a number of online resources for stargazing available as well, www.skymaps.com has a free downloadable chart of the evening sky each month that can be printed out. And Sky and Telescope Magazine, on its website www.skyandtelescope.com, includes a feature called, “This Week’s Sky at a Glance”, which offers a quick summary each week of any interesting astronomical sights that may be happening. For example currently the planet Venus can be seen in the evening sky about 45 minutes after sunset, appearing as a large star above the horizon in the west.

Another website for skywatching is www.heavens-above.com. In additional to allowing you to view and print star charts for your specific latitude and longitude, the site also provides information regarding when the International Space Station and satellites can be observed passing overhead.

Both the station and satellites are visible when lit by the sun, but only noticeable to us when it’s dark. That is, when the sun is below the horizon, but not so far below that the station or satellite is also in darkness. Normally this window for viewing is a few hours before and after sunset, however during the summertime the window becomes longer in the northern hemisphere because the angle of the earth’s rotation reduces the length of time the sun is below the observer’s horizon. This is the same phenomena that creates the seasons.

Another activity enhanced by the night, is soaking in your favorite hot springs under the stars. And while taking a dip during the heat of the day can be unappealing, it can at times be cool enough at night during the summer to make the venture worthwhile. Other times of the year a trip to the hot springs can make for a great reason to head out into the backcountry.

Of our local hot springs, Agua Caliente is probably the most versatile. The hot springs can be accessed by car, however the drive in is long enough and challenging enough to limit visitors. There is also car camping available in the general vicinity which makes it convenient to camp and hike without necessarily committing to a backpacking trip as one needs to in order to visit the hot springs near the Sespe River. But probably the best feature of Agua Caliente is that there is a great trail that starts past the hot spring that one can hike during the day before soaking in the waters at sunset.

For those less interested in hiking, East Camino Cielo Road, which runs along the top of the Santa Ynez Mountains, is a great place for taking in the views at night. There are numerous turnouts along the road where one can catch the sunset, watch the stars, or even gaze out across the lights of Santa Barbara or the quietude of the backcountry.

This article originally appeared in section A of July 5th, 2013 edition of the Santa Barbara News-Press.


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