8 Things to Do After Dark in the Smokies

by | Great Smoky Mountain National Park

Some people love the daytime when they can get out in the warm sunshine under clear blue skies. Others prefer the night under the stars where mystery and wonder prevail. Some love both. But what is there to do in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park after dark? If you have an adventurous heart, the night awaits you! 

If you do go on a night adventure into the woods, please be safe and responsible. Take a flashlight or a headlamp and extra batteries, water, snacks, and a light jacket or sweater (sometimes it gets cold in the mountains at night). Wear good sturdy shoes such as hiking boots. Bring bear spray and know how to use it. Never ever go alone and never ever get off the hiking trail. Always let someone know where you’re going and when you’re expected to be back. Pick a well-maintained hiking trail to do nighttime hiking. See 10 DO’S AND DON’TS OF NIGHT HIKING for more hiking tips.

With that said, below are eight fun and unusual ideas to make your night awesome after a white water rafting trip with Carolina Outfitters–the most fun in the Smokies!

fox after dark in smoky mountains

Spy on Nocturnal Life

If you remain quiet along a mountain trail, you might encounter some nocturnal animals. Think Elmer Fudd as he sneaks up on that wascawwy wabbit Bugs Bunny–or, um, maybe not–but you do need to be as quiet as possible in order not to scare away the night life. Fox, raccoons, deer, coyotes, and maybe even a bobcat roam about under the moonlight or on moonless nights in the Great Smoky Mountains. Black bears aren’t usually nocturnal but can be seen around dusk or dawn. If you encounter one, stay far back from the bear for your safety and let it move on out of the area. Read up on What to Do When You Encounter Bear and Elk.

full moon over Nantahala River

Full Moon Hiking

Wait until a full moon and go on a nighttime hike on a short and maintained trail. Scout the trail during the day first to become familiar with the terrain. The forest turns into a magical place with moonbeams shining through the trees lighting your pathway. Stop and turn off your lights, let your eyes adjust, then soak up the peaceful night as you stand in silence. Listen to the crickets and the katydids, and the call of a lonesome whippoorwill. You might even hear an owl with its familiar hoot–or perhaps it is a jarring screech, depending on what species of owl you encounter. Small animals scurry through the underbrush, so don’t be alarmed, enjoy the moment, then continue your hike.

glow in the dark mushrooms smoky mountains

Glow in the Dark Mushrooms

Go on a hunt for glow in the dark mushrooms such as eastern jack o’ lantern mushrooms, honey mushrooms, dripping bonnets, bitter oysters, little ping-pong bats, etc.These bioluminescent fungi are poisonous so refrain from eating any! Appalachian mountain folk call these glowing beauties foxfire or fairy fire and it was once claimed they used them to mark a lighted path home and to read by their light. However, the glow is minimal, and not likely to throw out enough light to see by. Make sure you go on a dark night to see the glow in the dark mushrooms better. 

milkyway nantahala river


Stargazing is as old as time itself. Egyptians, Mesopotamians, Greeks, and Vikings used the stars to navigate by. Astronomers studied the stars and the night sky taking note of patterns and what they meant. Humans have used astrological moments for centuries to know when to plant crops and when to harvest. Ancient civilizations used the stars to predict the future. Who can look up at a night sky and not feel awed by its vastness and beauty? Pack a blanket and hike back to an open meadow or to the top of a mountain to enjoy a night of stargazing and come away with a happier disposition. Find a place away from city lights and headlights of passing cars. Search for the Big Dipper and Little Dipper, Polaris (or North Star), Sirius (a binary star system), Cassiopeia, and a host of others. We suggested you download a star map app to see what’s above you, then look for it with the naked eye. 

owl at night

Nocturnal Bird Watching

When you hear the word bird-watching, you might think of a guy in khaki shorts, hiking boots, and a fishing hat peeking through binoculars on a sunny day. Have you ever thought of going nocturnal bird watching? Bring along your night vision binoculars on a hike and see if you can spot owls (barn, saw-whet, screech, great horned, and barred) and nightjars (nighthawk, chuck-will’s-widow, and eastern whippoorwill).  You might even encounter a few bats. Bats do not try to attack you. They may swoop alarmingly close, but they are most likely after a mosquito, or some other insect, near your head. Bats are peaceful animals and more afraid of you than you are of them.

fireflies or lightening bugs after dark

Watch Lightning Bugs Zip Around

Hike back to where all artificial light is gone and watch fireflies (or lightning bugs as country folk and southerners call them). The biggest display is the Synchronous Fireflies in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in June each year, but you can go alone with friends and see them anywhere there is no light interference. These little insects light up the forest making it an enchanting place to visit at night. Ancient Amazonians believed that fireflies came from the gods bringing hope and guidance. You don’t need to go on a hike to witness the glow of fireflies. If you’re staying at a cabin in the Nantahala National Forest, simply turn off all lights and sit out on the porch to observe these bioluminescent creatures of the night. 

sunset over mountains

Catch a Sunset

Start out late in the evening, or at an hour that will give you enough time to reach your destination just as the sun is going down. Hike to the top of a mountain where you can see for miles and miles to catch the last rays of the sun as it sets behind the mountains turning day into night. A pretty sunset is best observed with a few clouds in the sky. Clouds reflect the light in spectacular colors. High level to mid level clouds reflect colors of purple and red, while low level clouds reflect orange and golden colors. The best hikes to see sunsets? Try the 7 Best Sunset Summits Blue Ridge Outdoors. The Wayah Bald Lookout Tower is a favorite spot in the Nantahala National Forest to see a sunset. It also offers spectacular views of the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee and the Georgia Blue Ridge Mountains. Be prepared to hike back out in the dark!

after dark mountain lights

Image Source: Thomson200, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons Brown Mountain, Pisgah National Forest, Burke County, NC.

Brown Mountain Lights

Technically this one isn’t in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but if you feel up to a bit of a spooky night, visit the Brown Mountain Lights in the Pisgah National Forest–about a 2 ½ hour drive from the Nantahala Gorge. These lights have been seen for hundreds of years and have yet to be explained satisfactorily. These starlike lights and orbs float above the mountain and can appear in different colors. Many legends are attached to these lights, the most popular being a great war between the Cherokee and Catawba Indians at Brown Mountain around 1200 AD. The lights are said to be Indian maidens searching for their lost men who died in battle–it’s the ghost angle anyway.

Whatever you can dream up to do outside in the dark in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Nantahala National Forest, and the Cherokee National Forest, keep safety in mind as you have a great time with family and friends. The mountains of Western North Carolina and East Tennessee are a delightful place filled with wonder if you look for it, and the night is no different. So, plan your white water rafting adventure for the day with Carolina Outfitters. Book Online or give us a call at 1-828-488-6345 or 1-800-468-7238 and we’ll book it for you! 

National Park Hiking Safety

Margaret Marr, is a local author of paranormal, mystery, and suspense laced with romance. She has written over 15 books available on Amazon. 


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