Nocturnal Missions: Night Hiking in the Smokies

For the intrepid, night hiking, with headlamps, shows the Southern Appalachian woods in a different light

Visitors to our cabin on the Cumberland Plateau in Morgan County generally note a few quirks about the place. The wall clock announces each of the 12 hours of the day with the call of an American songbird, and, on the hour, uninitiated guests often pause midsentence to scan the great room for an errant wren, cardinal, or tufted titmouse.

A neon palm tree graces the window ledge above the kitchen sink and bathes both the interior and exterior space in a wash of lime-green light. A collection of musical instruments sufficient to outfit a respectable bluegrass band adorns our own "wall of sound," as we call it. And in deference to our love of nocturnal adventuring, a ceramic bowl brimming with headlamps—all powered up and ready to use—serves as the centerpiece of our kitchen table.

There's no disputing the utility of a headlamp in cutting a path through the darkness to the things we expect to see. The missing guitar capo left by the fire pit. The stepping stones leading to the storage shed. The sign along the trail pointing the way to our destination. But the devices' most worthy application lies in the myriad unexpected natural wonders they reveal to us.

Indeed, three AAA batteries, an elastic head strap, and a small-but-mighty LED can open portals into a bustling nocturnal world and render even the most familiar and well-worn footpath into terra both incognita and magica.

The boundaries separating us creatures who walk on two legs from our quadrupedal neighbors or those that slither or crawl seem to dissolve with the arrival of night, and the darkened forest provides a bounty of encounters—not to mention amusements—for anyone willing to seek them out.

On a recent trip to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, my hiking companion and I arrived, by design, at the trailhead on Clingmans Dome at 9:30 p.m., determined to the cover 26 miles of the Mountains to Sea Trail through the park in one continuous push. Although our journey ended 15 hours later, at the park boundary at the Oconaluftee Visitors Center, the unfinished MST stretches nearly 1,000 miles, to the Outer Banks of North Carolina.

After departing the parking lot, we followed the beams of our headlamps past enormous old-growth trees and through a mist-shrouded Hobbit-like landscape that was, at once, beautiful and eerie.

Trailside, orange turkscap lilies, green coneflowers, and crimson bee balm, all succulent and dripping with moisture carried on the air, seemed almost to glow in the artificial light, and an ample sprinkling of pink rhododendron blossoms scattered the foot path ahead.

We heard barred owls posing the age-old rhetorical question: "Whoooooo cooks for yoooooooo." A large animal—likely a bear—crashed unseen through the brush just a few yards away from us and helped resolve the mystery of the occasional large mounds of scat laced with berry seeds deposited in the middle of the trail.

Salamanders—lured out into the open by a yen for food or love—were so numerous that we feared trodding on them and bringing their purposeful ventures to a tragic end. We interrupted one blue-backed pair in the midst of a slimy tryst, with one of the obviously gratified participants suggestively wriggling its tail.

Through the night, our headlamp beams fell on enormous millipedes, fluttering moths, jittery field mice, and a host of insects so bizarre and unlikely that they might have been devised by Tim Burton. Then there were the spiders.

The retinae of a dime-sized spider's anterior median eyes (those set at the front of the carapace) are remarkably teensy by just about any measure. Yet, during our passage along the trail, these minute sight organs scattered the forest floor with hundreds—no, thousands—of twinkling green-blue chips of light. The effect is spectacular, while the explanation is downright mundane. The same narrow-angle triangulation of light (from camera-mounted flash to subject's retina and back to the camera's digital sensor) that causes "red eye" in our photo subjects creates the "blue-eye" equivalent in spiders, when the headlamp beam bounces off the spiders retinae and back into our own eyes.

There were plenty of shimmering objects overhead as well, and we glimpsed stars and planets winking through the canopy. Occasionally we switched off our lights to identify familiar constellations, and the transition in an instant from illumination to enveloping darkness served as a visceral reminder that we were, for the moment, but two among countless other creatures pursuing their ends in the darkened embrace of the park's half-million acres.

We witnessed the first pale glimmer of sunrise at about 5:30 am, and I recall ruing the return of daylight and the slowly departing mysteries of the night. We passed the remaining seven hours of the hike in full sunshine.

On some of my wilderness outings, the heavens have offered displays that bordered on the astounding. Near the end of March in 1996, I joined two friends for a weekend backpacking trip to Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest. We made camp high on the ridge in a foot or two of snow and busied ourselves through the evening hours erecting tents and preparing dinner. With our chores finished, we sat with mugs of hot soup and for the first time cast our glace toward the sky. Hovering there in the ether was a huge glowing bluish ball (officially known as Comet Hyakutake) with a silver-blue swish of tail that arced half way across the sky. Steven Spielberg couldn't have done better.

My friends, being devoted twice-born Christians, spontaneously gasped and praised the Lord. My own startled expression was decidedly more secular but no less excited. The following year, the three of us lay in an open meadow at 6,000 feet in Shining Rock Wilderness Area and watched the even more dramatic corpus of Hale-Bopp light up the evening sky.

The 26-mile night trek through the Smokies was more ambitious than most of our nocturnal forays, which often lead us out into the woods and fields that surround our cabin. We're lucky in that regard, but even a quarter-acre suburban lot, shrouded in darkness, can provide ample glimpses into the magical nocturnal world. Regardless of where you live, the late show begins every evening at sundown. And the tickets are always free.

On a summer evening not long ago, an hour after dark, my wife, Belinda, and I donned our headlamps and hiked a ways down our rutted gravel road to a five-acre meadow basking in starlight and glittering with fireflies. With a gentle breeze at our backs, we walked through waist-high broom sedge to the back edge of the field and settled onto a downed log.

The headlamps had served their purpose, so we switched them off and studied the night sky as we waited and listened. Within five minutes, we could hear the slow, subtle tap of hooves on hard ground and the brush of shoulders and flanks against stiff grass. After a half hour, curious to greet the throng of mystery guests assembled only a few yards away, we announced our presence by switching on our lights. Twenty bewildered deer lifted their heads in unison, peered at us with glowing red eyes, and then, with unexpected nonchalance, continued to feed.

On other occasions, the critters have come to us. One evening after our customary Saturday evening meal al fresco on our back deck, we sat sipping our wine and awaiting the yowling of the coyotes and the hooting of the owls, which begin promptly a couple hours after sunset. The coyotes and owls showed up right on cue, but another sound—this one much closer—captured our attention.

The songbirds were all abed, but something had alit on the birdfeeder hanging from the branch of a nearby maple. I surmised raccoons or opossums—frequent visitors both—but Belinda, wiser in the ways of nature than just about anybody I know short of a degreed ecologist, offered a different assessment.

"It's squirrels," she said. "Flying squirrels."

Never having seen one, I remained skeptical, until our headlamps soon confirmed Belinda's suspicions, and we crept to within three feet of the small, brown creatures with outsized black eyes, nibbling contentedly on sunflower seeds. The animals returned nightly for a month or two before moving on, and we always delighted in seeing their inky silhouettes against the night sky as they launched from the top of the maple and glided silently out into the surrounding forest.

Beyond being impossibly cute, the squirrels served to reinforce the notion that the cast of woodland characters undergoes a significant shift with the arrival of night, and wilderness travelers who can resist the need for sleep will come face to face with a menagerie of curious creatures rarely seen in daylight.

We've also come to value the play of headlamp light on water—or, more accurately, on the aquatic denizens of our creeks and rivers. On many outings we've lain on our chests, with heads poised a few inches above the moving waters of a creek, and allowed headlamp beams to serve as the main spotlight for a cabaret of benthic macroinvertebrates—crayfish, mayflies, caddis flies—that bump and spin, surge and dive, in the current.

Frozen water, too, can dazzle after dark. One cold winter night at our cabin, two friends and I departed the warmth of the campfire, and bushwhacked down below a sandstone ledge. Long, glistening sabers of ice, formed by a slow trickle of water, hung from the ledge above, and, below, a crystal glaze covered a broad scattering of colorful rocks and pebbles. The stones shimmered in our headlamps like gems behind a pane of glass.

I am, by nature, a night creature—always have been. As Shakespeare put it, I "pay no worship to the garish sun"; the moon is my heavenly orb of choice. Over my years of tramping around in the mountains, the night has always talked to me, in the primordial language of coyotes, whip-poor-wills, barred and screech owls, spring peepers, bullfrogs, and katydids and crickets. Most of their voices are now familiar to me.

But occasionally, a sound will issue from the darkened forest that I just can't peg. In those instances, nearly always, curiosity trumps need for sleep, and I reach for my headlamp and set out to see what all the fuss is about. The mystery creature may elude me, but en route, I always—always—find something to marvel at.