6 fun family activities after the sun goes down

Adam Rodriguez / Desert Botanical Garden

Bring your own light to the summer Flashlight Tours at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix to discover what happens when the sun goes down.

When the sun goes down, it’s time for families to unplug and get out of the house. From full-moon tram rides to bioluminescent kayak tours, there’s a lot that can be done and enjoyed only at night, out of reach of laptops, iPods and cell phones.

“People just don’t get out into nature anymore,” says Pamela Levin, who runs the after-dark flashlight tours at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix. “Kids love to explore the gardens at night. The whole evening just becomes one big ‘Wow!’ ” 

And of course, the Perseid meteor shower, which peaks on Aug. 12, is not to be missed. “Imagine so many shooting stars in one hour that you aren’t able to count them all,” says Becky Morales, a mother of four from Houston, Texas, who’s seen many meteor showers growing up and plans to wake her kids to see Perseid this weekend. “It’s an exhilarating experience to share with kids.”

Here are six must-do nighttime activities for families winding down their summers. 

See our parks under a full moon
Yosemite National Park in Northern California is already one of the most popular national parks in the daylight, but the full moon creates a new and magical scene, softly lighting up Yosemite Falls and Half Dome. Open-air tram tours are offered on five nights leading up to the full moon (the next one is Aug. 31). Must-see: a moonbow, a rainbow created by the moon’s glow, at Lower Yosemite Falls (Tram tours $25 for adults, $13 for children ages 5 and up).   

Grab a flashlight and discover the desert
Wait out daytime triple-digit temperatures and bring along a flashlight to see, feel and hear the best of the desert after dark. The Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix offers flashlight tours on Thursday and Saturday evenings through Sept. 1. On this two-hour tour, visitors stop at 10 stations to get up close with desert tortoises, snakes and geckos ($18 for adults, $8 for children ages 3 to 12).

Paddle along on a bioluminescent kayak tour
Only under a dark sky can we see the blue-green glow of bioluminescence on the ocean’s surface. At Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge on Florida’s Space Coast, families can paddle kayaks through Mosquito Lagoon to see this first-hand. Movements as simple as paddles gliding through the water cause microorganisms in the water to produce this bioluminescent glow, which peaks in late August (A Day Away Kayaking, $35 adults, $27 children).

Stay up late (or wake up early) to catch the Perseid meteor shower
In just a few days, the Perseid meteor shower will peak. State and national parks, as well as science centers and planetariums, across the country are breaking out the super-size telescopes for one of the most anticipated astronomical events of the year. Get away from the city lights and look for Perseid to soar across the night sky between 2-4 a.m. on Aug. 12.

Explore caves on a lantern tour
Once the sun goes down, visitors don headlamps to explore the steep gorges and rugged boulder caves at Lost River Gorge in North Woodstock, N.H. On this 1.5-hour guided tour families walk, climb and crawl through caves and experience waterfalls lit by lanterns. Cap off the tour by gathering around the campfire for s’mores ($27 per person).

Go stargazing
For those who like to stay up late to see stars, but not too late, there are a variety of outdoor stargazing programs offered nationwide. Spring Creek Ranch in Jackson Hole, Wyo., has a naturalist who hosts an astronomy night twice a week, using a green laser to point out star formations in the night sky. Visitors learn the mythology behind many constellations, like Ursa Major and Andromeda (free to guests on Mondays and Thursdays). 

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