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Summer Nights are Made for the Outdoors

April 1, 2020  |  Permalink

Certain aspects of this blog may be affected by social distancing as we continue to monitor the evolving situation with COVID-19.

Our parks come alive in the summer. As the long days fade into warm nights, new sights and sounds emerge in our parks. From vibrant night skies to unique critters that light up the sky, visitors that explore our parks at night discover a whole new side to the nature that can be seen during the day. Check out these great ways you can get out and explore:

Some of Tennessee State Parks' best sights can't be seen during the day but provide spectacular experiences once the sun goes down. 

On a warm summer night in the state of Tennessee, Fireflies—also known as lightning bugs—are a common sight. These insects light up the sky in rural, urban, and suburban areas for a few seconds at a time with their tiny yellow-green abdomens. 

In 1975, the Common Eastern Firefly (Photinus pyralis) was adopted as the Tennessee State Insect and remains a state symbol today. These unique insects have an adaptation that allows them to produce their own light, known as bioluminescence. These insects, a type of beetle, aren't the only species that use bioluminescence; other organisms that have exhibited this trait include some species of jellyfish, shrimp, snails, gnats, plankton, fish and glowworms.

Fireflies appear to utilize bioluminescence for a variety of reasons. Between the different species, it is most commonly used for mating displays. Each firefly has a characteristic flash pattern that helps the males and females recognize each other. 

One of the most unique and spectacular flash patterns come from a species called the synchronous firefly (Photinus carolinus). They are the only species in America that can synchronize their flash patterns. Like other species, synchronous fireflies produce light in their “lanterns,” the pale area of the abdomen that is on the underside of the beetle. The placement of their lantern allows the female fireflies on the ground to see the flashing light and respond to potential mates.

Another rare species of firefly in Tennessee with a unique flash pattern is the Blue Ghost Firefly (Phausis reticulata). Similar to the synchronous firefly, blue ghost fireflies have a two week mating season in which they display their color. Unlike their counterparts, these fireflies emit a bright and steady blue light for up to a minute or more. Their prolonged blue light with its lack of flashing displays an eerie floating appearance.

The syncronous and Blue Ghost fireflies are rare and only found in certain parts of Tennessee. But you can enjoy a wonderful lightshow on most summer nights in Tennessee. You'll find fireflies twinkling in open, grassy areas and along treelines as the night rolls in throughout the state. They are one of those quintessential components of a great summer adventure. 

Pickett CCC Memorial State Park is also home to a unique glowing creature, but it is different from the two firefly species you will see at Rocky Fork. There, inside of a Hazard Cave, you will find glow worms, a species that is found only in very particular places in the United States. Two of these places include Pickett State Park and the adjacent Big South Fork National Recreation Area. 

The glow worms at Hazard Cave are not, in fact, worms. They are insect larvae of the fungus gnat (Ofelia fultoni). In the dark confines of the Hazard Cave rock house, these glow worms emit blue, glowing light on the cave walls and the surrounding vegetation. These larvae can be seen throughout the year, but are the best and brightest in the early weeks of June. When they are at their peak, and it is dark enough, it looks like the night sky is reflecting on the ground. 

These glow worms were discovered in 1975, and still much is unknown about them. It is believed that these creatures use their luminescence to attract prey. Nocturnal flying insects that are typically guided by the night sky might mistake the glow worms for the stars and fly into the larvae's silk webs.  Similar to the fireflies on East Tennessee, Tennessee State Parks staff is committed to protecting these magnificent glowing creatures. One way they do this is by allowing only Ranger-led hikes to access the cave after dark.

The glow worms are typically active from mid/late May through early July. The first few weeks of June are their peak. Cave tours are available from May to early July each year and are found on the park's event calendar during those months. 

In addition to the endemic glow worms, Pickett State Park has other spectacular night views to offer. In 2015, Pickett became the first state park in the Southeast to gain the silver-tier designation as an International Dark Sky. The International Dark-Sky Association defines an International Dark Sky Park as “a land possessing an exceptional or distinguished quality of starry nights and a nocturnal environment that is specifically protected for its scientific natural, educational, cultural heritage and/or public enjoyment.” (Photo Credit: Dean Easton)

Because of this designation, when you visit Pickett State Park, you can get sweeping views of the night sky, including the Milky Way, meteors, and several constellations. Pickett State Park hosts dedicated astronomy weekends and star parties. These immersive weekends are a great way to observe distant galaxies, planets, and exploding stars through telescopes while discussing the night sky and spatial relationships in the solar system.

However, Pickett isn't the only park where you can get sweeping views of the night sky. Many of our parks have spaces that are well suited to view the stars. One of the best astronomical events that occur each summer is the Perseids Meteor Shower, which is visible on August 12th-13th, 2020. Famous for producing tons of bright meteors, the Perseids are even visible when there is full moon lighting up the sky. 

Find Your Nighttime Adventure

Interested in experiencing the nighttime sights and sounds of Tennessee State Parks? Here are a few great ways to enjoy the parks:

1. Camping under the stars.

There's probaby no better way to enjoy the night that to spend an evening in a tent or hammock enjoying the beauty of the stars and the forest. Head on over to our reservation and search for your perfect camping spot. You can filter by date, electricity, sewer, etc. to find your perfect destination throughout the year. 


2. Attending a night program.

Maybe you want to attend one of the ones listed above. Maybe you would enjoy one of the many evening canoe floats or guided hikes we offer. Whatever your adventure, we invite you to check out the Interpretive programs and events happening after dark at our parks throughout the year. 


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