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Nightfall: 6 Ways to Experience the Southwest After Dark


Starry skies. Vast, moonlit landscapes. Nocturnal wildlife on the hunt. The Southwest boasts a different kind of nightlife — and there are infinite, thrilling ways to experience its magic
An evening hike on Treasure Loop Trail in the Superstition Mountains’ Lost Dutchman Park, east of Mesa, Arizona.
An evening hike on Treasure Loop Trail in the Superstition Mountains’ Lost Dutchman Park, east of Mesa, Arizona. Photo via HagePhoto.

Chaco Culture National Historical Park, New Mexico

A thousand years ago, Chaco Canyon, in northwestern New Mexico, was the commercial and ceremonial hub of the Four Corners region, an architectural marvel of massive stone houses and beanpole-straight roads that stretched for hundreds of miles. The ancient Puebloans gazed up at the same night sky we do, but their relationship to the heavens remains an enigma with tantalizing clues. They left precise astronomical alignments on their buildings that still accurately mark equinoxes and solstices, petroglyphs that mark sunrises, and even a pictograph that rangers believe illustrates the Supernova of 1054. After dark, listen to rangers tell stories about the ancients and their relationship with the stars and, with a visiting astronomer, peer through a 25-inch-wide telescope to see what the moon and planets look like up close. Even better, visit Chaco on an equinox or solstice when rangers lead groups to watch rising sunbeams illuminate special astronomical markers that have stood motionless for centuries. 

Photo by Wally Pacholka.
Photo by Wally Pacholka.
The Desert Nightlife

Scottsdale, Arizona

What happens when you look down instead of up after the sun sets in the desert? Stellar Adventures wants to show you everything the Sonoran Desert has to offer after dark, on the ground. Aboard off-roading Jeeps and armed with night-vision goggles, your guide will take you where wildlife gather. Critters that were once camouflaged among the shrubs and dirt will now stand out in the greenish hue of your new specs. For a human-powered adventure, tackle your favorite peak while hunting scorpions on a moonlight hike with Hike in Phoenix or take a flashlight tour of the Desert Botanical Garden.

Photo courtesy RaPhoto.
Photo courtesy RaPhoto.
Drive-In Movies

Shooting Star RV Resort in Escalante, Utah

Escalante, a remote settlement of 800 in southern Utah, experiences well over 300 days of sunshine each year — weather perfect for exploring the canyons of nearby Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and, naturally, watching movies under the stars. After dark on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, between spring and fall, Shooting Star RV Resort screens films from old Westerns to Humphrey Bogart classics at its drive-in movie theater. Don’t have a roll-top? Rent one of its classic 1960s convertibles, set up in front of the screen, and take in the film, a huge dome of stars and plenty of hot, buttery popcorn.

Photo courtesy Shooting Star RV Resort.
Photo courtesy Shooting Star RV Resort.
Rafting the Colorado

Vail, Colorado

Carving its way through Colorado, Arizona, Nevada and Utah, the Colorado River plays host to some of the region’s most spectacular views, from the peaks of the Rocky Mountains to the turquoise waters of Havasu Falls and beyond. But there’s one view in particular that has rafters opting for a later start time — the one through their night-vision goggles. The team at Lakota Guides near Vail takes thrill-seekers out on the river on a nightly basis, equipping everyone with a pair of goggles that allows them to experience the river and its surroundings after dark. Think thunderous tail slaps by sneaky beavers, stars that practically jump out of the sky, and the symphony of the surrounding forest paired with the movement of the water beneath you. While you won’t tackle the biggest whitewater (this trip sticks to Class I and II rapids), the experience of being in the remote outdoors after dark is often a thrill in and of itself.

Photo by Ryan Heffernan.
Photo by Ryan Heffernan.
Marfa Lights

Marfa, Texas

Just outside of Marfa, the hip art town in the otherworldly desert of west Texas, strange glowing orbs appear after dark, mystifying Native Americans, early explorers, locals, tourists and even scientists for generations. Viewers report yellow, blue and white lights that flicker, merge and appear to travel quickly across the land. Are they extraterrestrials, ghosts, gases or optical illusions? No one knows. What’s certain is they appear most nights and the designated viewing platform on Highway 90,
9 miles east of Marfa, is the best place to catch a glimpse of these bizarre illuminations and ponder their mind-bending mysteries. 

southwest after dark
Photo by Ed Darack.
The Lightning Field

Quemado, New Mexico

In the remote desert of western New Mexico, 400 steel poles stand erect — all the same height, perfectly positioned in a precise grid. While it might look like a science experiment to some, this is, in fact, The Lightning Field, an art installation by the late Walter De Maria. This strangely beautiful Land Art masterpiece spans 4 square miles and is best experienced on an overnight trip (a simple but comfortable cabin can be reserved through the Dia Art Foundation). Watch this industrial structure transform while overlooking the field of steel, listen to coyotes howl under a blanket of stunning starlight and stand by for a rare but possible strike of lightning.

southwest after dark
Photo via Thinkstock.
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