Top Three Glow-in-the-Dark Trips

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See glowing plankton, mushrooms, and bugs on these brilliant adventures.

Missed bioluminescence in biology class? Here are three wild places to see this phenomenon–a chemical reaction of an enzyme called luciferin and oxygen that lights up sea life, insects, and mushrooms.

San Juan Island, WA | Big South Fork, TN/KY | Porcupine Mountains, MI

San Juan Island, WA
Sea kayak in shimmering waters.

Watch trails of liquid moonlight follow your boat as you paddle the waters around San Juan Island. Bioluminescent plankton are found all over the world’s oceans, but gather in abundance here, where strong currents upwell nutrients into the chilly waters. Launch at Jackson Beach, in Friday Harbor, and follow the North Bay shoreline east. After about 300 yards, duck into the first of several shallow coves to the north; they’re protected from wind, which makes for better bioluminescence spotting. The water becomes silvery-blue when agitated. Before rounding the peninsula, at about one mile, turn back–currents rip beyond here. Take a guided tour with Discovery Sea Kayaking (866-461-2559;

The Afterglow
Create your own shine with a bottle of 1979 Don PX Gran Reserva dessert wine at Steps Wine Bar and Café in Friday Harbor.

The Way
From Seattle, drive 80 miles north on I-5 to WA 20. Head 9.8 miles to Anacortes and follow the signs to the San Juan Islands Ferry.

Big South Fork, TN/KY
Follow fireflies to sandstone arches.

During the day, hikers come to the Big South Fork for its deep, winding gorges and imposing sandstone bluffs. But on summer nights with a new moon, the main attraction is something much more dazzling: fireflies. From the Twin Arches trailhead, hike south .7 mile to the Twin Arches–North and South Arch (51 and 70 feet tall, respectively), two of the largest natural bridges in the east. Watch the fireflies light up the sandstone walls. They don’t blink randomly; different patterns and sequences indicate species, gender, territoriality, and even mating status. Continue east on the 4.6-mile Twin Arches Loop Trail, passing rustic Charit Creek Lodge as you close the loop. (423) 286-7275;

The Afterglow
Enjoy midhike milk and cookies on the Charit Creek Lodge porch. Call ahead. (865) 429-5704;

The Way
From Oneida, TN, take TN 297 west 19 miles to TN 154, turn right, and drive 1.5 miles to Divide Road. Turn right again, and make another quick right onto Twin Arches Rd. It’s two miles to the trailhead.

Porcupine Mountains, MI
Link a path of glowing mushrooms.
Known as foxfire, bioluminescent fungi is found throughout temperate zones in wet, rotting bark. Scientists don’t know why some fungi glow and not others. One hypothesis: The glow attracts insects, and they spread the mushrooms’ spores. Bring a headlamp (with a red filter, if you have one, to preserve your night vision) and head north from the Pinkerton trailhead through old-growth conifers toward Lake Superior on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Look for soggy, downed trees on this 5.2-mile out-and-back, and agitate chunks of bark to oxidize the mushroom’s enzymes and reveal a light blue glow. (906) 885-5275;

The Afterglow
Recharge with BBQ ribs and bread pudding at Foot Hills Restaurant (906-885-5246) in Ontonagon (five miles from Silver City).

The Way
From Silver City, MI, drive west 2.6 miles on MI 107. Turn left onto South Boundary Rd. and drive 20.5 miles to the Pinkerton trailhead.

Backpacker May 2009

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