Growing up in India, I was fascinated by fireflies wandering around my backyard on warm summer nights. Over time though, I have seen fewer and fewer fireflies, not just back home, but even in the U.S. Many of my friends agree that they don’t get to see as many fireflies now that they used to. Increased light pollution, use of pesticides, and even mosquito repellants, have decreased firefly populations in urban areas.
But the good news is that there is an amazing firefly festival in South Carolina, where you can see thousands of fireflies at one place.
There are over 2,000 species of fireflies found in the world, but only three species of synchronous flashing fireflies are in North America. Every year, Congaree National Park is home to thousands of synchronous fireflies for approximately two weeks between mid-May and mid-June. During this time visitors can experience an awe-inspiring and rare display of synchronous flashing.
Congaree National Park
Congaree National Park is located near the state capital of Columbia in central South Carolina. It has one of the highest temperate deciduous forest canopies remaining in the world, boasting old growth bottomless forests that are ideal habitats for fireflies. You can hike the many trails and boardwalks in the park, canoe or kayak on the Congaree river, and even camp overnight. The UNESCO biosphere reserve is an important bird area and one of the best places in the world to see fireflies.
Why do Firefly Synchronize?
Firefly flashing is a sophisticated form of animal communication, especially when there is a higher concentration of fireflies gathered in an area. During mating season, the male firefly hover two to four feet higher than the females, sending information such as sex and species to other fireflies. Female fireflies typically view male displays from a stationary location and respond with their own species-specific flash pattern. The exchange of light displays between male and female fireflies, called a photic dialog, occurs between two fireflies, but sometimes more than one male can court the same female. This photic dialog continues until male and female meet and ultimately mate.
Flashing typically begins shortly after sunset and lasts for approximately one hour before the display dissipates. Smaller displays can also be viewed shortly before dawn.
Planning Your Visit To The Firefly Festival
In previous years, approximately 2,000 people visited Congaree National Park every night to see the rare firefly synchronization. But since the 2020 pandemic, the park is allowing only limited viewing through a lottery program. This also helps protect critical firefly habitats and provides a safe and enjoyable experience to visitors.
Only 25 vehicles, plus a few researchers and campers are allowed inside the park during the firefly festival. The night I visited, there were no more than a handful of people on the trails and boardwalks, which made it very special. I could hear the stillness of the night and see the fireflies up close, without having to rub elbows with other viewers. I could even hear the owls!
Since the firefly synchronization takes place only for 10 days in a year, it is hard to plan your visit too far in advance. If you book a camping site inside Congaree National Park between mid-May and early June, you have a good chance of seeing the fireflies. Check back on the Congaree National Park’s website about the next lottery announcement and firefly festival dates. Often times, Columbia Food and Wine festival takes place around the same time, so plan to spend some extra time in the city.
How To Take Photos of Fireflies
Taking photos of tiny flashlights that blink for 1-2 seconds in the dark, can be especially tricky. Point and shoot cameras won’t even come close. I used my iPhone on tripod and set it to long exposure. Nothing! My video recording did display the lights, but it wasn’t very good quality. You really have to know what you are looking at to get context.
If you have a DSLR or a manually adjustable camera, you may be able to take some photos by following these photography tips. Note that the park may not allow photography, unless you have prior permission. The light emitted from the phone screen (not just flash) can be disorienting to the fireflies.
The best thing, though, is to enjoy the magical moment with your own eyes!
Things To Do Columbia
Congaree National Park is located about 30 minutes from Columbia, so unless you are planning on camping in the park, book a hotel room at The Graduate or Hotel Trundle in town. There are lot of fun things to do in Soda City, including the newly opened Reconstruction Trail, The Columbia Museum of Art, Soda City market, historic homes and gardens, the state house, and much more.
Here are some of the best national parks in the USA that I visited during the pandemic.I have included some tips on how best to avoid crowds, be safe and have a memorable experience.
One good thing that came out of 2020 was a desire to get outdoors, and having all the time in the world to do so. Once all my travels got cancelled, I started doing road trips and discovering some of the most beautiful national parks in the USA that I never had the time to go to before. National Parks are often packed with families and international visitors through the summer, so the idea of waiting in long lines at parking lots and restrooms dissuaded me from going to some of these places. But in 2020, crowds were thinner as most facilities remained closed. Some of the parks limited the number of vehicles coming in. They suspended tour groups and shuttle buses. Others reduced capacity at campgrounds and hotels. So all of this made visiting national parks even more enjoyable past year.
Having a strategy for visiting the park definitely came in handy. With the pandemic still looming, I had to account for carrying food, water, PPE equipment, maintaining social distancing, and planning restroom breaks.
Here are the National Parks I visited and some of the insider tips I can offer from my firsthand experience. Following these will make your trip safer and more pleasurable.
Most of the parks are open year-round, but you must check for wildfires, snowy weather and road closures daily, as mountain weather changes very often.
Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
Fly in to Denver, Colorado and drive to Rocky Mountain National Park (about 90 minutes). It is best to start your journey at Grand Lake in the west of the park, and end at Estes Park on the east. Grand Lake is a lot less crowded and has a few Swiss style chalets located along the magnificent blue waters.
When you enter Rocky Mountain National Park through Grand Lake, you will see wooded forests, lush meadows, wildlife and rivers. The trails here will be less crowded too, so I highly recommend doing your hiking and picnicking in this area. Continue along the 49 miles long Trail Ridge Road, which is the highest continues paved road in the United States, reaching an elevation of 12,183 feet. Cross the Continental Divide at Milner Pass, see glaciers, mountain peaks and snowfields, grasslands covered with elk and much more.
Note that driving Trail Ridge Road is not for the faint hearted. The roads are narrow, with high elevations, and no barriers. Get a stable car or SUV and keep your eyes on the road. Also, the road closes at the higher elevations from mid October until Memorial weekend.
Toward the east entrance of the park, you will see glacier lakes that are very popular. If you plan to walk the trails around Bear Lake, do so in the late afternoon. If you are lucky, you may even spot double rainbows like I did!
Exit the park at Estes Park, which is a bustling mountain town with motels, cabins, restaurants and souvenir shops. There is a wide variety of cuisines in this small town but it’s best to make reservations in advance. Stay at Tiny Town Cabins at Trout Haven Resorts for a typical Colorado cabin experience. The small but functional 19 individual cabins are located alongside the Big Thompson River, just minutes away from Rocky Mountain National Park.
Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
Yellowstone was the first national park in the U.S. and perhaps the first national park in the world. The park spans an area of 3,468.4 sq miles comprising lakes, canyons, rivers, and mountain ranges. Yellowstone Lake is one of the largest high-elevation lakes in North America. It is centered over the Yellowstone Caldera, the largest super volcano on the continent. There are numerous recreational opportunities, including hiking, camping, boating, fishing, and sightseeing. Lava flows and geothermal pools are spread across the mountains and forests at Yellowstone. So you have to be very careful when hiking and should always stay on marked trails.
Yellowstone is quite large spanning into Wyoming, Montana and Idaho. You can access it from either of these states, but the nearest big airport is Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Here you can take a break for couple of days to visit Grand Tetons National Park, Teton Village’s ski lifts, and then continue on to Yellowstone (1.5 hours). Downtown Jackson Hole is also really hip, filled with gourmet restaurants, art galleries and jewelry stores.
I highly recommend staying at least a couple of nights inside Yellowstone, so you don’t spend a lot of time driving in and out everyday. The lodges inside are more expensive though, without many frills, and are sold out months in advance. However, you are paying for the great location and will have the park all to yourself in the late evening and early morning, when most of the visitors have left.
If you take the Loop Road starting in the South, you won’t get lost and most of the attractions will fall along this road. Account for a full day to see West Thumb golden hot spring, the Continental Divide over Craig Pass, famous Old Faithful geyser, colorful Grand Prismatic Spring, and Artist Paint Pods. You will need to do some walking/ light hiking to get to some of these up close, but they also have handicap accesses.
The next day, go to Hayden Valley for wildlife spotting, Sulphur Caldron and Yellowstone Lake. If the weather cooperates, take a boat ride or enjoy some of the water sports on the lake. On the third day, head north to see valleys along Gibbon River and raggedy rocks at Sheepeater Cliff. The Mammoth Hotel is a good place to stay near Mammoth Hot Spring Terraces. Access the Terraces early in the morning when the sun reflects on the foggy white, gold and black rocks.
Note there is no cell reception inside the park (even at the hotels), and road closures are quite frequent (due to accidents, fires, wildlife, repairs, etc) with no alternate route options. Check the notice board at your hotel reception and at all the visitors centers, gas stations and gift shops thought the day to get latest updates.
Grand Tetons National Park, Wyoming
Grand Teton National Park is only 10 miles (16 km) south of Yellowstone National Park, connected by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Memorial Parkway. Along with surrounding national forests, the protected areas constitute the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, one of the world’s largest intact mid-latitude temperate ecosystems.
Grand Teton National Park is named for Grand Teton, the tallest mountain in the Teton Range. The park includes the major peaks of the 40-mile-long (64 km) Teton Range, numerous lakes, including 15-mile-long (24 km) Jackson Lake, as well as the upper main stem of the Snake River.
Stay at Jackson Hole, a year-round destination for outdoor adventures, from hiking, biking and rafting in the summer, to skiing in the winter. The Fireside Cabins provide easy access to Grand Teton, where you can spot glaciers, rivers, wildflowers and bisons! The best way to explore Grand Teton National Park is via their well networked paved biking trails. But if that’s not your thing, drive the Moose-Wilson road (partially gravel) that links Moose, Wyoming (the southern entrance) to Teton Village. This road is great for viewing wildlife, stopping at outlooks and going for long or short hikes. One of the must ones is at Jenny Lake. Here, you need to take the water ferry to cross the lake and do a loop back.
Glacier National Park, Montana
With over 700 miles of trails, Glacier National Park is a hiker’s paradise for adventurous visitors seeking wilderness and solitude. Getting to Glacier requires flying into the small airport of Kalispell, MT and driving a short distance to the park. Stay in the town of Whitefish, where you can explore the downtown with lots of coffee shops, bars, and a lake.
Timing is everything when going to Glacier. The famous Going-to-the-Sun Road is only open from June – September. This is when you will find hikers from Canada (northern part of Glacier), U.S., and all over the world flocking to the park. However, I went to Glacier in the first week of October, after the season was over. Luckily, the temperature was around 70F, Fall colors in full bloom, and the crowds had left.
Enter the park at West Glacier early in the morning and see the mist rising above Lake McDonald. The 50-mile Going To The Sun Road loop takes you through narrow passes, mountain overlooks, rising glaciers and alpine villages. Again, this is no easy drive with hair bending turns, so rent an all wheel drive.
Exit the park at Rising Sun, on the western side of the park. However, this was closed due to COVID-19, so I had to turn around and do the loop again. Thats not necessarily a bad thing, as you get to see the Going To The Sun Road from another perspective. The afternoon is a good time to get some hikes in too. Make sure to explore the less visited western side of the park, where the gorgeous Bowman Lake is located. On your way back, grab fresh and warm huckleberry bear claws at Polebridge Mercantile and Bakery, located inside the park.
Zion National Park, Utah
Zion National Park is located in southern Utah near the city of Springdale. I drove from Moab to the east entrance of Zion, and exited at the south entrance in Springdale. From here I drove to the town of St George (1 hour), where I stayed at Red Mountain Resort. The resort is located away from the touristy areas, and offers guided tours to Zion as well as other parks in southwest Utah. From there, I flew out of Las Vegas (2 hrs). You can also fly to Salt Lake City and drive to Zion.
Now, Zion National Park is one of the most visited parks in the whole country. So you can imagine how hard it is to navigate and enjoy driving through its narrow roads. During peak times, you will be required to leave your car (if you can find a spot) in the parking lot, and ride the free shuttle to your hiking trails. But if you go between November – March, like I did, you can breeze through the park in your own vehicle. Remember Zion is beautiful year-round, but some of the trails are closed depending on weather conditions.
You definitely don’t want to miss the sunset over the towering red mountains and the Virgin River.
Congaree National Park, SC
Congaree National Park near Columbia, SC is not as well known, but worth a visit. It preserves the largest old-growth floodplain forest forming one of the highest temperate deciduous forest canopies remaining in the world. You can walk on paved paths and boardwalks surrounded by swamps, oaks, national and state champion trees. Some of it looks like scenes from Lord of the Rings!
Large animals possibly seen in the park include bobcats, deer, feral pigs, feral dogs, coyotes, armadillos, turkeys, and otters. Its waters contain interesting creatures like amphibians, turtles, snakes, and many types of fish, including bowfin, alligator gar, and catfish.
There is over 20 miles of backcountry hiking trails, canoe tours, canoeing, kayaking, fishing, birding, nature study and talks. You can visit Congaree in a day, or spend a few if you want to do all the activities.
Arches National Park, Utah
Moab is the adventure capital of southern Utah, with access to hiking, rafting, canyoning and more. Moab is a city in eastern Utah. It’s a gateway to massive red rock formations in Arches National Park, mesas and buttes at Canyonlands National Park, Native American rock art, and dinosaur tracks at sites like Bull Canyon Overlook and Copper Ridge. The town itself has tons of cafes, restaurants, shops and a motels. Stay at Moab Springs Ranch, a locally-owned, eco friendly resort with individual cabins and townhouses that are well equipped with kitchen and parking spaces. There is a walking trail, biking trail, hammocks and relaxing garden on site so you can relax with a backdrop of red rocks and cottonwood trees.
Bordered by the Colorado River in the southeast, Arches has over 2,000 natural sandstone arches. Start your day early at sunrise at Arches National Park, so you have the entire day to explore and watch the rock colors change with the sun. Sunrise and sunrise give the best photo opps. The park itself is not too big if you drive through the loop road, though you will do injustice if you didn’t get out of your car. Many of the arches can be seen from the road, but offer a better view with a short hike.
There are no restaurants or stores inside the park, but it is only minutes away from downtown Moab, so you can pack food for the day or return to the city for dinner.
Canyonlands National Park, Utah
Also a few minutes drive from Moab, Canyonlands National Park is the largest national park in Utah and requires 2-3 days to explore, especially if you plan to do any backcountry or overnight hiking. However, if you only have one day, plan to drive the paved Island in the Sky road atop a massive 1500 foot mesa. Here you can stop at different pullouts to see panoramic overlooks, dramatic desert landscape carved by the Colorado River, towering rock pinnacles known as the Needles, the remote canyons of the Maze and the Native American rock paintings in Horseshoe Canyon. There are many hiking trails too, so combine some physical exercise with driving time.
The bookstore and gift shop inside Canyonlands offers some sodas and packaged foods only, so plan to bring your picnic basket and lots of water from Moab. Also, it is much colder and windier at higher altitudes inside the park, so make sure to bring additional warm layers.
Virgin Islands National Park, USVI
Virgin Islands National Park is more than just beautiful beaches. Here you can hike to plantation ruins to learn about a time when sugar dominated the island, visit the ancient petroglyphs carved by the Taino Indians, and snorkel the coral reefs to discover hidden marine life. The park covers 60% of St John, 9 sq mi of adjacent ocean, and nearly all of Hassel Island, just off the Charlotte Amalie, Saint Thomas harbor.
You can fly in to St Thomas or St John islands and spend a few days exploring the beaches, towns and beautiful waters. St Thomas is much bigger and well connected to major airports, while St John is more pristine. You can combine your trip and move between the islands by passenger and vehicle ferry, so you can take your rental car with you too.
The best way to explore St John many pristine white sand beaches and hiking trails that make up US Virgin Islands National Park is by car. There are taxis, open air jeeps and shuttle tours, however, having your own vehicle allows you to stop wherever you want and safely distance. Note, most facilities are still closed at St John, not because of COVID, but they never fully recovered from hurricanes Irma and and Maria in 2017.
Virgin Islands Eco Tour is a local company that offers kayaking, snorkeling, hiking and boat tours around the National Park. Start at Cruz Bay and spend a half or full day with a knowledgeable guide to learn about marine life, geology and flora of the islands.
Typically, entrance to each national park ranges between $20-50/ day. Save money by purchasing America The Beautiful annual pass. For only $80, you can visit over 80 national parks and over 2,000 Federal recreation sites across the USA.
Many of us are pursuing more nature, activity and adventure during our travels. This year, most of my travels have revolved around visiting America’s National Parks. And while doing so, I discovered Red Mountain Resort catering to those looking for an active getaway. Nestled in Southwestern Utah’s red rock bluffs, Red Mountain Resort is a one-of-a-kind active destination retreat, inspiring guests to pursue health, wellness, balance and joy.
In November, I planned a one-week road trip across Southern Utah’s parks. I flew into Salt Lake City, drove to Moab for 3 nights, where I visited Arches and Canyonlands. Another 5 hours of scenic drive took me to Red Mountain Resort in St. George. On my way back, I drove 2 hours to Las Vegas, where I boarded my flight back home.
You can also fly directly to St. George Municipal Airport or Las Vegas McCarran International Airport, and take a shuttle or taxi to the resort.
Red Mountain Resort is in the suburbs of St George, a small town in southwest Utah. I only spent a few hours visiting St George’s town square, the Mormon temple, antique stores and cafes. You can sign up for a guided walking tour through the resort, or just drive around yourself.
The resort itself is surrounded by jaw dropping scenery. There are volcanic rocks right in your backyard, which backs up to Snow Canyon State Park. You can see red rocks, black lava remains, desert like vegetation, and snow covered mountains – all right outside your room!
Original site of a wellness research center, you will find some original dome structured buildings at Red Mountain Resort that are now used as a spa and offices. You can get a massage, body wrap, or simply gaze out the large windows lounging in the spa’s relaxation room.
There are 3 swimming pools, jacuzzis and a fitness center. Here you can take dozens of classes such as yoga, stretching, dance, and more – all included in your stay. There are also expert health and fitness consultants at the fitness center, so make sure to book an appointment.
I stayed at one of the 82 Desert Oasis Rooms which was spacious and comfortable. The bathrooms were huge, with tiled floors and rain showers. There was a private patio overlooking the pool, and lots of natural sunlight coming in.
The resort gives each guest a welcome gift – a notebook, backpack and water bottle – to take on your outdoor adventures. So, you are not really encouraged to spend much time in your room.
The Canyon Breeze restaurant on sites serves 3 meals a day. They usually offer breakfast and lunch buffets, but due to COVID-19, there’s only seated and to-go meals.
Though the food is not limited to vegetarian or plant based exclusively, the idea is to eat fresh and control portion size. Every dish is less than 500 calories, incorporating health conscious cooking techniques, and packed with texture and flavor. For example, my breakfast of healthy pancakes had 3 bite size discs served with a homemade prickly pear syrup and lots of berries. For dinner, we were always served a vegetable soup and house salad, followed by an entree (shrimp and grits, vegetable tacos), and a small dessert. There is a strong emphasis on wholesome meals that satisfy your palate and keep you nourished.
If you like to drink a glass of wine with dinner, that is feasible too. The restaurant had a decent collection of wines by the bottle that you can order during your stay for an extra charge.
And if you’re vegan, kosher or have any specific dietary needs, the chef can accommodate you too.
Fitness and Adventure
Those who want to stay active, get into shape, and explore Utah’s national parks would find the biggest draw to Red Mountain Resort. There are lots of classes and guided hikes, which makes it very easy for solo travelers. You don’t have to worry about driving to the parks, finding a parking spot, looking up a trail, or getting lost!
There are different types of hikes that are offered every day, ascending from beginner (Explorer), intermediate (Challenge) and Morning Walks. These go into Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park, Snow Canyon State Park, and other spots located within a short driving distance. I consulted with the concierge about the hikes, got detailed maps, and did a lot of the hikes on my own.
Each day, I started with a healthy take out breakfast from Canyon Breeze restaurant, followed by a solo interpretation walk around the labyrinth. Then I ventured into a class or two before a scrumptious outdoor lunch, and explored more of the surrounding trails through the afternoon. Here were some of my favorite hikes…
Snow Canyon State Park
You can walk from the resort to Snow Canyon State Park, bike or drive there. The park itself is only 20 miles from north to south, but has interesting landscapes. Jenny’s Canyon Trail takes you into slot canyon, while Johnson Canyon Trail offers the chance to see wildlife and is good for all skill levels.
Anasazi Ridge Petroglyphs
This 2-hour trail explores the Anasazi culture where you can see 1000-year old farmstead ruins and petroglyph drawings, along with inspiring panoramic views.
Zion National Park
Utah’s first national park has massive sandstone cliffs, narrow slot canyons, and flowing Virgin River. There are dozens of hiking trails inside Zion National Park that can keep you active for days, so make sure to plan your route ahead of time. Also note that it is mandatory to park your car and take a shuttle inside the park during peak hours.
Kayenta Art Village
The Red Mountain Resort also organizes trips to nearby Kayenta Art Village (located less than 10 mins away). This artist colony showcases a number of studios, cafes and shops, as well as a collaborative outdoor art installation. Walking through the desert gardens on a sunny afternoon is quite mediative.
Unlike other all-inclusive destinations, Red Mountain Resort caters to fitness oriented travelers, who don’t travel to just lay by the pool. Also, it is perfect for singles. You can go by yourself and make friends at the Community Table at dinner, or during one of the group activities.
Still, the resort offers all the amenities of an all-inclusive. All vacations include accommodations, daily guided hikes, bike rentals, three healthy meals daily, fitness classes, healthy life classes and events, personal discovery activities, and WiFi.
It’s About You!
Red Mountains Resort feels like the perfect place to get away from the stressful life we often lead, and escape to a quieter place. Here you can invest in yourself – clear your head, feed your body, and work on your health. Simply watch the reflection of the sunrise and sunset on the rocks, as they magically change from red to orange hues. You will feel the energy around you. Plus, the Southwest temperatures make southern Utah an ideal year round destination to pursue outdoor activities.
While the Coronavirus pandemic has caused the world’s attractions to temporarily closed, there are still ways to experience its beauty online. There are thousands of virtual museum tours, living room concert performances, and even some guided tours that have come about in the past few weeks. But if you crave for something more outdoors, here are some of the most refreshing virtual travel destinations for nature lovers.
Walk Along Florida’s Beaches
Visit Florida has captured images along the Sunshine State’s 825 miles of beaches using Google’s Street ViewTrekker technology. These 360-degree images captured ‘one footstep at a time’. In addition, Google Maps is integrated. They enable you to experience interactive views of Florida’s beaches. Just “tune” your preferences, choosing from adventurous or laid back, family-friendly or romantic; action-packed or secluded and manicured or natural, and take a walk along the beach.
Watch Rare Birds in Denmark
Want to go birdwatching in Denmark? The Danish ornithological society, DOF BirdLife, streams live from the nest of a majestic white-tailed eagle on Lolland. The nest currently has three eggs ready to hatch.
You can also see murmurations of starlings as they cut beautiful shapes in the air before they roost. These are filmed at the Wadden Sea. There, tours of the best black sun sites take place at key points throughout the year.
Blooming Tulips in The Netherlands
Keukenhof, also known as the Garden of Europe, is one of the world’s largest flower gardens. Within The Netherlands, it is in the town of Lisse. According to the official website, Keukenhof Park covers an area of 32 hectares. Approximately 7 million flower bulbs are annually planted. The best times to see the blooms are the last 2 weeks of April and the first week of May. Though closed for 2020, the spectacular tulip garden is still available virtually.
Best Parks in the USA
Have you dreamed of visiting every national park in the U.S.? Google Arts & Culture is hosting interactive documentaries on a number of contrasting U.S. National Parks include Kenai Fjords in Alaska, Hawaii Volcanoes in Hawaii, and Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico. Moreover, there is Bryce Canyon in Utah, and Dry Tortugas in Florida. You can get 360-degree video tours through some of the United States’ most remote and breath-taking landscapes, with a local ranger as a guide. You will already know a lot when you ready to take the actual trip!
Natural landscapes, beautiful cascades, majestic waterfalls, diverse vegetation and fauna of various species are some of the charms that tourists can find in the national parks of Brazil. Here are the best ones as claimed by Brazil Ministry of Tourism. Continue reading “The best national parks in Brazil”