An Examination of the Guided Night Hiking Experience in Parks and Protected Areas
Keywords:Motivations, visitor experience, night sky, soundscapes, night recreation
AbstractMany protected areas offer night programs for visitors; however, night hours have not been fully recognized as a potential resource. Night hours in protected areas could provide visitors with experiences unique to these times of the day. Typically, low levels of visitation during night hours could provide visitors with additional or better suited opportunities to fulfill motivations and outcomes sought during daytime activities. This study was conducted to explore the experience of night hiking for visitors to parks and protected areas. Specifically, the study describes the night hiking activity, describes relevant characteristics of the night setting, describes the lived experience of night hikers, describes motivations for the experience, and suggests implications for management of night hiking. Semistructured interviews were conducted with 31 participants of three night hikes: a strenuous night hike at Table Rock State Park, South Carolina; an easy “owl prowl” at Congaree National Park, South Carolina; and a moderately difficult night hike at Pisgah National Forest, North Carolina. Also, interpretive rangers who lead night programs were interviewed from Table Rock State Park; Congaree National Park; and Acadia National Park, Maine. Themes identified from the data were related to new or different experiences, night sky and sounds, solitude, perceived risk, and legality of night recreation. Meanings of each of these themes are explored. Findings from this study have several implications for the management of parks and protected areas. First, night hiking programs provide a safe, welcoming opportunity for visitors to participate in a new or different activity. Second, the understanding that solitude is perceived at night as both an individual and a group experience suggests the need for managers to consider both recreation group size and group numbers. Third, informing visitors about the actual risks—and guidelines for mitigating these risks—during night hiking recreation may facilitate greater, safer participation in night activities. Fourth, management of artificial light may prove critical in providing for high quality night recreation experiences. Too much artificial light (either from the hikers themselves or from outside sources) detracts from a night experience because it creates difficulty in viewing the night sky, makes visually encountering other groups easier and more likely, and may quiet nocturnal animals. Fifth, managers need to clarify the policies regarding the permissibility of night recreation within parks and protected areas. Findings from this study suggest that night hiking is a unique way to experience a park or protected area and that night is a valuable experiential resource to parks.
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