The Summer Solstice is an event that doesn't get the attention it deserves... in America, at least. In short, it's the longest day of the year and marks the official start of summer. It's an event that's been occurring annually since the dawn of time, and will continue to occur (unless the sun blows up, or Earth gets knocked off its axis or orbit, or some other devastatingly tragic event messes things up, in which case, we'll probably all be gone anyways.) Also known as "Midsummer", it's been important to every civilization that has tracked the patterns of movement in the stars, which has given the even an almost mystical, mythological feel.
One of the most intriguing places to celebrate midsummer is Alaska. Fairbanks is so far North (just below the Arctic Circle) that the amount of sunlight it receives varies wildly based on seasons. On the days nearest to the winter solstice, the town gets less than four hours of sunlight, and on the summer solstice, the town experiences almost 22 hours of daytime. To celebrate the longest day of the year, the town holds an annual Midnight Sun Baseball Game. It's been a tradition since 1906, and artificial lights are never used in the game, which begins shortly before midnight and continues on through. Only once was the game called off due to darkness (thanks to added shade from stormclouds) and it's a beloved tradition for Fairbanksans and baseball fans alike. It brings in a lot of curious out-of-towners looking to experience Alaska's lovely summers, extra-long days, and quirky traditions.
Santa Barbara is a funky, artsy town, so it's no surprise that they celebrate the solstice by going all-out with the artistic flair. A parade and festival is held to commemorate the annual event, complete with drum circles, DJs, performances, live music, craft fairs, food, workshops, and other events. The parade, with whimsical floats, stunning costumes, and performances, is a highlight, but take the chance to experience as much as you can here... it's wildly different and fun, and the whole weekend oozes positive vibes and creative energy.
Most observatories likely have something going on to mark the solar event, and if you're looking for a scientific perspective on the significance of the day, definitely stop by and see what's going on. Griffith Observatory is an incredibly special spot, since it's totally free, and is loaded with history. It's free to visit the grounds and the observatory, but you can make a long day out of it by adding a hike or trip to the planetarium. Then watch the sunset from the beautiful building's vantage point in the hills, and check out the telescopes for a view of the solstice's night sky.
Native Americans recognized the importance of the position of the sun and stars early on as well, and at many Native American cultural sites, you can see evidence of this. There's a spiral petroglyph on a boulder near the park's Puerco Pueblo that, that aligns perfectly with a beam of sunlight for about two weeks near the solstice. The shaft of sunlight travels down the side of the spiral and touches the center as the sun rises, peaking at 9 am. There are usually rangers at the pueblo during the solar event to provide historical background on the petroglyph, so stop by and check it out. If you happen to be visiting outside of the two-week window, you can still see the boulder and read the informative interpretive sign nearby.
If a trip to Stonehenge (one of the ancient sites that was built with pieces that align to the sun during the solstice) is out of the question, Carhenge is the next best thing. It's a nearly identical replica of the mysterious and ancient English monument (except with cars instead of huge stones). It was dedicated on a solstice, so you'll technically be visiting on Carhenge's anniversary.
The 1,348 foot long snake effigy earthworks that make up Ohio's Serpent Mound are mindblowing enough... but the amount of thought that apparently went into the enormous design is even more insane. The oval head appears to align with the summer solstice, while the coils at the tail appear to be aligned with the winter solstice and spring and fall equinoxes. The body may even align with various lunar patterns. There are also theories that the snake aligns with the constellation Draco, and that it was built on an ancient meteorite impact structure (called an astrobleme), and even though there was no physical evidence of the meteorite left by the time the effigy was built, that's still pretty wild. During the winter solstice, the mound is lit with luminaries, and during summer, a three-day festival with talks, vendors, workshops, guided hikes, sunset tours, performances, and tons more is held.
If you're looking for an incredibly quirky way to celebrate the start of summer, then look no further than Coney Island's Mermaid Parade. It's held on a Saturday close to the start of summer (the solstice) and is one of New York's biggest arts festivals. It's described as a "celebration of ancient mythology and honky-tonk rituals of the seaside" and is a distinctly American take on solstice festivals, with hints of "West African Water Festivals and Ancient Greek and Roman street theater" and mythology thrown in. Expect to see some insane costumes and performers, and revel in the creative expression and summer vibes at New York's quirkiest neighborhood.
If nothing else, take advantage of the longest day of the year to get outside somewhere and enjoy the extra sunlight and beautiful weather. Catch the lingering sunset, and take the opportunity to remind yourself to complete your summer bucket list, as days will grow shorter, and then eventually cool off, from here on out!
Earth and sky, woods and fields, lakes and rivers, the mountain and the sea, are excellent schoolmasters, and teach some of us more than we can ever learn from books. -John Lubbock