Tuesday, January 18, 2022

MENU

Here are the best “Dark Sky Parks” to stargaze in the U.S.

When we lived in Alaska, I did not see the Northern Lights until December that first year.  Not because they did not exist, but because the skies above Anchorage were not dark enough, at least where we were living.

To see the “lights” we had to drive out of town a few miles. I will never forget my first celestial light show.

Not everyone can see this incredible nocturnal show. Some may see a few bright stars and the moon if you are out after sundown, but we don’t see the billions of stars that make up the Milky Way. It could be because we forget to look up. But mainly it is because of all the man-made light pollution.

Luckily, there are more than 60 Dark Sky Parks (27 National Parks), communities, and reserves in the U.S. where we can witness the beauty that shines over us at night.

What is an International Dark Sky Park?

From Darksky.org: According to the International Dark-Sky Association, “An IDA International Dark Sky Park (IDSP) is a land possessing an exceptional or distinguished quality of starry nights and a nocturnal environment that is specifically protected for its scientific, natural, educational, cultural heritage, and/or public enjoyment. The land may be publicly owned, or privately owned provided that the landowner(s) consent to the right of permanent, ongoing public access to specific areas included in the IDA designation.”

The importance of these parks is not just for our personal enjoyment. Artificial lighting has created disruptions in the nocturnal environment for plants, animals, and humans. They interfere with our natural day-night cycles, much like living in Alaska can affect the cheechakos (newcomers).

While National Parks may be crowded by day, getting out into the night may be the best way to avoid the masses. Many parks have astronomers during certain lunar events, or local clubs show up to share the skies with visitors.

These parks have been designated as some of the best light-free destinations to see the night sky:

Great Basin National Park

Between Salt Lake City and Las Vegas, this park features high mountains that shield the surrounding light sources. The Park Service recommends bringing a pair of 7 X 50 binoculars. A red flashlight will also protect your night vision. The last thing you want to do is shine a bright light on your star chart! If you happen to be there on a Saturday from May through October, you can participate in one of their astronomy programs. They also offer stargazing train excursions, guided full moon hikes, and an annual astronomy festival.

Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park

Just 63 miles west of Vero Beach, Florida, this 54,000-acre park provides an astronomical show above palmetto trees and grasses. Be sure to plan, as after-hours access is by permit only.

Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve

Why not look at the moon from a landscape that looks just like the moon’s surface? This monument is about 65 miles southeast of Sun Valley, Idaho, and offers landscapes that may remind you of prehistoric backdrops in dinosaur movies. Star parties are held by the Idaho Falls Astronomical Society in the spring and fall. Rangers offer full moon hikes during the summer.

Big Bend National Park

This destination park is tucked into the isolated corner of West Texas and the U.S.-Mexico border. This is a great place to avoid the crowds and participate in a star party or guided moonlit park. For a bonus, the McDonald Observatory is just 113 miles northwest.

Headlands International Dark Sky Park

While this sits close to Mackinaw City on the Michigan Lower Peninsula, the location rarely experiences light pollution. In the summer you can see the Milky Way and meteor showers. For a special experience, visit during the spring or autumnal equinox to get a glimpse of the Northern Lights. Events include stargazing cruises and nighttime storytelling sessions.

Here are other top-ranked U.S. Dark Sky Parks you can explore:

  • Natural Bridges National Monument: Lake Powell, Utah
  • Chaco Culture National Historical Park: New Mexico
  • Death Valley National Park: California and Nevada
  • James River State Park: Gladstone, Virginia
  • Dinosaur National Monument: Colorado and Utah
  • Cherry Springs State Park: Coudersport, Pennsylvania
  • Grand Canyon National Park: Arizona

As the National Parks are experiencing overcrowding, consider opting into some night excursions, where the crowds are in the sky – providing a much-needed awesome silence.

Related:

How to find a dark sky location for spectacular stargazing

##RVT1031

Comments

Subscribe
Notify of

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

5 Comments
Newest
Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Steve
1 month ago

PS: just as the Sun Dagger at Chaco marks the 18.6-year lunar maximum, among other celestial events, the two monoliths at the new Chimney Rock NM near Pagosa Springs, Colorado, mark the same event. Apparently, the Anasazi used a bonfire relay between Chimney Rock and Chaco to confirm their accuracy at predicting that event. Perhaps the importance of that prediction had something to do with the Anasazi religion or keeping the elites in the Great Houses in power. But today no one knows the actual reason for such meticulous astronomical record-keeping.

Steve
1 month ago

The Albuquerque Astronomy Society brings medium-sized reflecting telescopes out Chaco Canyon NP several moonless Saturday nights each year to supplement the NPS’s obervatory. Each telescope is focused on a different feature in the night sky–planets, constellations, galaxies, nebulae, etc. Visitors can rotate through each scope to see many different dark sky features in a single night. It’s fantastic compared to a single telescope observatory. More like a planetarium show, only walking from one feature to another instead of seeing them in a movie on a domed screen!

Carl
1 month ago

Promised Land State Park, PA.
Off 84 near Newfoundland, PA.
Especially the sky in October!

Rosalie Magistro
1 month ago

Any dark skies are getting harder to find in parks. Campers have their sites lit up like the 4th of July. There is no need to have that much light.

Wendy Ansel
1 month ago

Pickett state park, TN