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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.