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Half the Park is after Dark!

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The sky’s the limit at these national parks known for stellar stargazing…

When I was in Big Bend last year one of the park’s most remarkable features came into focus only after the sun went down—the stars. When the sky darkened it seemed as if someone had hit a celestial light switch as a glowing dome formed overhead. Barely an inch of the heavens seemed untouched by gleaming pinpricks.

Big Bend is one the country’s seven ‘dark sky’ national parks which “are vital to the protection of wilderness character, fundamental to the historical and cultural context and critical for park wildlife,” says the National Park Service’s Natural Sounds and Dark Skies Division. Not only do nocturnal animals rely on darkness for survival but the circadian rhythms of plants, and of humans as well, require an unaltered night sky.

Due to light pollution in urban and suburban areas most people see, at most, a few hundred stars in a cloudless night sky. Dark Sky parks may boast upwards of 5,000 stars. As population centers expand so does artificial light disruption making these spots all the more rare and important.

Here are the nation’s officially designated “Dark Sky Parks” with links to find out more about each:

Big Bend National Park, Texas.

Capitol Reef National Park, Utah.

Chaco Culture National Historical Park, New Mexico.

Death Valley National Park, Arizona. (At 3.4 million acres, the largest International Dark Sky Park)

Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument, Arizona.

Hovenweep National Monument, Colorado and Utah.

Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah. (The first International Dark Sky Park, designated in 2007)


Many other national parks host “star parties” and night sky viewing programs. Here are a bunch with links to their programs:

Acadia National Park, Maine

Arches National Park, Utah

Badlands National Park, South Dakota (Night skies are threatened here due to hydraulic fracturing operations pressing up against the borders of the park.)

Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico

Cedar Breaks National Monument, Utah

Craters of the Moon National Monument, Idaho

Denali National Park, Alaska

Dinosaur National Monument, Colorado

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

Great Basin National Park, Nevada

Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, Colorado

Joshua Tree National Park, California

Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota

Whiskeytown National Recreation Area, California

Yosemite National Park, California

Artist Tyler Nordgren created this amazing poster for his “See the Milky Way” campaign:


In its manifesto for a second century of greatness, one of goals of the NPS is to protect that forgotten natural resource—darkness—and to restore “starry nights” by managing ambient light within parks and in bordering communities. One big step in that direction was the creation of the America’s first Dark Sky Cooperative on the Colorado Plateau, in collaboration with several partner organizations.

Apparently, in the dark, there is still so much to see.




NPS photo of Dinosaur NM by Dan Duriscoe.



Let’s Close the National Parks

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History tends to repeat itself. A half-century ago national parks were receiving a record number of visitors but amid inadequate funding their facilities were falling apart.

One popular writer had a radical idea: “Let’s Close the National Parks” wrote Bernard DeVoto in the October 1953 issue of Harper’s Magazine. “The deterioration of roads and plants that began with the war years, when proper maintenance was impossible, has been accelerated by the enormous increase in visitors, by the shrinkage of staffs, and by miserly appropriations that have prevented both repair and expansion of facilities…[Congress] requires the Service to operate a big plant on a hot-dog-stand budget,” he wrote.

As a result, DeVoto said, “So much of the priceless heritage which the Service must safeguard for the United States is beginning to go to hell.” His proposed solution? “The national park system must be temporarily reduced to a size for which Congress is willing to pay. Let us, as a beginning, close Yellowstone, Yosemite, Rocky Mountain, and Grand Canyon National Parks—close and seal them, assign the Army to patrol them, and so hold them secure till they can be reopened.”

Today faced with slashed budgets, aging facilities and visitor throngs, the NPS and the individual parks it is mandated to protect face daily struggles. Is the solution, as DeVoto suggested over 50 years ago, to keep open only the parks for which Congress is willing to pay? If the outcry over park closures during a government shutdown in 2013 are any indication, this wouldn’t go over well with the many millions of Americans who want their parks open and accessible. But the mere suggestion still may be worth making. Just three years after DeVoto’s manifesto appeared, the NPS launched a $1 billion, congressionally-funded decade of maintenance and construction (called Mission 66) in advance of its 50th anniversary in 1966. No such overture has been made by Congress in advance of the park service’s 100th birthday next year. Is it time to close some parks to the public to get them the attention they deserve?

Photo courtesy of the NPS.

Places of loss and inspiration

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When President Abraham Lincoln alighted at the Gettysburg Train Station on November 18, 1863 day was already giving way to darkness. He walked a block to the home of David Wills, attorney and school superintendent, who had invited the president to say “a few appropriate remarks” at the dedication of the nearby national cemetery that Wills had been instrumental in establishing. That now world famous speech–the drafting of which was completed in Wills’ home–is known as the Gettysburg Address.

At that time the train station had only been in operation for about five years but already it had seen plenty. It acted as a hospital during the devastating Battle Of Gettysburg (July 1-3, 1863) during which an an estimated 51,000 soldiers were killed, wounded, captured, or listed as missing. Many were transported through the station after the gunpowder had settled.

Standing in the small station today is a solemn experience, the ground as hallowed as the nearby cemetery and battlefield. When I visited it last fall I couldn’t believe such a moving and historically significant spot wasn’t part of the Gettysburg National Military Park. But late last December that changed with the passage of federal legislation which added the train station to the national park system.

Learn more about Gettysburg National Military Park.

Read the Gettysburg Address.


Photo courtesy Destination Gettysburg.



Where’s your park?

Maybe it’s in your ‘backyard’, or perhaps across the country? Have you been there many times, or do you dream of going? Does your park have windy peaks, a teeming desert, a stirring history, a home of ancient people?

Get ideas, share your park tales and be inspired by others at Find Your Park.

Did you know that if you visited one national park per day for an entire year you wouldn’t see them all?


RMNP: Looking good at 100

Rocky Mountain National Park was established a year prior to the founding of the National Park Service. Throughout this calendar year a century of its places and people are celebrated at various events in the park.

Don’t miss a chance to join in on upcoming centennial events, many of which are listed in the current issue of the park’s newspaper.

Share stories and images from 1915 through 2015 at


Image courtesy NPS.

Inside Yellowstone

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Worth-a-look videos posted by the NPS on YouTube give glimpses from inside the nation’s first national park. Some are only a few minutes long, like those of a bison calf taking its first steps, and the release of Arctic grayling embryos into a backcountry creek. Longer mini-documentaries offer a more in-depth look at park features like geysers and mountain goats.


NPS Photo by Neal Herbert.

When soldiers guarded parks

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Army bicyclists on Mammoth Hot Springs Terraces, Yellowstone National Park, around 1896 (photographer unknown). For decades prior to the founding of the National Park Service, the military patrolled parks.

Learn more about this time period and more in Prophets & Moguls, Rangers & Rogues, Bison & Bears: 100 Years of the National Park Service.