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.