Tag Archives: great sand dunes

This couple rocks

traveltoparks ourbestplaces

Elizabeth and Cole Donelson from Kansas City, Missouri are in the midst of an epic challenge: to visit all 59 national parks by the NPS centennial on August 25, 2016.

There are a lot of stories like this one cropping up around the NPS’ 100th birthday but what’s different about this dynamic duo is that they are in their mid-twenties, far younger than the average 50-something national park-goer. They call themselves the “Switchback Kids” and they are chronicling their adventures on-line (don’t miss their engaging People of the Parks character sketches).

The Donelsons’ first travel leg included three phenomenal and diverse parks in my home state, Colorado—the Great Sand Dunes, Mesa Verde and Black Canyon of the Gunnison. Most recently they spent some time down-south in the Everglades and Biscayne, and in the Dry Tortugas, 70 miles off the coast of Florida. They are now at Virgin Islands National Park and will, no doubt, have trouble tearing themselves away.

Though I am sure Elizabeth and Cole will reach their goal next year, even if they don’t, they’re inspiring so many people–young and old–to buck convention and to get off the beaten path where being has a lightness everyone should know.


Photo of Great Sands Dunes National Park © Heather Hansen.

Half the Park is after Dark!

traveltoparks ourbestplaces

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.