Monday marked the first day of the 2016 International Dark Sky Week, an event that raises awareness about light pollution and encourages people to engage with and appreciate the night skies. Factor in the National Park Service's centennial celebration taking place later this month, and this sounds like the perfect time to expose the National Parks’ “dark” secret: that one of the most magical and immersive experiences you can have at a national park happens after the sun goes down.
We’re absolutely the first to recommend a daytime visit to a National Park, but the truth is you’re really only getting half the story. When the sun goes down, the plants, wildlife, and geology of the natural parks become almost otherworldly, lit up by stars that millions of people in urban areas never get to experience.
Initially, the preservation of this dark “other half” of the U.S. National Parks was almost accidental; as the Park Service worked to protect the scenery, the natural and historic objects, and the wildlife of park areas, night sky preservation sort of just happened. But a growing awareness of light pollution and its effects has led to the establishment of the Park Service's Natural Sounds and Night Sky Division, specifically dedicated to saving our dimming night skies by monitoring light levels and creating after-dark educational programs.
But maybe you’re not an amateur astronomer. Why should you risk shin-bruises to hang around a national park when the sun goes down? Because, as Nordgren puts it, “By day, you’d be shoulder-to-shoulder with crowds and cars, but when you go out at night, you’ve got [the park] to yourself. It really gives people a flavor of what it must have been like in these parks back in the 1930s when it was just you and nature.” All that beauty without hordes of tourists? What more could you ask for?
So how can you get in on this?
More and more parks have after-dark programs, from lectures to stargazing nights and night hikes. Rangers are able to connect visitors to the flora, fauna, and geology of the parks at night, as well as to the constellations above. In fact, big events like night sky festivals and star parties are becoming so common that it’s getting hard to keep track of it all. Luckily, the parks coordinate to make sure they aren’t scheduling events on the same weekends, making a summer of park-hopping across the U.S. for night sky adventures entirely possible (advisable, even!).
You can always feel free to call or email your closest park to find out about their evening ranger programs (and to purchase tickets to larger events), but here are a few that we’re especially looking forward to this year:
Bryce Canyon National ParkPhoto courtesy of Dr. Tyler Nordgren
June 1—June 4
Bryce Canyon has the distinction of having hosted the first star party back in 1969. The tradition has continued because Bryce's inky dark skies and convenient location near both Salt Lake City and Las Vegas makes it an ideal spot. In fact, the star parties become so popular that they've evolved into full-blown festivals (this year’s Astro Festival will be their 14th). Additionally, Bryce hosts monthly night hikes and regular astronomy education programs followed by stargazing.
Glacier National Park
West Glacier, Montana
July 29, August 5, August 26, September 9
Glacier’s Logan Pass star parties may not be as long-running as Bryce Canyon’s, but they are just as famous. In the past, the Pass has seen crowds of up to 500 eager to experience the summer Milky Way against Glacier’s ultra-dark sky, so this year the park is hosting four different star parties to accommodate the ever-growing number of participants. Glacier also runs night sky programs regularly throughout the year.
Acadia National Park
Mount Desert, Maine
Stargazing at Badlands? Sure. Glacier? Definitely; we expect great stars in places with famously wide-open skies, but people don’t often think of the East Coast as somewhere you can go to see the Milky Way. Acadia National Park is determined to challenge that idea. Acadia’s Night Sky Festival, set in the late fall between the heat of summer and the frenzy of leaf-peeping season, features speakers, workshops, and hands-on experiences that appeal to a full range of visitors, from children to aspiring astronomers. The park also hosts regular dark sky events throughout the year.
Great Basin National Park
September 29–October 1
Great Basin’s annual Astronomy Festival features ranger talks, telescope viewing and stargazing, but what's especially exciting this year is the park’s new research observatory, which is slated to open in late August. While the new observatory isn’t technically part of the Astronomy Festival, it's accessibility is sure to be a draw for any amateur astronomers. The state-of-the-art facility will give small universities and even members of the public a chance to purchase a night on the telescope and experience the distant galaxies like professional astronomers do.
Other Dark Sky Festivals taking place this year:
Grand Canyon National Park, Craters of the Moon National Monument, Badlands National Park, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, Lassen Volcano National Park, and Capitol Reef National Park.
And if you’d rather strike out on your own?
Maybe you’re busy the weekend of the closest star party, or maybe you'd prefer a more solitary experience. Here are a few of Dr. Nordgren’s tips for exploring parks (or really any dark sky area—the International Dark Sky Association’s list includes a few spots that aren’t technically National Parks) at night on your own:
© 2016 AFAR Media