Why You Should Experience the National Parks After Dark

Make the Milky Way your destination with the Parks Service's nighttime programs

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.

Really, though, it’s unfair to call it a secret, because for the last decade the National Park Service has been working to establish programs aimed at introducing the general public to the nocturnal landscape—and sky-scape—of the parks. And yes, it is one of the most incredible experiences you can have in these natural landmarks: no crowds, no noises—just you and a million stars.

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.

One of the major catalysts to this increasing public interest in the National Parks’ after-dark programs was Dr. Tyler Nordgren’s “Half the Park is After Dark” poster series (pictured throughout this article), inspired by 1930s WPA park posters. Nordgren, a professor of physics and astronomy at University of Redlands, has been working closely with the Park Service since 2007, helping to train park rangers in developing after-dark programs. He also gives talks to both rangers and visitors at some of the parks on the beauty of the night sky. The poster series started with an illustration Nordgren whipped up in 2007 for his book, Stars Above Earth Below: A Guide to Astronomy in the National Parks. The illustration was so popular that requests started rolling in for posters depicting specific parks, and the project became a full-blown campaign.


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 Park
Bryce, Utah
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
September 22–25
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 ParkCraters of the Moon National MonumentBadlands National ParkSequoia and Kings Canyon National ParksLassen 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:

A nighttime paddle is another way of interacting with parks after dark.
“Call or go to the visitor center and ask if there’s a place they recommend that’s safe (a place with few tripping hazards) where you can go out and just see the stars at night.

“Check to find out what the phase of the moon is going to be. If the moon is not up, that’s when the sky is its darkest and you’ll see what looks like a million stars.

“If the moon is up, then that’s an opportunity to take advantage of the light and go for a moonlit hike. When a full moon is up, it will light things up like daylight once your eyes are night-adjusted.

“Either way, get out there and let your eyes really adjust to the darkness. If you must take a headlamp, use one that has a red light on it that won’t hurt your night vision as much. Just go out, especially in summer when the nights are warm, put a blanket out, and just lay down and look up at the sky. Give yourself a half hour with no lights at all—don’t look at your iPhone, don’t look at your watch—and your eyes will be night-adapted. Then, if you’re lying down and looking straight up, your entire field of vision will become filled with stars.”

>>Next: 25 Epic Stargazing Destinations