For years, amateur astrologers have hailed Southern California’s Joshua Tree National Park as a great place to gaze upon the heavens. Now, after formal designation from an international organization, the park’s stargazing props are legit.
Last week, the park—which boasts some of the darkest night skies in the United States—was certified as an International Dark Sky Park, an honor bestowed by a Tucson, Arizona–based group called the International Dark Sky Organization.
The park was the 84th public space to receive the distinction worldwide. According to a recent article in the Los Angeles Times, however, it is the closest of those spots to a major metropolis—only 140 miles from Los Angeles. One can argue that this makes Joshua Tree the most accessible Dark Sky Park on Earth right now.
Other public lands that have received the formal Dark Sky designation include Warrumbungle National Park in Australia, Yeongyang Firefly Eco Park in South Korea, and Zselic National Landscape Protection Area in Hungary.
Joshua Tree also became the 10th International Dark Sky Park in the U.S. National Park system, joining Death Valley, Big Bend, and Grand Canyon (to name a few).
Awards are given at gold, silver, and bronze status. Joshua Tree got silver.
Darkness in the park’s eastern edge apparently sealed the deal. While Joshua Tree’s western edge along the Little San Bernadino Mountains is “polluted” by the night lights of the Coachella Valley, the eastern side is one of the darkest places in California. Trails in the Pinto Basin, which is accessible from the Cottonwood Visitor Center, pass through this darker half.
The LA Times story quoted John Barentine, program manager for the Dark Sky Association, as saying that the eastern edge of the park, out near the Coxcomb Mountains, has “levels of darkness found nowhere else in the state.”
As of last week, it was unclear what—if any—special events Joshua Tree rangers were planning to celebrate the new distinction. The International Dark Sky Organization sponsors an annual Dark Sky Week in April that often coincides with National Park Week; check the park’s website for news about events and programs around then.