The World’s Largest Dark Sky Sanctuary Is Right Here in the United States

The designation is given to destinations with exceptional night sky visibility, allowing for incredible views of the stars and other astronomical phenomena.

Two people in field with vertical Milky Way in night sky above the Warner Valley Overlook in Oregon

The night sky above the Warner Valley Overlook in Oregon

Photo by Joey Hamilton/Travel Oregon

With a total solar eclipse in April and some of the best northern lights displays in over a decade, 2024 is proving to be a big year for astrotourism in the United States. Adding to the excitement? The fact that the world’s largest International Dark Sky Sanctuary, spanning 2.5 million acres, was just named in southern Oregon.

A Dark Sky Sanctuary is a certification given by DarkSky International, an organization dedicated to recognizing and preserving dark skies worldwide. To earn a Dark Sky designation, an area has to have “exceptional or distinguished quality of starry nights . . . specifically protected for its scientific, natural, or educational value.” Only places that meet strict criteria—including using dark sky–friendly lighting and providing public outreach—are considered.

This new sanctuary is located in a remote, sparsely populated area commonly referred to as the Oregon Outback. Largely comprised of public lands, it is best known for its populations of pronghorn, bighorn sheep, sage grouse, wild horses, and white-tailed jackrabbit; topography that ranges from river basins to mountain chains; and the clear canopy of constellations for excellent stargazing.

“As the population of Oregon and the trend of light pollution continue to rise, the unparalleled scale and quality of the [Oregon] Outback’s dark skies will long serve as a starry refuge to people and wildlife alike,” Dawn Nilson, an environmental consultant who managed and authored the area’s DarkSky application, said in a statement.

Although already the largest, the Oregon Outback International Dark Sky Sanctuary is slated to more than quadruple in size in the coming years—this designation is only the first of three phases. The land in this initial phase includes Summer Lake, the Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge, and a portion of the Fremont–Winema National Forest. However, in the next two phases, the area will grow to also encompass large parts of Harney and Malheur counties. When all is said and done, the Sanctuary will sprawl across 11.4 million acres in southern Oregon. For context, that’s roughly one-fifth of Oregon’s total acreage.

Achieving the certification meant various federal, state, and local officials had to negotiate project boundaries and create a joint Lighting Management Plan, which included decommissioning 14 lights and retrofitting 60 lights on public and private land. All told, it took four years of collaboration between the different entities to bring the goal to fruition.

“This four-year collaboration brings together so many of the elements we try to achieve in regenerative tourism,” Bob Hackett, executive director of Travel Southern Oregon, said in a press release. He added that the collaboration “not only elevates the destination experience for visitors to Lake County and opens up opportunities for local businesses, but it also helps agencies and residents steward their lands in ways that celebrate a legacy of starry night skies for generations to come.”

With the naming of the Oregon Outback International Dark Sky Sanctuary, there are now 19 sanctuaries across five continents. Some others include !Ae!Hai Kalahari Heritage Park in South Africa, the Lost Trail National Wildlife Refuge in Montana, Arkaroola Wilderness Sanctuary in Australia, and all of Niue and the Pitcairn Islands (both island nations in the South Pacific). Previously, the largest Dark Sky Sanctuary was the million-acre Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northern Minnesota.

Since DarkSky International’s inception in 2001, it has given more than 200 locations (including Sanctuaries, Reserves, Parks, and Communities) across 22 countries a Dark Sky designation. In 2023, the nonprofit also recognized its first Dark Sky Lodge: Under Canvas Lake Powell–Grand Staircase in Utah.

Bailey Berg is a freelance travel writer and editor, who covers breaking news, trends, tips, transportation, sustainability, the outdoors, and more. She was formerly the associate travel news editor at AFAR. Her work can also be found in the New York Times, the Washington Post, National Geographic, Condé Nast Traveler, Travel + Leisure, the Points Guy, Atlas Obscura, Vice, Thrillist, Men’s Journal, Architectural Digest, Forbes, Lonely Planet, and beyond.
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