For most Americans, stars are what we see burning brightly on stage or screen, not twinkling faintly overheard. And Milky Way is a candy bar — not the luminous 100 billion-star galaxy to which our solar system belongs.
Blame light pollution, a collective term that includes all forms of artificial light, but most conspicuously the perpetual sky glow that hovers over urban areas. As a result, the typical city or suburban dweller can only see several dozen faint points of light during the course of a clear night, not the horizon-to-horizon array of 7,000 to 10,000 blue, white, yellow, orange and red celestial bodies that are actually up there.
We have no idea what we are missing.
Now with dark sky tourism, there’s no need to miss out. Ten years ago, the Arizona-based International Dark-Sky Association began designating Dark Sky Parks, publicly accessible parks where people can routinely see thousands of stars and participate in organized educational activities including “star parties,” scheduled gatherings of dozens (sometimes hundreds) of amateur astronomers.
Not only IDA-designated Dark Sky Parks offer these activities. A number of national and state parks do as well, even if they aren’t quite dark enough for IDA-designation. Generally speaking, programs fall into two categories: casual outdoor themed talks (about planets, comets and meteors, galaxies and nebulae) led by dark rangers and aided by provided portable telescopes, and structured indoor observatory sessions using extremely high-powered, permanent telescopes. Seeing is believing, but understanding what you are seeing makes it much more worthwhile.
Winter is generally better for stargazing since cold air contains less water vapor and earlier sunsets enable gazers to begin (and end) at more convenient times. But summer is more conducive to spending extended time gazing skyward and accords the best opportunities to enjoy the Milky Way. Because moonlight drowns out starlight, nights closer to the new moon are more rewarding than those closer to the full (though the undiluted brightness of a full moon can itself be mesmerizing).
WEST IS BEST
Not surprisingly, the darkest skies in the country are to be found in the high-altitude deserts of the Southwest, where even relatively small, light-emiting communities are few and far between and the thin air contains only minimal amounts of obscuring water vapor. Of the 37 current IDA-designated Dark Sky Parks, nine are in Utah. Arizona and Texas have and five each. In addition to better atmospheric conditions, Southwest locations also tend to have longer viewing seasons and typically offer a more compelling range of daytime activities.
The very first Dark Sky Park was Natural Bridges National Monument in Utah, reputedly one of the five darkest places in the lower forty-eight. It, along with relatively nearby Canyonlands National Park, Arches National Park, Dead Horse Point State Park and distant Dinosaur National Monument, host ranger-led astronomy programs twice weekly during the summer. Though not quite as dark, Bryce Canyon National Park’s popularity allows it to offer more than 100 programs during the course of the year, including an annual astronomy festival and twice-monthly full moon hikes.
For observatory programs, head instead to southern Arizona. At Kitt Peak National Observatory, home of the world’s largest collection of optical telescopes, there are two, four-hour nightly programs, an introductory event ($50 per person) and the more advanced Dark Sky Discovery program ($75 per person). An even larger telescope awaits participants at Mount Lemmon’s five-hour SkyNights program ($65 adults, $40 ages 7 to 17.)
Observatory programs can also be found at two national parks. The first to offer one was Chaco Culture National Historical Park in northwest New Mexico. Its Night Sky programs, offered on Fridays and Saturdays from April to October, also focuses on how the ancient Chacaoan people interpreted and responded to what they observed in the night sky. Joining Chaco in 2016 was eastern Nevada’s Great Basin National Park and its Great Basin Observatory. Visitors there can also ride the unique Star Train on selected summer Fridays, a 90-minute, ranger-led stargazing excursion out of Ely on the historic Nevada Northern Railway ($39 adults, $20 ages 4 to 12).
CLOSER TO HOME
When it comes to dark skies, East may have least, but it still has plenty to amaze, especially for those accustomed to the heavy light pollution of metropolitan New York. Serendipitously, the best dark sky conditions on the Eastern Seaboard lie only five hours away in Pennsylvania’s Cherry Springs State Park, where separate viewing areas have been established for casual gazers and serious amateur astronomers. Various themed viewing programs employing portable telescopes are offered regularly throughout the spring, summer and fall. Similar opportunities exist at Staunton River State Park in Scottsburg, Virginia, and Pickett CCC Memorial State Park in Jamestown, Tennessee, both IDA-designated Dark Sky Parks.
More structured programs using large, permanent telescopes are available at the new Blue Ridge Observatory and Star Park in Spruce Pine, North Carolina, and 40-year-old Mont-Megantic Observatory in Notre-Dame-des-Bois, Quebec, just over the border from New Hampshire, the former a Dark Sky Park, the latter a Dark Sky Reserve. Also offering observatory time — and plush overnight accommodations — is Primland, a resort in Meadows of Dan, Virginia, along the Blue Ridge Parkway.
THE NORTHERN LIGHTS
Seeing the spectacular Northern Lights (aurora borealis) doesn’t require particularly dark skies. But it does require a northern location (near the U.S.-Canadian border at least) and good timing, typically around the spring and autumnal equinoxes. Even then, a sighting is hardly guaranteed. You may get lucky and see them at Mont-Megantic in Quebec, Headlands International Dark Sky Park in northern Michigan or Newport State Park along Lake Michigan in Wisconsin — but don’t go expecting that you will. For the best chances, travel to Alaska, northern Canada, Iceland or Scandinavia.
FOR MORE INFO
IDA-designated Dark Sky Parks: nwsdy.li/DarkSkyOrg
Dark Sky Tourism in Utah: visitutah.com
Kitt Peak National Observatory, Arizona: noao.edu/kpno
Mt. Lemmon, Arizona: skycenter.arizona.edu
Chaco Culture National Historic Park, New Mexico: nps.gov/chcu
Great Basin National Park, Nevada: nps.gov/grba
Cherry Springs State Park, Pennsylvania: nwsdy.li/CherrySpringsStatePark
Staunton River State Park, Virginia: nwsdy.li/StauntonRiverStatePark
Pickett CCC Memorial State Park, Tennessee: nwsdy.li/PickettParkTN
Blue Ridge Observatory and Star Park, North Carolina: mayland.edu/starpark
Mont-Megantic Observatory, Quebec: nwsdy.li/Mont-Megantic
Primland, , Virginia: primland.com