Stargazing in national parks around the world

View at EarthSky Community Photos. | Prashant Naik was at Joshua Tree National Park in California, when he captured this photo of 2 Perseid meteors and the Milky Way on August 12, 2023. Prashant wrote: “As the darkness engulfed the night sky and the Milky Way took the center stage, I could hear screams of ‘wow’ echoing through the air whenever the shooting stars streaked across the sky.” Thank you, Prashant! Stargazing and the national parks go hand-in-hand, because – as the slogan suggests – “half the park is after dark!” Read more about stargazing in national parks below. Find links to parks around the world here.

Stargazing in national parks

We all know that, from a city, you can’t experience the glory of the night sky. Astronomers call the presence of any unwanted, inappropriate or excessive artificial lighting by the term light pollution. And, as recently as 2016, scientists said in the journal Science Advances that more than 99% of people in the U.S. live under light-polluted skies. They said nearly 80% of U.S. citizens can’t see the Milky Way. Those same sorts of numbers probably apply to many other countries as well.

And now here’s the good news.

If you look at a map of light pollution, you’ll see the dark pockets often correspond to public, protected lands. Here in the U.S., and in more than 100 countries around the world, national parks are some of the least light-polluted and therefore best places to observe the night sky. But how can you find out which parks to visit?

A short list of resources

We can’t tell you all the great places to stargaze in the world. But here’s a short list of resources.

Not in the U.S.? Try this link to All International Dark Sky Places.

Try EarthSky’s Best Places to Stargaze: A crowd-sourced map of dark sites around the world

Or try ‘Half the Park is After Dark: Exploring dark-sky parks around the world

Or try Lonely Planet’s book, released in a 2nd edition in February 2024 called Stargazing Around the World: A Tour of the Night Sky

A simplified guide to stargazing from the TravelasFamilyBlog

When should you go?

Here are some tips for deciding when to schedule your stargazing experience in a national park:

  • You’ll enjoy stargazing more in the summertime, when the nights are warm.
  • Consider the days around new moon, when the moon is traveling across the sky with the sun during the day. This leaves the nights free of moonlight for the darkest possible view. And, if you can stay awhile, and want truly dark skies, try the span of days between two to three days before, to two to three days after, new moon.
  • Also, remember that a thin crescent moon, which you’ll see either early morning or early evening in the few days around new moon, is pretty and interesting on its own. It’s a great place to turn your binoculars.
  • Check EarthSky’s night sky guide. It’ll list sky events that you might be able to view.
  • Check EarthSky’s meteor shower guide. It’s great fun, indeed, to go to a national park, where skies are dark, and watch a meteor shower.
  • Before you go, check the weather. You can’t see the night sky through clouds and rain.

Stargazing programs in the national parks

Many parks hold stargazing events after dark. Park rangers knowledgeable about the night sky point out the highlights and sometimes share views through a telescope. Bryce Canyon National Park even has an annual astronomy festival. Glacier National Park now has the Dusty Star Observatory on the east side in St. Mary, along with star parties at Logan Pass.

Some of the darkest night skies in the U.S. are in the desert of Nevada, and the Great Basin Observatory will capitalize on that. This observatory will be the first research-grade observatory built in a U.S. national park. You can find more national park observatories here.

Before you visit any national park service site, check the NPS website to see what astronomy or observing programs are available to visitors.

Of course, one of the easiest ways to enjoy the night sky in the national parks is to camp out under the stars. Remember to reserve your campground space in advance and hope for clear skies. To see what’s visible in the sky for the night you’re camping, check our Tonight page.

A group of people sit on a hillside looking down at a ranger with a dark mountain behind.
Glacier National Park visitors enjoy a star party at Logan Pass. Image via NPS.

Thank you, NPS

Here in the U.S., our National Park Service (NPS) maintains a Natural Sounds and Night Skies Division in an effort to protect the native soundscape and guard against light pollution in the parks. Of preserving dark skies, the NPS website says:

The night sky has inspired us for generations. Nighttime views and environments are among the critical park features the NPS protects. Night sky protection enhances qualities of solitude and undeveloped wilderness character that animals depend on for survival, park visitors seek for connections, and many cultural-historical parks require for preservation. In this regard, the NPS recognizes a naturally dark night sky as more than a scenic canvas; it is part of a complex ecosystem that supports both natural and cultural resources.

So, many U.S. national parks have earned the designation of International Dark Sky Park. Of course, these parks must have exceptional and protected dark skies to earn this distinction. Some International Dark Sky Parks include the Grand Canyon, Death Valley, Big Bend, Mammoth Cave and more. You can view the full, global list here.

To explore the night sky data collected in national parks, visit this website

In addition, no matter where you live in the world, you can look for a dark-sky site near you at EarthSky’s Best Places to Stargaze page. It is crowd-sourced and includes many, many parks in all parts of the world.

Night-sky photos from the national parks

A man on the beach at night photographing the sky, with a circle of concentric dashes made from starlight overhead.
View at EarthSky Community Photos. | Richard Witkowski in Indiana Dunes National Park captured this image on November 14, 2023. Richard wrote: “I have been in astrophotography a little over a year now and this was my first attempt at star trails.” Thank you, Richard!
Stargazing and the national parks: Night sky over a valley covered in trees. There are huge cliffs on both sides, lights of cars below and a lit-up waterfall on the right.
View at EarthSky Community Photos. | Lee Amber in Yosemite National Park captured this image on February 15, 2023. At that time, both Venus and Jupiter – the sky’s 2 brightest planets – were in the evening sky. And it was around the time of the Yosemite firefall, an event at Horsetail Fall in Yosemite, when hundreds of spectators gather to witness sunlight reflecting on the waterfall. Lee called this scene “an encore” as photographers and spectators were leaving. Thank you, Lee!
Dark rock forming an opening with the Milky Way in the background.
View at EarthSky Community Photos. | Prashant Naik in Arches National Park captured this image on May 8, 2019. Prashant wrote: “This image was shot at Double Arch. The arch itself was facing north west, I had to scramble up and get behind the arch to be able to see the galactic core through the arch. I spent lot of time contemplating rather than photographing at this place.” Thank you, Prashant!

More photos from stargazing in national parks

Milky Way arching over a dark mountain with a reflection in the water below.
View at EarthSky Community Photos. | Abhijit Patil captured this Milky Way panorama reflected in the temporary lake at Death Valley National Park on April 7, 2024. Abhijit wrote: “I don’t know when I’ll visit the Uyuni salt flats in Bolivia, but I could finally fulfill my dream shot in the salt flats at Death Valley … The water levels in the salt flats had receded far inward.” Thank you, Abhijit!
Edgewise view of the summer Milky Way, on a dark night.
View at EarthSky Community Photos. | William Mathe captured this image on August 15, 2020. William wrote: “I hiked up to the top of Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado … just below 12,000 feet (3,700 m). I was greeted with a raging forest fire about 10 miles (16 km) to the west … hung around long enough to get a couple of snaps of the Milky Way. You can see the brown clouds of smoke hanging in the valley below the rock outcrop on which I was perched.” Thank you, William!
Rocky spires with Milky Way in the background. There is water in the foreground, where the rocks and the stars are reflected.
Arches National Park. Image via Mike Taylor Photography. Used with permission.

If you have a great photo of the national parks after dark, share it with us!

Bottom line: Stargazing and the national parks are a great combination. Increasing light pollution in the United States makes national parks some of the last dark refuges.

Source link