Stargazing in national parks
According to a study in Science Advances, more than 99% of people in the U.S. live under light-polluted skies, and nearly 80% of them can’t see the Milky Way. If you look at a map of light pollution, you’ll see the dark pockets often correspond to public, protected lands. The national parks are some of the least light-polluted and therefore best places to observe the night sky in the United States.
The 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. As far as 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 list here.
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.
Stargazing programs in the national parks
Many of the 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.
Night-sky photos from the national parks
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.