Big & bright
One of the most dazzling sights on Earth is the night sky. With billions of brilliant stars, streaking meteors and planetary neighbors like Jupiter and Venus, it’s an amazing spectacle.
Stargazing is a fantastic family activity, but because of excess light pollution, few get to experience the night sky in all its glory.
“In an average year in the United States, outdoor lighting uses some 120 terawatt-hours of energy, mostly to illuminate streets and parking lots. That’s enough energy to meet New York City’s total electricity needs for two years,” said Cheryl Ann Bishop, spokesperson for the International Dark-Sky Association, a group that advocates to preserve natural skies.
On the bright side, there are plenty of national and state parks “that are accessible, offer great views and have passionate and available ranger staff and stargazing programs for families,” said Chad Moore, the National Park Service’s Night Skies team leader.
Here are Moore’s top 10 places to stargaze broken down by region:
Pacific and Alaska
• Death Valley National Park. An International Dark Sky Park in California and an ideal choice for stargazing in the colder months. The northern part of the park is far enough from Las Vegas to offer stunning views of the night sky over a desert landscape.
• Denali National Park. Avoid the summer months, when it never gets dark. In addition to a nearly pristine night sky, you have a good chance of being treated to the Northern Lights in a spectacular Alaskan setting.
• Lassen Volcanic National Park. Close enough to the cities of Northern California to be convenient, yet far enough away to offer a dark sky, Lassen Volcanic has been rediscovered as a great site for stargazing. Ranger programs in the summer are ideal for stargazing, telescope viewing or taking a nighttime walk in other-worldly landscapes.
• Glacier National Park. Regular stargazing program conducted by rangers and volunteers complements the Montana daytime scenery with great nighttime viewing.
• Natural Bridges National Monument. Tucked into one of the remote corners of Utah, this park was the first International Dark Sky Park. Nearly pristine skies and an abundance of clear nights make this small park with its remarkable bridges of sandstone a choice spot for seeing the full splendor of the Milky Way.
• Bryce Canyon National Park. With more nearby amenities than Natural Bridges, Bryce Canyon in Utah offers multiple stargazing programs each week of the summer. Bryce Canyon may have the longest continuous history of public stargazing programs of any park — since 1969 — and the park’s astronomy festival is not to be missed (June 17-20).
• Chaco Culture National Historical Park. The adventurous who make the drive to Chaco in a remote corner of New Mexico will be surprised to find a small observatory, a cadre of knowledgeable astronomers and one heck of a memorable experience. You’ll stargaze under the same night skies as the ancestral Puebloans and learn about how humans’ relationship to the starry skies has changed, and stayed the same, for millennia.
• The Headlands county park on the Straits of Mackinac, Michigan, is one of several Midwestern locales earning a reputation for stargazing. When clear nights come calling in autumn, the sky is a real treat for city-weary stargazers. One might even be lucky enough to catch the “dancing skies” of aurora from this northern location.
• Cherry Springs State Park, in north-central Pennsylvania, is to amateur astronomy what Woodstock was to rock music. Dark skies are one of the key natural and cultural resources at this small state park.
• Acadia National Park. What could be more picturesque than a starlit sky on a rocky Maine coast? Combine a stop at this park’s Night Sky Festival in September with your leaf-peeping tour of New England.