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The Dark Side of National Park Visits


Visitors listen to a presentation on cultural astronomy prior to looking through Chaco Culture's 25" observatory telescope. NPS photo.

When you're planning a visit to a national park, don't overlook the dark side. No, we aren't suggesting you join forces with Darth Vader, but many parks offer a great opportunity to enjoy a view that's unfortunately becoming increasingly rare in much of the country—the night sky. An upcoming nationwide event and several other opportunities can help you protect and enjoy the beauty of the night.

Many of us live in or near cities, where the wonders of the night sky are obscured by artificial light. Some the best remaining spots to enjoy celestial views are in parks, prompting the NPS to remind visitors, "On your next national park visit, remember that a spectacular sunset is just the prelude to the wonders of the night sky.

“Thousands of people made that discovery last year, in part because 2009 was the International Year of Astronomy, 400 years after Galileo turned his telescope to the heavens,” said National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis. “This year we’ll introduce tens of thousands more visitors to the night sky through programs at about 60 national parks.”

Astronomy Night in the Park at many national parks across the country was a great success, said Chad Moore, manager of the National Park Service Night Sky Program. “We suspect the people who rediscovered the cosmos at one of our programs last year will return with friends and family or will travel to a different national park to share their experience of a starry sky, free of light pollution.”

You don't have to make a long trek to a remote park to take part in efforts to understand and protect night skies, and a key event is coming up in March. A citizen science project, GLOBE at Night, is taking place all across the country on March 3-16, 2010. This program enlists the help of students and adults to collect data on the night sky conditions in their community and parks, and contribute to a worldwide database on light pollution. You find details about this project at the GLOBE at night website.

A related program, Dark Skies Rangers, "helps students almost any age learn about the importance of dark skies, experiment with activities that illustrate good and bad lighting, and learn of light pollution’s effects on wildlife."

"You can check out the Dark Skies Rangers, GLOBE at night, and other aspects of the International Year of Astronomy at – which lives on after the 2009 celebration,” Moore said. “The web site has tips on lighting, energy conservation, posters, post cards, teacher packets, measuring the night sky, and information on how light pollution affects animals.”

If you have youngsters and are visiting a park this summer, look for information about a new Junior Ranger Night Explorer program, which encourages young park visitors to explore the dark side of their national parks.

"Kids can learn how to find the North Star, write their own creative mythology about the constellations, track the phases of the moon, and learn about stars and galaxies, and use all their senses to explore the night environment at a national park," said Angie Richman, astronomy ranger with the Intermountain Regional Office. The booklet was recently published and will be freely distributed in a number of national parks in 2010.

If you're planning a visit to a park this year, check that area's website before you go for any special night sky activities. (You can find the websites for all NPS areas at this link.) For example, Acadia National Park in Maine plans to hold its second Night Sky Festival on September 9-12, 2010. It will feature a variety of day and nighttime programs, both in the park and in surrounding community.

A long-time supporter of night sky events is Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah, which has been hosting stargazing programs since 1969. That park will hold its 10th annual Astronomy Festival July 7-10, 2010. This four-day event also features daytime and nighttime activities for all ages, and celebrates one of the last remaining sanctuaries s of dark skies. Visitors are encouraged to plan ahead for this popular event.

To help meet the demand for night sky interpretive programs, the National Park Service Night Sky Program recruited 19 volunteer astronomers last year from around the country who were placed in national parks, started a loaner telescope collection, produced audio podcasts and brochures, and supported the stellar night sky poster art by Dr. Tyler Nordgren, an astronomer at the University of Redlands, California.

Nordgren spent a one-year sabbatical in national parks where he collected his experiences into a book and drafted the series of 14 spectacular posters that are reminiscent of the Works Progress Administration posters of the 1930's. You can browse the full series of night sky posters at this link, and they're definitely worth a look.

The need to consider the night sky as an important—and vanishing—resource is described on the website for the NPS Nature and Science Program:

Researchers from Italy and the US recently published a world atlas of night sky brightness. As a result of population growth, per-capita light use, and poorly designed lighting, two–thirds of Americans can no longer see the Milky Way from their backyard. 99% of the US population lives in an area that scientists consider light polluted.

The projection for the future is bleak; the rate at which light pollution is increasing will leave almost no dark skies in the contiguous US by 2025. It is estimated that a child born today has less than a 1 in 10 chance of ever experiencing a truly dark sky. That child's best chance to see a natural night is likely to be in a national park. With improved management of the night sky resource, parks can continue to provide an unfettered glimpse of the cosmos for all Americans.

You'll find more information about NPS programs on "natural lightscapes" on the NPS Nature and Science website.

The NPS Director, Jon Jarvis, sums up the value of night skies as a resource:

“Even though our sources of inspiration may change, the value of national parks grows over time,” Director Jarvis said. “And as the backyard starry sky is lost to urban America, people increasingly seek it in their national parks.

“The night sky is every bit a part of the park as land, water, wildlife and those famous sunrise and sunset scenes. It’s our responsibility and our pleasure to preserve the night sky for this and future generations.”


I am thrilled to read Director Jarvis' words recognizing the night sky as a park resource worthy of NPS protection. In so doing, I hope the NPS will review it's on in-park lighting policies to ensure minimum impact on the night sky experience. I would also hope that the NPS makes an effort to complement their interpretive programs of the night sky by inviting amateur astronomers to visit the parks and share knowledge and equipment with the public.

Parks are special places where, "curious minds and a dark and starry night collide" John L. Dobson.

Owen Hoffman
Oak Ridge, TN 37830

While not a festival or event, I have to say that just sitting on the patio section or even inside the main lodge in the North Rim of the Grand Canyon offers beautiful views of the sunset and the night sky.

I went to an Astronomy program in Bryce Canyon NP back in August 2009 and was amazed how dark it was. Can't wait to get to the world's first International Night Sky Park out in southern Utah, Natural Bridges NM in March for vacation. Looking forward to some awesome night photography!

These links are really helpful as well. I'll be saving them under my favorites to use over the summer on my night hike programs here in the Smokies. Thanks for the article Jim.

One of the best events in a national park. I went on an all night hike in Saguaro national park south of Tucson, Arizona. A tip is to hire a guide as we did if you do not know the park well. A desert at night changes so much. The weather is colder, the plants come alive, animals are very active.

Thanks for the write-up Jim. Good job. Most people don't think of the Pacific NW as being a great night sky viewing area, but, Crater Lake National Park sits astride the High Cascades mountain crest and has some of the best night sky viewing in the country.

It's good to see Jon Jarvis advocating for more night sky NPS programs. Crater Lake NP needs a Sidewalk Astronomers-style night sky program during it's short summer. And, he is correct!...the night sky is just as important as other aspects of the NPS parks. Thank you Jon!

Executive Director,
Crater Lake Institute
Robert Mutch Photography,

There *is* an annual Star Party at The Canyon, on both rims.
This year it will be June 5-17. The South Rim event is in the Vavapai Point parking lot and the North Rim event is out back on the sunporch. There's more scopes (and more visitors) on the South Rim, but there's plenty on the North Rim. And it's darker there, too!
North Rim info:
Come join us, if you can!

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