Dark Sky tourism: a guide to night skies and stargazing

by Feb 24, 2022Destinations

Dark Sky Tourism Cyclops Arch Moonburst

A truly dark sky can bring out the brilliance of the stars, moon, and Milky Way. But you must get out of urban areas to find dark skies for breathtaking stargazing. Find the best places with our guide to Dark Sky tourism.

I never considered myself a nut for night skies and stargazing. Then I happened into a night photography workshop and discovered that Dark Sky tourism opens your world to a peace and serenity in the outdoors that is not possible anyplace else.

Not many people really know a truly dark sky and even fewer realize how many stars light up the night. That is because more than three-quarters of the world’s population lives in urban areas. And most urban areas and clusters have too much extraneous light (think streetlights, building lighting, sports venues, and advertising) to truly see the breadth of our universe floating overhead. It’s not until you get into a really dark place that you will understand the brilliance of so many stars, the full crispness of the moon, or the breathtaking colors in the Milky Way.

Mendocino Grave Light Pollution

High on a hill north on the California northern coast, an historic graveyard sits. Michael and I got up in the middle of the night to hike up in the dark to enjoy the Milky Way. Yes, I got the Milky Way but see that glow on the horizon? That’s light pollution from the town of Fort Bragg more than 10 miles away — at 3 a.m.

You may think you could just head to a nearby mountaintop or out into the desert or plains outside of town to find great stargazing, but that doesn’t ensure you will be able to escape the light pollution. The best way to guarantee you and your family can come to understand the beauty of millions and jillions of stars is to seek out an officially designated and certified “Dark Sky Place” as named by the International Dark Sky Association. This non-profit is the leading organization globally that not only is an authority on light pollution and but also works to educate and to combat extraneous light around the world and teach people about Dark Sky tourism.

In 2021, it celebrated 20 years of its “International Dark Sky Places” program that names communities, parks, preserves, sanctuaries, and even urban areas that have no or limited light pollution. This organization also offers materials for educators and cities, as well as tips for consumers on how to find the best lighting that won’t pollute.

Interested in seeing how light polluted some areas in the world area? Try looking at a light pollution map, and you may be surprised.

Dark Sky tourism growing

Death Valley Dunes And Clouds

Death Valley is beloved for its Dark Sky tourism. Here at Mesquite Dunes you can enjoy the still of the night and stars, usually completely alone.

As of January 2022, the association had 195 designated Dark Sky Places in more than 20 countries, with many of those in the United States. Death Valley National Park in California, in the photo above, is one of the largest in the United States, attracting a lot of  visitors interested in Dark Sky tourism for stargazing and night photography. I can vouch for the expanses of stars overhead and extremely quiet nights in places in Death Valley like Mesquite Dunes or Badwater Basin. A friend and I did a multi-day night photo jaunt there recently, and we had all places totally to ourselves at night. Most people seem to just call it quits when the sun sets, but that is when the show really begins.

These Dark Sky Places are where you and your family can really discover what darkness means — I have personally discovered the pleasure in night photography while traveling. You will never forget the first time you enter such a place, settle in with a chair or perhaps a camera, look up, and see more stars that you knew existed. And the first time you see the Milky Way with its mass of stars and colors? Get ready to catch your breath in amazement.

Pemaquid Point Milky Way Stargazing

I captured the Milky Way for the first time a few years ago in Maine over some lighthouses. This one is at Pemaquid Point Lighthouse in MidCoast Maine.

I did my own little happy dance the first time I managed a photo of the Milky Way along the coast in Maine, which turned into the pursuit of photos of lighthouses, particularly at night. You don’t have to be in the United States, however, since there are huge Dark Sky Places all over the world, with the numbers expanding greatly in the last couple of years as public interest has increased. In addition to the International Dark Sky Association named above, you can also find Dark Sky Places and information on the SkyKeepers website or even the National Park Service website.

Dark Sky stargazing festivals

Another reason to head out on a road trip to find a Dark Sky Place is to also take part in one of dozens of annual Star or Night Sky parties, often found at national parks and run in partnership with area astronomy groups. There, lovers of the astral world gather, along with night photographers and astronomers. You will find lots of telescopes and tripods, and a lot of people all willing to share their knowledge and expand Dark Sky tourism.

At these official stargazing festivals, there will usually be lectures, photography workshops and other events. One of the largest is the Star Party at the Grand Canyon.

Other Dark Sky events are held for example at California’s Lassen National Park, Acadia National Park in Maine, and in Jasper, Alberta, Canada. Jasper is in fact the second largest Dark Sky Preserve in the world and one of 17 in Canada named by the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada.

A list of many events, but not all, can be found on the Sky and Telescope magazine’s website or the Go Astronomy website for astronomy enthusiasts. Just do an Internet search on “star parties” or “night sky festivals” to track down more information on Dark Sky tourism or contact a national park either in your area or wherever your road trip or travels may take you.

Jordan Pond Star Circles

At Jordan Pond in Acadia National Park in Maine, the skies are dark enough for stars. But you won’t be by yourself since it’s a very popular place for Dark Sky aficionados.

Remember, that summer is not always the best time for Dark Sky tourism although it may be the most comfortable to be outside. Yes, the Milky Way is best between about March and October, but what you see, where, and at what time will depend on where you are. In the Northern Hemisphere, the Milky Way’s huge, colorful galactic core is most visible in the Northern Hemisphere between about April and July.

Still, skies are often the clearest for best stargazing and Dark Sky tourism in fall or winter months, so don’t negate those times either. You may find that being outside with the stars at night will turn into a transformative experience, and you too will turn Dark Skies into a passion.

You might also be interested in reading:

Don't Let The Sun Set On You!

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