Day 9: International Dark Sky National Parks

On Day 9 of the 12 Days of National Parks for the Holidays, I am going to share National Parks that have been certified as International Dark Sky Parks. The International Dark Sky Association grants this certification. Photographers, amateur astronomers and all sky-gazers are drawn to the deep dark and vibrant skies of the Dark Sky National Parks.

Let’s Go! Learn Things in Dark Sky National Parks…

What does Dark Sky mean?

The International Dark Sky Association is the leading organization combating light pollution around the world. Their stated mission:

“…is to preserve and protect the nighttime environment and our heritage of dark skies through environmentally responsible outdoor lighting.”

While I was aware of light pollution and its effects on my ability to stargaze, I really wasn’t aware of the Dark Skies program until moving to Tucson, AZ. Tucson is a Dark Sky City.

The Tucson based, University of Arizona, is a world leader in academic astronomy. The Department of Astronomy and their Steward Observatory is an internationally renowned astronomical research center. In addition to the Steward Observatory, Mount Lemmon Skycenter and Kitt Peak Observatory are within close proximity of downtown Tucson. Tucson has good reason to protect their dark skies. In 2012 city leaders enacted an outdoor lighting ordinance that requires fully shielded lighting and sets limits on the total light produced at night, especially in natural areas and areas close to astronomy sites.  These policies make it dark driving at night, but you should see the stars here!! With the advancements in LED lighting, the city tweaked their ordinances and report a 7% decrease in light pollution in 2019.

Dark Sky National Parks

The International Dark Sky Places program started in 2001. This program helps both urban centers and National Parks protect their night skies. The nighttime environment is a precious natural resource for all life on Earth, but the glow of uncontrolled outdoor lighting has hidden the stars and changed our perception of the night International Dark Sky Places encourages parks to preserve and protect dark sites through responsible lighting polices and public education. In collaboration with the International Dark Sky Association, Dark Sky National Parks implement low outdoor lighting policies and provide dark sky programs for visitors.

The Mighty 5 (4)

Dark Sky National Park Arches National Park in Utah
Milky Way behind Delicate Arch in Arches NP
NPS photo

The Mighty 5 refers to the five super-popular National Parks in Utah. In this case it is Bryce Canyon NP, Capitol Reef NP, Arches NP and Canyonlands NP. At this time the fifth mighty park, Zion NP, is not yet a Dark Sky National Park. However, along with the Colorado Plateau Dark Sky Cooperative the park has initiated lighting projects designed to prevent light pollution, while maintaining basic safety needs.

Arches NP is a mecca for astro-photographers looking for that “money shot”. The Milky Way arching underneath Delicate Arch is high on their bucket lists. In 2019 Arches NP became a certified International Dark Sky Place. Beyond the necessary dark sky conservation program, the Park Rangers also offer many stargazing events throughout the year.

Of course, if you are talking about the Colorado Plateau, you can’t forget the Grandaddy of National Parks, Grand Canyon NP. In June of 2019, Grand Canyon National Park was awarded their International Dark Sky Place certification, in time for the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the National Park.

Learn More: The Grand Circle Road Trip

California National Parks

Joshua Tree National Park Dark Sky National Park
NPS photo/Lian Law

If you have ever visited Los Angeles, San Francisco or San Diego, it is hard to believe that anything in California can be dark. Fortunately, California is a massive state with plenty of geographic diversity and they do have some Dark Sky National Parks.

Death Valley NP and Joshua Tree NP both offer dark skies for the avid stargazers. Death Valley is so remote that it qualifies as a “Gold Tier”. Astronomical objects seen there are available only to some of the darkest locations across the globe.

Joshua Tree NP struggles to overcome the light pollution of Palm Springs, CA. However, with the rise of an astrotourism base, the Park has taken an increasingly active role in preserving what darkness remains. They have implemented all the appropriate policies within the Park and are now working closely with the surrounding communities.

Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park

Dark Sky National Park Glacier National Park
Glacier National Park
NPS photo

The Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park is unique on many levels. This is one of the only parks in the world that straddles an international border. The parks share the distinction of being the world’s first International Peace Park (1932), two UNESCO Biosphere Reserves, and a single UNESCO World Heritage Site. Waterton National Park is in Alberta Canada and Glacier National Park is in Montana United States. Remote and rugged landscapes make these parks the perfect Dark Sky National Park to visit.

Learn More: National Park UNESCO Sites

Plan your visit to a Dark Sky National Park

There are many more Dark Sky Places within the U.S. to explore. Many are state parks and several are managed within the National Park Service. The night sky has eternally fascinated humankind. It inspires a sense of awe and curiosity beyond our small selves. Astro-tourism is a rapidly growing industry. While many of us cannot truly imagine traveling to space, all of us can find a Dark Sky Place and feel the immensity of our universe.

Learn More: Meet Valerie Stimac, Dark Skies/Astro-tourism expert. She has written great book for Lonely Planet Dark Skies: A Practical Guide to Astrotourism.
She shares tips on 35 dark-sky sites and national parks, where to see the aurora, the next decade of total solar eclipses and how to view rocket launches, plus the lowdown on commercial space flight, observatories and meteor showers.
Find her and her book at SpaceTourismGuide.com

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