Dark Sky Tourism Make Stars of These Destinations

By Michael J. Solender

 

Heavenward exploration has always been one of mankind’s oldest—and possibly most fascinating—destinations. And while every stargazer with access to a backyard and a clear evening sky can find celestial distractions, there’s a growing universe of true dark skies destinations where eye-popping views make for sought-after holidays.

More than 99% of the U.S. population lives under skies suffering light pollution so great they can’t see the Milky Way in the nighttime sky, according to Science magazine. All is not lost, however, as the nonprofit International Dark-Sky Association leads a movement in education, preservation, and conservation of the globe’s natural evening skies. IDA’s robust certification program has designated more than a dozen national parks in the U.S. International Dark Sky Places, and the U.S. has many additional named dark sky areas where the nighttime skies are aglow.   

Several Western states lead the dark sky tourism movement with state and national park access and programs alongside an increasing number of public access sites. Often, these are serviced by tour operators offering astrophotography safaris, astronomy and celestial field study, and stargazing for families. Seasonal dark sky festivals celebrate the heavens and are wonderful anchors from which to peg regional tours.

Here’s a rundown on some of the nation’s most popular destinations.   

Alaska

“What people find most exciting [about Alaska’s northern lights experience] is how the curtains of light move across the sky as they glow, ripple, sway, and fold before disappearing completely,” says Kathy Dunn, vice president of communications at Visit Anchorage, Alaska’s leading regional visitors organization. “The northern lights, a result of ionized gas particles increasing their speed and density while stirring within the earth’s magnetic field, are visible throughout the fall, winter, and spring, and Anchorage is a great base to view this natural phenomenon.” 

Dunn notes there are many places to view the northern lights in the Anchorage area, with the best travel dates falling between mid-August and April. Aurora viewing is so popular the University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute provides forecasts where a rating of 3 or higher indicates it will be a prime aurora night. 

Visit Anchorage’s top northern lights viewing areas include the Glen Alps Trailhead, a popular gateway to Chugach State Park; Point Woronzof, the coastal park along the shores of Cook Inlet; and Eklutna Tailrace and Knik River Valley, which offer great viewing when the aurora is low on the horizon as the overlooks are unblocked by mountains. The ski town of Girdwood also makes the list, where the stunning Alyeska Resort provides northern lights viewing wake-up calls. Also touted is the Eagle River Nature Center at the entrance to the vast Chugach State Park.

Visit Anchorage advises novice gazers to engage knowledgeable local guides to significantly improve the viewing experience. Recommended operators include Alaska Photo Treks, Greatland Adventures, Gondwana Ecotours, and Alaska Railroad.

Arizona

Arizona is home to a dozen Dark Sky Parks, deemed by the IDA as areas with an exceptional quality of starry nights. The Grand Canyon State is credited with helping birth the movement behind dark sky preservation in the early ’80s when IDA designated Flagstaff as the world’s first Dark Sky Place, recognizing the community’s commitment to preserving natural nighttime skies for stargazers. Five additional Arizona communities—Sedona, Big Park (Village of Oak Creek), Cottonwood, Fountain Hills, and Thunder Mountain Pootseev Nightsky (on the Kaibab Paiute Reservation)—have earned Dark Sky status from the IDA since 1981.

Grand Canyon National Park, where Park Service rangers are quick to point out “half the park is after dark,” is one of the most popular dark sky viewing areas in the state with the park’s Dark Skies Programs delivering year-round activities. The weeklong Grand Canyon Star Party in June is a free-to-attend affair with access on both the North and South rims and hosts telescope viewing, constellation tours, and night photography workshops.  

"Arizona has been a preferred location for astronomers—professional and amateurs—since the early 1900s," says Mike Weasner, an astrophysicist who helped Oracle State Park (outside of Tucson) earn Dark Sky status. 

Visitors to the heavily populated Phoenix area may be surprised to learn that Arizona’s topography is so unique that many special dark skies areas exist within the city limits, as well as within an hour’s drive of Phoenix. Tempe Town Lake offers beginners stargazing programs and Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch is home to the Gilbert Rotary Centennial Observatory. Estrella Mountain Regional Park and Phoenix Mountains Preserve are also in-close stargazing spots worth checking out.

ADERO Scottsdale Resort is a stargazer’s dream and located in a Dark Sky Community—the only resort in Arizona that can say this—and perched 2,500 feet above the rugged Sonoran Desert. Wraparound balconies of the Signature Dark Sky Corner Suite and Celestial Suite allow guests to take full advantage of the resort’s dark skies, particularly with the ability to order a telescope to the room. 

Local adventure tour operator Stellar Adventures offers stargazing tours with night vision. Tour-goers get the chance to view the stars and constellations via telescope with a professional astronomer and can see desert critters that are active at night. 

Fountain Hills, just north of metro Phoenix, is designated as the world’s 17th International Dark Sky Community and is the planned home of the International Dark Sky Discovery Center. The 22,000-sq.-ft. venue will feature a domed observatory, large PlaneWave telescope, and planetarium. 

Upstate California

California’s Shasta Cascade region, a vast expanse stretching across the northeastern corner of the Golden State, is a four-season recreational paradise for nature lovers. Dark sky enthusiasts find heaven—and heavens viewing—wondrous at Lassen Volcanic National Park. The park’s annual summer Dark Sky Festival is expanding in 2023 to a monthlong celebration of the incredible dark evening skies overhead in this region of California. Events are planned for July, August, and September.

Look for activities to engage visitors of all ages such as Art in the Park for budding visual artists, educational sessions with NASA research scientists about astrobiology and other park research areas, constellation identification, evening stargazing stations, and information on how to reduce light pollution at home. There’s plenty to engage here while the sun is up with popular hikes to the hydrothermal areas of Bumpass Hell and the Sulphur Works where boiling mud pots and steaming fumaroles conjure notions of what life must be like beneath the earth’s surface.

Fort Peck

Montana

The Big Sky State’s eastern half is an ideal spot for stargazing. “The mountains roll out to meet the prairies and breaks, creating a true Big Sky experience,” says Brenda Maas, director of marketing for Visit Southeast Montana. “The region’s natural remoteness, connected by small towns and populated with vast public lands, provides the ideal locations for stargazing. There’s very little light pollution and many small communities that welcome travelers seeking an organic experience rooted in authentic Montana.”

Maas recommends visiting Medicine Rocks State Park, an International Dark Sky Sanctuary, for a unique stargazing experience. “It’s known by Plains tribes to be a place of ‘good medicine,’” says Maas. “The Swiss cheese-looking rock formations that erupt along the rolling prairies seemingly echo this mystique while framing a special nocturnal experience.” 

Dark sky seekers look also to Montana’s Missouri River Country as it is one of the most remote regions in the country, with the closest major city being four and a half hours away. Skies here remain unpolluted by light and allow for a truly out-of-this-world experience beneath some of the darkest night skies and brightest cosmos in the lower 48. 

Recommended spots for cosmos contemplation include the Pines Recreation Area along Fort Peck Lake with night hiking affording stunning views; Seven Sisters Wildlife Management Area, a hidden gem along the Yellow River; Hell Creek State Park, an area with the darkest night sky rating possible and campgrounds for overnight stays; and Brush Lake State Park along the Montana/North Dakota border, which, like those previously listed, is a member of the Montana Dark Sky Trail.  

Nevada

The Silver State offers some stellar stargazing experiences. Massacre Rim, a Dark Sky Sanctuary known to be one of the darkest places on earth, is situated about 150 miles north of Reno. The Sanctuary encompasses two volcanic plateaus encircled by massive valley floors. Massacre Rim is along the west side where visitors find a 1,200-foot-tall escarpment falling dramatically into Long Valley. In July, the Sagittarius and Scorpio constellations are at their highest point in the sky and viewers witness the spectacular light shows put on by the Perseids meteor shower through early August.

Great Basin National Park is popular for catching the cosmos as nearly every access point here offers brilliant heavenly sights. The Great Basin Astronomy Festival is an annual highlight held this year Sept. 14 through 16. Programs such as Art in The Dark, the Great Basin Observatory Tour, Photo Workshops, and Dark Ranger discussions held in the recently built, red-light-lit 250-seat Astronomy Amphitheater engage scientists, researchers, and both professional and amateur astronomers from all over the world. 

Folks here are already gearing up for Oct. 14, when a rare solar eclipse is set to cross over Great Basin National Park and Wheeler Peak (Nevada’s second-highest mountain), offering a truly prime viewing spot for the spectacle.

Dark skies train rides are only one and a half hours away from the park in the town of Ely (popular for dark sky photography) on the Nevada Northern Railway. Here, Great Basin National Park’s Dark Rangers board the train to point out various constellations and features of the Milky Way. 

Grand Teton National Park

Wyoming

“With the lowest population of any state in the U.S., Wyoming boasts some of the darkest skies in the country” says Jim Wollenburg, senior manager with the Wyoming Office of Tourism. “Low light pollution allows visitors to see planets, stars, nebulae, and even galaxies. Whether you come with a camera to capture the scene, or just a loved one or friend to sit back with in awe, Wyoming's dark skies are unforgettable.”

Favorite view spots on Wollenburg’s recommended list include Vedauwoo Recreation Area outside of Cheyenne; Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area, which features spectacular astrophotography sites at Little Hole along the Green River, Boar’s Tusk at Rock Springs; Cloud Peak Wilderness Area; and Grand Teton National Park, where the notable Teton Crest Trail offers some of the most spectacular nighttime views around.

Devils Tower National Monument Dark Sky Program taps into local Lakota sky knowledge, and visitors can check the various ranger-led activities throughout the year at the park’s online event calendar

The Harry C. Vaughan University of Wyoming Planetarium in Laramie displays full-dome shows and immersive 3D experiences, including laser shows and educational programs for all ages. It’s a great place to get a dark skies primer and referrals to local viewing spots to soak in the night sky.

 

Photo Credits: Visit Anchorage, Visit SE Montana, Wyoming Office of Tourism

Posted on Jul 19, 2023

News Archives

Our Partners