It’s hard to escape the glare of big cities and metropolitan areas to see all the wonder the sky has to offer, but several national parks aim to serve as better windows to the cosmos.
Light pollution obscures the view of the stars and planets, making it more challenging for humans to admire them in the dark sky. To celebrate such cosmic vistas, several national parks host stargazing festivals or “star parties” that allow visitors to enjoy the pristine shimmering skies this summer and fall.
Several national parks are designated as so-called dark-sky locations, meaning they have exceptionally high-quality nighttime conditions for seeing the stars without the glare of nearby cities. The designation, given by the International Dark-Sky Association, a non-profit organization based in Tucson, Arizona, is intended to support the protection of those optimal sky viewing conditions.
Ann Congdon, president of Sky’s the Limit Observatory & Nature Center, which helps host the Night Sky Festival in California’s Joshua Tree National Park, said, “It’s critical to raise awareness that the dark nighttime sky is a precious natural resource that cannot be taken for granted.”
Ms. Congdon added that “by reducing artificial lighting, we can continue to enjoy stargazing and the wonders of the night sky.”
The following are some of the stargazing events that various national parks are hosting this year. Most are free with park entry.
Grand Canyon National Park
The sprawling park in Arizona’s northwest corner launched its 33rd annual “Star Party” on Saturday, and it will continue this Saturday.
The event begins at sunset each day, but park officials recommend the best viewing time is after 9 p.m.
There will be related events on the north and south edges of the park, including constellation tours; lectures by park rangers and NASA scientists; and photography workshops.
The park service lures potential visitors by telling them that they can see an assortment of planets, binaries, star clusters, nebulae and distant galaxies at night.
Bryce Canyon National Park
Known for its crimson hoodoos in southern Utah, the park hosts its annual astronomy festival Wednesday through Saturday, with daytime and evening events.
Daytime activities, scheduled between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m., include activity tents and solar telescopes. Evening events include stargazing sessions and access to a telescope site every night of the festival, from 10pm to midnight.
The site was designated an International Dark-Sky Park in 2019.
Badland National Park
The South Dakota park is partnering with NASA’s South Dakota Space Grant Consortium to co-sponsor the 2023 Badlands Astronomy Festival from July 14 to July 16.
The festival brings together space science experts, amateur astronomers, educators and visitors for a variety of activities, including a guided tour of a scale model of the solar system and opportunities to view flares and sunspots with solar telescopes, as well as special guest speakers and equipment demonstrations.
Due to the park’s remote location in a corner of the Great Plains, light pollution is not a common problem, park officials said.
Shenandoah National Park
The Virginia park will present its 2023 Night Sky Festival from August 11 to August 13.
In addition to stargazing, there are discussions by park rangers and expert presentations on topics such as space weather, space travel, and the future of space.
Great Basin National Park
The park in eastern Nevada, near the Utah border, will present its astronomy festival from Sept. 14 to Sept. 16. The park hasn’t announced its list of events, but officials said there will be guest speakers, photo workshops and tours of the spherical Great Basin Observatory, which the park said is “the first-ever research-grade observatory in a U.S. national park.” There is no significant man-made light for 70 miles in any direction from the observatory, the Park Service said.
The festival will also feature an ‘Art in the Dark’ program, which will allow visitors to paint in low light and experiment with how their eyes perceive color.
Joshua Tree National Park
Spanning the land where the Mojave and Colorado deserts meet in Southern California, the park will host the Night Sky Festival on October 13 and 14.
The festival coincides with a annular solar eclipse that will span the sky from Oregon to Texas on October 14. To see the eclipsed sun, park officials recommend using special sun filters.
Years ago, park rangers replaced all of the park’s outdoor lighting with lighting that helps maintain dark sky conditions, the park said.
The site was designated a dark-sky park in 2017.