Stars a a main attraction at many national parks — Photo courtesy of gfhdickinson
The wonders visible at our National Parks don’t cease after the sun goes down. In addition to protecting the unique landscapes and animals within our public lands, National Parks also showcase the nation’s darkest skies. Many parks offer astronomy programs throughout the year, allowing many visitors their first opportunity to see the expanse of the Milky Way and celestial objects often washed out by city lights. The next time you visit one of America’s National Parks, consider staying out a little later and take a tour of the universe with a ranger. Here are some parks that have extensive night sky programs and special astronomy events throughout the year.
Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah offers 142 night sky programs during the year. “Dark Rangers” point out objects in Bryce Canyon’s night sky, where it’s so dark that the Milky Way can be seen horizon to horizon and Venus and Jupiter will cast your shadow. The annual Astronomy Festival in June is an especially great time for star lovers as more than 50 telescopes are set up for the public and NASA astronomers and astronauts speak about their experiences.
Night sky at Grand Canyon National Park — Photo courtesy of Steve Larese
During the day most visitors are looking down into Grand Canyon National Park, but at night necks are cranked up at the spectacular sky here. The park at both the South and North rims has astronomy programs throughout the year hosted by volunteers, and for eight days in June the annual Grand Canyon Star Party sees astronomy clubs fill parking lots with telescopes for the public.
Death Valley National Park comes alive at night with monthly ranger-led full-moon hikes at, where rangers take groups on hikes across the otherworldly terrain here guided by the light of the moon. Death Valley was recently recognized by the International Dark Sky Association for it efforts to promote astronomy and bring attention to the problem of light pollution.
Full moon at Yellowstone — Photo courtesy of YellowstoneNPS - Jim Peaco
At Yellowstone National Park, the Steam, Stars and Winter Soundscapes tour combines the best of what Yellowstone offers this time of year. After traveling to Old Faithful Lodge via snowcoach (passenger vehicles can’t make it into the park during the winter), hikers explore geysers at night to see the famous park in a whole new light, or lack thereof. Emphasis is placed on listening to the sounds of the park at night, from gurgling water to animals big and small, and also on the expanse of stars above. The $41 per adult tour operates December through March and includes a souvenir travel mug and hot chocolate.
Moon over Badlands — Photo courtesy of NPS - Larry McAfee
The Night Sky Program at Badlands National Park in South Dakota is offered Friday through Monday at the Cedar Pass Campground, where rangers point out constellations and allow everyone long turns gazing through one of the park’s large telescopes. The annual Badlands Astronomy Festival in August sees keynote speakers, family workshops including rocket launching, photography workshops, solar observing, and sky tours led by astronomy clubs with scores of telescopes available.