Discovering Night Sky Programs at U.S. National Parks

By Courtney Johnson

Most of us, generally, envision our visits to national and state parks occurring during daytime hours. However, most parks are accessible long after the sun goes down, creating a unique opportunity to be in park environs— desert, wilderness, and mountains—under dark and vast skies. Starting in 1999, upon recognizing that more than 60% of national parks were impacted by light pollution, the National Park Service began documenting (and preserving) night skies within the parks under the guidance of scientists Chad Moore and Dan Duriscoe. They began by measuring the brightness of the night sky at a variety of parks, like Canyonlands, Arches, Death Valley, Organ Pipe National Monument, and others, and archiving their findings.

The International Dark-Sky Association was created in 1988 to help minimize light pollution and to protect the night skies. There are 103 Dark-Sky sites worldwide, including Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado, Staunton River State Park in Virginia, Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona, and Enchanted Rock State Natural Area in Texas. The two entities often work alongside each other to preserve what natural night sky still exists. For example, Bob Meadows, a physical scientist and night skies specialist in the NPS Natural Sounds and Night Skies Division took his expertise and equipment to Goblin Valley State Park to help with the park's Dark-Sky designation—at Goblin Valley, one is under one of the darkest skies in the world.

 Aztec Ruins with ranger, photo by Bettymaya Foott / NPS.

Aztec Ruins with ranger, photo by Bettymaya Foott / NPS.

Meadows’ experiences working at night in the Sierra Nevadas led him to want to work as a scientist under the Night Skies Division. “It was the experience of being out there without natural light embracing the opportunities that were once a normal part of everyday with generations of people operating without modern electrical lights—relying on firelight from a campfire (or other source) and lanterns. We’ve lost that connection to the nighttime environment.” Now based in Fort Collins with the NPS Natural Sounds and Night Skies Division, Meadows and his colleagues educate the public about outdoor lighting, advise the parks on what lights to use and work with developments outside of parks to make sure they minimize light pollution.

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Many parts of the western U.S. still possess a natural night sky. But in other parts of the country, particularly the eastern U.S., locations close to urban cities experience high levels of light pollution, making night sky views improbable. More than ⅔ of the U.S. population cannot see the Milky Way from where they live, writes Deborah Schoch, of the Los Angeles Times. “These programs provide opportunities to visitors that they wouldn’t normally have in experiencing a somewhat natural night sky,” explains Meadows.

A poster campaign developed with Astronomer Tyler Nordgren and the National Parks “See the Milky Way" program was created to bring attention to how much happens after the sun goes down. “The U.S. National Park Service sums this up nicely, "Half the park is after dark." In other words, if you don’t experience the night when you visit a park, you’re literally missing out on half of what it has to offer,” said John C. Barentine Director of Conservation International Dark-Sky Association.

Many dark-sky recognized sites and national parks offer ranger lead programs that take advantage of the lack of light pollution and cooler night time temperatures. Night time programs focus on the animals that call the parks home. In the deserts environments of southern Utah, and other harsh climates, many of the animals are nocturnal due to the high daily temperatures. Active at night, visitors may be treated to a visit from one especially since ½ of all species in the national parks are nocturnal including owls and kangaroo rats.

 Visitors sky program, photo by Jake Holgerson / NPS.

Visitors sky program, photo by Jake Holgerson / NPS.

Park programs focusing on the stars and constellations, guided hikes under a full moon, programs using telescopes, and opportunities to camp overnight are just some of the opportunities available to visitors. “These programs offer an opportunity for people to go out at night where they can feel comfortable observing the night sky,” said Meadows.  The programs run year round. In some places, winter actually provides the best opportunity for viewing. “In Alaska, they don’t experience nighttime from April-Mid October. Our nighttime programs happen in the snow at Denali,” said Meadows.

 The author's daughter, getting her Night Explorer Jr. Ranger patch. Photo by Courtney Johnson.

The author's daughter, getting her Night Explorer Jr. Ranger patch. Photo by Courtney Johnson.

The National Parks Service also offers a Night Explorer Junior Ranger patch with activities suited for ages 5-12. You can pick up a booklet at your nearest national park or download one here to fill out at home or while visiting a park. Over 100 park units offer the Night Explorer Junior Ranger patch.

“Most often what I hear from those who have had these experiences is that they offer a degree of enrichment supplementing the other reasons that people visit parks and protected areas,” said Barentine. “Many have never seen the night sky from an unpolluted place before, and therefore they are oblivious to exactly what such a night sky looks like; many are deeply moved by the experience (some to literal tears).”

Beyond visiting a national park at night, there are also simple steps that you can implement to preserve the sky around you. “Reducing light pollution starts at home. If you’re a homeowner, examine the outdoor lighting at your house,” suggested Barentine. “Does it serve a purpose? Is it appropriate for the task? Is it too bright, creating dangerous glare? (Is it too dim, creating an equally concerning safety hazard?) Is it up to code, both electrical- and outdoor lighting-wise? Maybe a light would be better used by putting it on a timer or a motion sensor, so it’s only on when the light is needed (and off otherwise). If you’re not a homeowner, talk to your landlord about the same issues.”

To learn more about the Night Sky Programs through the National Park Service, visit https://www.nps.gov/subjects/nightskies/stargaze.htm.

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Courtney Johnson is a freelance sports and parent writer based in Erie, Colorado. She enjoys spending time outdoors with her husband AJ and four year old daughter Emma.