Dark Sky Parks

Make a Dark Sky Park your next vacation destination.
May 2, 2024
Ann Waters, Travel Leaders
Dark Sky Parks

In an age dimmed by city lights, the quest for the perfect stargazing location has grown. The chance to be a kid again — laying on your back, gazing at the stars above your head, catching a glimpse of a falling star — is a dream pursued by many people. Established in 1988, The International Dark-Sky Association dedicates itself to the protection of that experience and our night-time skies through preservation initiatives and public education. Its certifications of Dark Sky Sanctuaries, Reserves, Parks and Communities highlight areas that offer pristine views of the cosmos. These designations aren’t just labels; they signify a haven for those longing to connect with the night sky in its most natural state.

Differences between Dark Sky Sanctuaries and Parks hinge on the former being in remote locations without official public engagement programs, while the latter are recognized for both their excellent stargazing conditions and accessibility to the public, often accompanied by educational activities.

Currently there are over 200 certified Dark Sky places around the world, covering over 61,000 square miles of protected land and night skies in 22 countries on six continents.

Before we begin our brief tour to a few select Parks, let’s touch briefly on Dark Sky Park visitor etiquette. Light, even as minimal as a small flashlight or your phone’s screen can ruin a Dark Sky Park visit for everyone. White-light sources are prohibited in many Parks after a certain perimeter of entry. Consequently, a red-light flashlight or headlamp is an essential item to pack for your trip. Stargazing is also considered a relaxing activity so many parks ask that you remain quiet or speak softly when around others. Be sure to explore the official site for any Park or Sanctuary you visit to ensure you are prepared to be part of the conservation of pollution-free skies.

Now let’s embark on a celestial tour from the heart of the United States to the serene landscapes of New Zealand.

Our journey begins close to home at Headlands International Dark Sky Park in Mackinaw City, Michigan. This Park stands as a testament to the beauty of the night sky when consciously protected. Its grounds are open 24/7, but camping is not allowed. During the summer months Park Astronomers are always on hand with telescopes in the main viewing area to guide visitors and answer questions.

Further north in the wilderness of Minnesota lies the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, a Dark Sky Sanctuary offering more than just a dark sky. Boasting over a million acres and thousands of lakes, this wilderness offers an immersive experience to those willing to turn their backs on the grid. By day, the area is a haven for canoeists and adventurers, but by night it transforms into a stargazer’s paradise, offering a serene escape. The reflection of countless stars on the crystal-clear lakes is a sight to behold, turning every look upward or downward into a moment of awe. Outfitters in the area offer independent trip support as well as guided canoe trips to allow anyone with an adventurous attitude and skill level the chance to enjoy this national treasure.

Out west we find Natural Bridges National Monument in Utah. Natural Bridges was the first ever certified International Dark Sky Park. Its remote location, far from the light pollution of major cities, offers some of the clearest, most unobstructed views of the night sky in the United States.

It’s not only about the stars here; the natural bridge formations — Kachina, Owachomo and Sipapu — offer a picturesque backdrop for nighttime exploration. The park organizes ranger-led stargazing and astronomy festivals, blending its geological wonders with celestial explorations.

Crossing into the Southern Hemisphere, Aotea or Great Barrier Island in New Zealand shines as an International Dark Sky Sanctuary. Despite its proximity to Auckland, Aotea remains untouched by light pollution. The island is a harmonious blend of daytime beach retreats and nighttime celestial wonders, with guides offering tours that weave together Maori astronomical traditions and Western stargazing knowledge.

These sanctuaries are more than just spots to gaze at stars; they’re a call to remember our place in the universe and the importance of preserving the night sky’s pristine beauty. These guardians of the night remind us of the stars’ timeless allure and the mysteries they still hold. Let’s turn our gaze upward and take a journey to the stars, where ancient tales wait to be rediscovered and our childhood wonder rekindled. 


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