The National Park Service is 100 percent on-board with the idea of preserving dark skies for all who wish to see them—from astronomy buffs to night photographers and everyone in between. It even maintains a Night Sky page on its website, and offers access to a Night Sky Monitoring Database of the entire U.S.
But not only does the NPS protect and promote the night skies, it also creates opportunities to explore and learn about them.
Many of the parks offer ranger-led programs for visitors to experience night the way it once appeared everywhere, before the dawn of electrically lit cities and civilizations. For example, Pinnacles National Park offers night hikes, and Shenandoah National Park in Virginia offers an Evening Meadow Walk (in Big Meadows, no less, one of my favorites spaces in the entire park system!). Even New Mexico's Carlsbad Caverns National Park, whose star attraction is underground, shows off the night skies with its recurring Star Parties and Moon Walks.
But several of the parks go even bigger, hosting full-scale festivals that celebrate the night. They feature all sorts of spectator and interactive programs, including lectures by astronomers, telescope usage, photography workshops and more.
These are all excellent opportunities to get into the parks to learn and explore the night with like-minded people.
This year’s Death Valley Star Party is already behind us (it was in February), but there are plenty of park-hosted night-sky festivals on the horizon for summer and early fall. To help you find one (or more!) to attend, we’ve compiled the list below. If you attend, let us know how it goes—and send photos!
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
June 1-4, Colorado
Highlights: Constellation tours, Tyler Nordgren presentation and book signing, telescope observations, "Nightscape Photography Workshop"
Bryce Canyon National Park
June 1-4, Utah
Highlights: hosted by Bryce Canyon's astronomy rangers and the Salt Lake Astronomical Society; keynote speaker Seth Jarvis from the Clark Planetarium
Grand Canyon National Park
June 4–11, Arizona
Highlights: access to multiple telescopes on both rims of the canyon, nightly presentations and slide shows; assistance from the Tucson Amateur Astronomy Association and the Saguaro Astronomy Club of Phoenix
Badlands National Park
July 8-10, South Dakota
Highlights: family-friendly activities and evening presentations with special guest speakers; nightly telescope viewing sponsored by the NPS Night Sky Program and Celestron
Rocky Mountain National Park
July 28-30, Colorado
Highlights: activities, speakers, programs and night sky viewing
Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks
August 5-7, California
Highlights: astronaut speakers; special Crystal Cave tours; audio-visual and photography presentations
Lassen Volcanic National Park
August 12-14, California
Highlights: constellation tours; solar scope viewing; discussions and demonstrations by National Park Dark Sky rangers, NASA, International Dark Sky Association, RECON, Astronomical Society of Nevada and the Astronomical Society of the Pacific
Acadia National Park
September 22-25, Maine
Highlights: workshops; internationally recognized speakers; hands-on experiences
Theodore Roosevelt National Park
September 23-25, North Dakota
Highlights: star viewing; presentations by nationally recognized speakers; rocket building and launching; solar system hikes
Great Basin National Park
September 29 - October 1, Nevada
Highlights: viewing through over 30 telescopes (some as tall as 20 feet); "Astronomy 101" presentation; Night Sky Photography Workshop by the "Dark Rangers"
Joshua Tree National Park
October 28-30, California
Highlights: astronomers, scientists, cultural speakers and artists