Sharing the Experience(s): Celestial Celebrations (And More) in the National Parks

As the end of winter nears, our minds and hearts and cameras are ready to get outdoors again. (Well, at least for those who weren’t crazy enough to already be out there, like me, spending a few days in very snowy Rocky Mountain National Park a couple of weeks ago. Brr. But awesome.)

We here at National Parks at Night are particularly itchy to spend more time in the great wildernesses of our country photographing in the dark. Our 2017 workshop season is about to get underway, kicking off in Joshua Tree National Park next month, and aside from our workshops, all five of us like to get into the parks as much as we can. Fortunately for everyone, the parks offer myriad means and reasons to enjoy them.

Below I’ve detailed some of the opportunities you may be interested in taking advantage of, including a brand new centennial, night sky festivals and solar eclipse events.

Fee-Free Days

First, you might want to know how to get into the parks for free. They’re a great deal anytime, whether you’re buying a day pass for a single park or purchasing the much-recommended America the Beautiful annual pass. But if you want or need to get in fee-free, you can do so on the following days in 2017:

  • April 15-16 and April 22-23: National Park Week weekends
  • August 25: National Park Service Birthday
  • September 30: National Public Lands Day
  • November 11-12: Veterans Day Weekend

On those dates, all 84 million acres of the 417 National Park Service units are free to enter—that’s all national parks, national monuments, national historic sites, national battlefields, national recreation areas, national seashores … you get the picture. (Ha! See what I did there?)

You can find more information here: “National Park Service Announces Fee Free Days for 2017.”

The Whole World Goes Dark

April 22 to 28 is International Dark Sky Week. At this moment we are not aware of any national parks preparing or hosting events to coincide, but regardless, it’s a great time to get outdoors and be part of seven days of observing, photographing and championing the night. You can also enter and win the associated 2017 International Earth and Sky Photo Contest.

Chimney Rock in Capitol Reef National Park, one of 16 International Dark Sky Parks in the U.S., and one of only three U.S. national parks with a gold-tier designation from the International Dark Sky Association. Photo © 2016 Chris Nicholson.

Chimney Rock in Capitol Reef National Park, one of 16 International Dark Sky Parks in the U.S., and one of only three U.S. national parks with a gold-tier designation from the International Dark Sky Association. Photo © 2016 Chris Nicholson.

Moreover, this week is an excellent time to learn more about the host organization, the International Dark Sky Association (IDA). Among other things, they’re the ones who research, designate and support International Dark Sky Parks, 16 of which are in the U.S., and are uniquely wonderful for night photography:

  • Flagstaff Area National Monuments, Grand Canyon National Park and Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument (Arizona)
  • Death Valley National Park (California)
  • Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park (Colorado)
  • Big Cypress National Preserve (Florida)
  • Great Basin National Park (Nevada)
  • Capulin Volcano National Monument, Chaco Culture National Historical Park and Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument (New Mexico)
  • Big Bend National Park (Texas)
  • Canyonlands National Park, Capitol Reef National Park, Cedar Breaks National Monument, Hovenweep National Monument and Natural Bridges National Monument (Utah)

Bonus Location: Also check out Cosmic Campground in New Mexico’s Gila National Forest. It’s one of only two International Dark Sky Sanctuaries in the world certified by the IDA.

Double-Bonus Location: There’s also Headlands International Dark Sky Park in Michigan, which, you can tell by its name, is kind of tailor-made for what we all like to do.

Happy 100th!

No, not to the National Park Service—that’s so last year! I’m talking about the centennial of Denali National Park in Alaska, established in … (hold on, I’ll do the math) … 1917. They’ve already planned a bunch in a series of events to mark the birthday, including a Summerfest and a 100th Anniversary Celebration in the town of Talkeetna, right outside the southern borders of the park.

Denali is perhaps Alaska’s most famous national park, home to some of the most rugged, beautiful mountain landscapes in the U.S., along with countless grizzly bears, wolves and wolverines, and also lots of other animals that won’t try to eat you as you hike through the park’s Massachusetts-size wilderness, all by bushwhacking because it doesn’t really have a lot of trails. (Bring bear spray.)

In all seriousness, this place should be on any park-lover’s bucket list. Also, Denali’s night skies are amazing, and you may even be able to photograph aurora.

For more information, see Denali’s centennial webpage.

Bonus: Florida’s Dry Tortugas National Park is also celebrating a birthday this year. In October 1992, the island fortress and its surrounding spots of land 70 miles into the Gulf of Mexico from Key West, were all designated as a national park. This is an amazing place—unique, remote, quiet, and with stunning night skies, and it deserves some birthday love. We are not aware of any plans they have to officially celebrate this anniversary, but perhaps they’re considering our workshop there in July to be celebration enough. We’ll bring cake.

2017 Night Sky Festivals

Of course, photographers aren’t the only ones who enjoy seizing the night. The dark skies of our national parks are appreciated by scores of people who are passionate about other things too, such as astronomy, telescope viewing, constellation watching and so on. To corral all that fervor, several national parks offer night sky festivals, where professionals and enthusiasts gather to appreciate and gaze upon the most pristine dark skies in the land.

Lassen Dark Sky Festival. Photo courtesy Lassen Volcanic National Park, by volunteer photographer Alison Taggart-Barone.

Lassen Dark Sky Festival. Photo courtesy Lassen Volcanic National Park, by volunteer photographer Alison Taggart-Barone.

As we did last year, we’ve put together a list of all the night-sky festivals currently scheduled for national parks in 2017. We hope you can use this guide to track down some opportunities to share this wonderful natural resource with others. If you’re interested in more than attending, you might want to consider volunteering at one of these events—the help is always appreciated.

And even if you can’t make it to one of these festivals, keep an eye on the calendars of any National Park Service unit that may be close to where you live or where you might be visiting. Many of them host single-night events throughout the year, such as star parties, full-moon walks, dark-sky presentations, celestial event watches, and more. Places that host these smaller opportunities range all over the country, including Saguaro (Arizona), Pinnacles (California), Hawai’I Volcanoes and Virgin Islands national parks.

(For the record, there are a few more national park night festivals that will probably be announced, but have not been yet, “at press time.” As we hear about these throughout the year, we’ll be sure to post details on our Facebook and Twitter feeds.)

Grand Canyon National Park

Grand Canyon Star Party, June 17-24, Arizona

Highlights: nightly presentations and slide shows, access to multiple telescopes and assistance from the Tucson Amateur Astronomy Association on the South Rim and the Saguaro Astronomy Club of Phoenix on the North Rim

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks

Dark Sky Festival, July 21-23, California

Highlights: astronaut guest speakers, Crystal Cave tours, a special presentation on night photography in national parks

Bryce Canyon National Park

Annual Astronomy Festival, June 21-24, Utah

Highlights: hosted by Bryce Canyons astronomy rangers and local astronomical societies, keynote speaker to be announced

Lassen Volcanic National Park

Lassen Dark Sky Festival, August 11-12, California

Highlights: presentations 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

Ochoco National Forest

Oregon Star Party, August 17-22, Oregon

Highlights: astronomy lectures, access to a “telescope park,” the solar eclipse totality, 900 friendly amateur astronomers, and a truck you can shower in

Shenandoah National Park

Night Sky Festival, August 18-21, Virginia

Highlights: constellation tours, telescope viewing, star parties, presentations

Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Dakota Nights Astronomy Festival, September 15-17, North Dakota

Highlights: stargazing with rangers and astronomers, presentations by nationally recognized speakers, access to a “telescope field”

Great Basin National Park

Great Basin Astronomy Festival, September 21-23, Nevada

Highlights: “Astronomy 101” presentation, astronomical viewing through 30 telescopes, free night-sky photography workshop by the Dark Rangers

Acadia National Park

Acadia Night Sky Festival, September 21-24, Maine

Highlights: workshops, speakers, hands-on experiences in the largest expanse of naturally dark skies in the eastern U.S.

Eclipse Events

This is not really a night thing, but definitely is a dark thing. Or maybe we can say its two nights in one day. Either way, 2017 is a year with a celestial rarity: a full solar eclipse that will streak across the skies of the U.S. on August 21—including directly over several units of the National Park Service. We at NPAN will be celebrating the event with our workshop in Montana’s Centennial Valley, but there are also plenty of opportunities elsewhere.

Photo courtesy of  NASA Solar Dynamics Observatory .

Congaree National Park

South Carolina—One of the least-visited national parks in the country will also be one of the three that will have the totality pass directly overhead. Not many details of their “Shadows and Science in the Wilderness of Congaree National Park” event have been announced, but viewing the eclipse in this swamplike floodplain forest would be rather surreal, to say the least.

Grand Teton National Park

Wyoming—As of now, we are not aware of any official event being hosted by Grand Teton, but the Jackson Hole area is more than ready for the dark sun to pass overhead. Hotels have been booked up for months, and the town of Jackson (at the southern tip of the national park) could be the hottest hotbed in the country for viewing the eclipse. Grand Teton is not huge, and there will be a lot of people, so I recommend getting off the beaten path—ideally, up onto the mountain trails, or at least along the little-traveled, four-wheel-drive-only Grassy Lake Road.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

North Carolina and Tennessee—The bad news is that Great Smoky Mountains is the most visited national park in the U.S. and midsummer is its busiest time of year, so chances are good that it will be a tad crowded when the sun turns off. The good news is that GSM is the most popular park in the U.S. for good reasons, the totality of the eclipse will pass over the entire western half, and three awesome locations will be hosting official viewing events: Clingmans Dome, Oconaluftee and Cades Cove (one of my favorite photography spots in the whole park system). See the GSM’s 2017 Solar Eclipse page for more information.

Other National Eclipse Sites

In addition to those three national parks, other NPS units will also experience totality and/or host eclipse events (click links for details on organized happenings):

In addition to those sites, several national forests (technically Department of Agriculture lands, but still pretty) will also be darkened by the eclipse. These can be great places to go for a better chance at solitude, as they tend not to be strong tourist attractions like the national parks and monuments are. National forests in the eclipse’s path include:

  • Salmon Challis and Sawtooth (Idaho)
  • Mark Twain and Shawnee (Missouri)
  • Nantahala (North Carolina)
  • Willamette, Ochoco, Umatilla and Malheur (Oregon)
  • Francis Marion (South Carolina)
  • Chattahoochee (Tennessee)
  • Bridger-Teton, Shoshone and Medicine Bow (Wyoming)

And one final place that’s a fantastic location to photography an eclipse, even though it’s not a national land, is Carhenge in Nebraska. Seriously. It might even be cooler than photographing an eclipse at Stonehenge.

If you can’t make any of those opportunities, go to the parks anyway! The night skies are gorgeous, and you never know when you might find a ranger program to make the experience even richer.

Wherever you go, wherever you roam, we hope to see you out there, seizing the night.

Chris Nicholson is the author of Photographing National Parks (Sidelight Books, 2015). Learn more about national parks as photography destinations, subscribe to Chris' free e-newsletter, and more at