Night Skies

National Parks To Celebrate Night Skies With Upcoming Festivals

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.

Lassen Dark Sky Festival, NPS Photo

Lassen Dark Sky Festival, NPS Photo

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.

Photo by NPS/Brad Sutton

Photo by NPS/Brad Sutton

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

Black Canyon Astronomy Festival

June 1-4, Colorado

Highlights: Constellation tours, Tyler Nordgren presentation and book signing, telescope observations, "Nightscape Photography Workshop"


Bryce Canyon National Park

Annual Astronomy Festival

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

Grand Canyon Star Party

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

Badlands National Park Astronomy Festival

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

Night Sky Festival

July 28-30, Colorado

Highlights: activities, speakers, programs and night sky viewing


Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks

Dark Sky Festival

August 5-7, California

Highlights: astronaut speakers; special Crystal Cave tours; audio-visual and photography presentations


Lassen Volcanic National Park

Lassen Dark Sky Festival

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

Acadia Night Sky Festival

September 22-25, Maine

Highlights: workshops; internationally recognized speakers; hands-on experiences


Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Dakota Nights Astronomy Festival

September 23-25, North Dakota

Highlights: star viewing; presentations by nationally recognized speakers; rocket building and launching; solar system hikes


Great Basin National Park

Great Basin Astronomy Festival

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

Night Sky Festival

October 28-30, California

Highlights: astronomers, scientists, cultural speakers and artists

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

Upcoming workshops from National Parks at Night

International Dark Sky Week Highlights A Precious Commodity

Last week was International Dark Sky Week. Did you get out and enjoy the stars?

I did. In fact, I even got to enjoy a night in South Carolina’s Congaree National Park. Congaree is only half an hour outside the state capital of Columbia, but getting even just that far away from a city can make a big difference in how we see the night sky. In fact, it makes all the difference in the world.

And getting even further away? That can make all the difference in the universe.

Congaree National Park, © 2016 Chris Nicholson

Congaree National Park, © 2016 Chris Nicholson

I grew up in southern Connecticut, part of the New York City Metropolitan Area. We weren’t in the city, but kind of in night-sky limbo—far enough away from NYC to see a decent sky, but not far enough to see the best. So in my nightly experience, I knew the sky had stars, but not quite how many.

I also did a lot of camping as a kid—with my dad, with my family, with Boy Scouts. We even did some camping in the national parks, especially in Great Smoky Mountains. I’m sure during those experiences I looked up at night, but the first time I vividly remember “seeing” how magnificent a starry sky truly can be, the first time I had that "supernova" moment, was in upstate New York on August 7, 1993. On a night stroll, I came to a clearing in the trees, gazed skyward and had this profound realization that I could see—actually see—the Milky Way.

I once heard astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson tell a similarly themed story about when he was a kid, growing up in the Bronx, very near the bright lights of Manhattan, thinking that there were only a handful of stars in the sky. When he learned how many were really there, that’s when his love of the universe began to dawn.

You could probably get any astronomer to relay such an experience, but another that I find particularly interesting is Tyler Nordgren, who we interviewed for the NPAN blog back in February. (See “Astronomer Tyler Nordgren Discusses Night Skies of the National Parks.)

I’ve been reading Tyler’s book Stars Above, Earth Below: A Guide to Astronomy in the National Parks. In the introduction he writes about how the parks are famed for preserving wild animals, beautiful landscapes, grand forests, amazing rock formations, and so on. But another preserved feature that many people don’t think about in those terms is the night sky.

And it’s absolutely true. So much of the civilized world is so lit up that in most inhabited places we can’t see the sky the way that our ancestors did for 200,000 years. But in many national parks, we can. Those dark skies are there for us, preserved very close to their natural, dazzling, awe-inspiring state.

As I mentioned before, Congaree has some wonderful night skies. So does Olympic, Everglades, Grand Teton, Yellowstone, Great Smoky Mountains, Joshua Tree. … The list goes on and on, perhaps right to 59 parks long.

Death Valley National Park , © 2016 Chris Nicholson

Death Valley National Park, © 2016 Chris Nicholson

Moreover, Death Valley, Big Bend and Capitol Reef are designated as Gold Tier dark sky parks by the International Dark-Sky Association. Additionally, Canyonlands and Black Canyon of the Gunnison are also certified as dark sky parks by the IDA. That’s right, five of the U.S. national parks are considered among the very best in the world at preserving pristine night skies.

With all these great places to see and photograph under the gentle light of the universe, how does anyone sleep at 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

Upcoming workshops from National Parks at Night