As magnificent as the United States’ 63 national parks are during daylight hours, after the sun sinks beyond the horizon these beautiful expanses (often far from city lights and carefully managed as dark-sky preserves) take on a stellar new look. In celebration of the constellations, various national parks hold festivals and evening events to teach visitors about the night sky.
Here’s what you need to know about four of the biggest astronomy parties in the United States national parks.
Grand Canyon Star Party
Each summer, Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona invites visitors to watch “an assortment of planets, double stars, star clusters, nebulae, and distant galaxies” dance above some of the oldest exposed rock on Earth during its Star Party which will take place from June 10 through June 17 in 2023.
Events begin on both the North and South Rims at 8 p.m. but according to the National Park Service (NPS) the best viewing is after 9 p.m.
“Skies will be starry and dark until the moon rises the first night. It rises progressively later throughout the week of the Star Party,” the NPS said on its website.
Each night of the event, park rangers on the South Rim will lead tours of the constellations at 9, 9:30, and 10 p.m. and will host a night sky photography workshop at 9:30 p.m. Throughout the week, various speakers are slated to hold nightly presentations at 8 p.m. starting with park ranger Ravis Henry who will discuss how the stars are seen through the Navajo culture lens. Other speakers include NASA scientist Julie McEnery who will speak about the next NASA flagship telescope, the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope which is scheduled to launch in May 2027 and Dr. Vishnu Reedy, professor of planetary sciences at the University of Arizona will lecture about how astronomers mitigate the threats of meteor impacts.
On the North Rim, the Saguaro Astronomy Club of Phoenix, Arizona will set up telescopes on the porch of the Grand Canyon Lodge and guide visitors in identifying constellations.
The 2023 Star Party is a free and open to the general public. The park entrance fee is good on both South and North rims for 7 days. No additional tickets or sign-up is required.
The event begins at sunset although the best viewing is after 9 pm and many telescopes come down after 11 pm; however, on nights with clear, calm skies, some astronomers continue sharing their telescopes into the night.
Dress warmly. Temperatures drop quickly after sunset—even during summer months.
Bryce Canyon Astronomy Festival
Taking place from June 14 through June 17 this year, Bryce Canyon’s Astronomy Festival in southern Utah happens to fall during the new moon when stars, planets, and meteorites are most visible.
Each night, volunteers from the Salt Lake Astronomical Society will bring their telescopes to share during the nightly stargazing sessions which will start at 10 p.m. across the road from the Bryce Canyon Visitor Center.
According to the park, the festival will also “include nightly lectures from leading academics in astronomy as well as park staff and planetarium educators who will share their expertise and research delving into the origin of stars and the universe itself.” Some of those lecturers will include Planetarium Educator Dr. Amy Sayle who will teach about legends surrounding the stars, former Northern Arizona University professor Dr. David W. Koerner whose presentation will focus on cultural astronomy and the arts, and astronomer Dr. Tyler Nordgren who will explain the magic of eclipses.
All the sessions are free but some talks require reservations which can be made at the visitor center any time during the days preceding the festival. It’s worth signing up early as this year’s festival is happening in conjunction with Bryce Canyon’s centennial celebration, a time that is expected to be busier than usual in the park.
Each night of the festival, shuttle service will continue to limited locations between 8 p.m. and 12:15 a.m. Parking will be limited at Evening Program and Telescope locations so the park strongly recommend parking at the Shuttle Station in Bryce Canyon City (2 miles north of park entrance) and riding the Star Shuttle into the park. Shuttles arrive at each stop every 15 minutes. Use of the Star Shuttle is free with park admission.
As always, attending the festival is free with park admission.
Overnight temperatures are typically in the 40s Fahrenheit. A light jacket is a good idea if you plan to be outside for awhile after dark. While red light flashlights are okay, no white light flashlights be used due to their negative effect on night vision. After using a white light, it can take well over thirty minutes for your eyes to begin to readjust to the profound darkness of Bryce Canyon.
Badlands Astronomy Festival
In 2023, the Badlands National Park’s annual Astronomy Festival which is held in partnership with the NASA South Dakota Space Grant Consortium will take place from July 14 through July 16 in the South Dakota park.
Per the National Park Service, “Novices and experts alike will enjoy the spectacular dark night skies of Badlands National Park at public star parties each evening. During the afternoon each day, a variety of family-friendly activities will provide opportunities for visitors to learn about the night sky, the sun, and space exploration.”
Astronomers (and their telescopes) from the Black Hills Astronomical Society, Badlands National Park, Dark Ranger Telescope Tours, and the University of Utah will be on hand throughout the festival to lead guests in for day and night observations.
Lectures will be held each night at 9 p.m. starting with a deep-dive on NASA’s space telescopes with NASA scientists Tom Durkin on the 29th, an explainer on Lakota Tribal beliefs around stars with Megan Ostrenga of The Journey Museum in Rapid City on the 30th, and a family-friendly show about the universe with Kevin Poe of Dark Ranger Telescope Tours on the 31st.
Additional events will be announced closer to the festival.
This free event is made possible through funding and support from the Badlands Natural History Association, NASA South Dakota Space Grant Consortium, Dark Ranger Telescope Tours, Black Hills Astronomical Society, The Journey Museum and Learning Center, International Dark Sky Association, University of Utah, Badlands National Park Conservancy, Minuteman Missile National Historic Site, and Badlands National Park.
Shenandoah Night Sky Festival
Discover the Park after dark during the 2023 Night Sky Festival!
So far, only the dates for Shenandoah’s Night Sky Festival in Virginia have been announced: August 11 through August 13. But according to the National Park Service, the three-day event will include “stargazing, Ranger talks, kids’ activities, and guest presentations ranging from topics such as space weather, space travel, and our future in space.”
If you plan on attending one of the outdoor evening activities, be sure to be prepared for the weather and bring a flashlight with a red filter. All events are free with park admission.
Other Dark Sky Festivals
Great Basin National Park:
Great Basin Astronomy Festival will host its event September 14-16. Check back for more details closer to the event.
Glacier National Park:
Glacier National Park plans to offer Logan Pass Star Parties for the 2023 season. Check back for the exact dates and more details closer to the summer season. If you plan to attend it is important to come prepared. Wear warm clothing and be prepared for wind in St. Mary. Bring a headlamp or flashlight so you can safely move around in the dark. Seating is not provided at the Dusty Star Observatory so bring a chair for a more comfortable viewing experience.
How to attend the national park astronomy festivals?
Tickets to all the astronomy festival events are free though attendees still need to pay the park entrance fee. At Grand Canyon and Bryce Canyon, that’s $35 per vehicle, $30 per motorcycle, or $20 per person entering by foot, bicycle, or park shuttle bus. And for Badlands and Shenandoah, it’s $30, $25, and $15, respectively. Entrance passes can be purchased online or at the park entrance.
I have long thought that anyone who does not regularly—or ever—gaze up and see the wonder and glory of a dark night sky filled with countless stars loses a sense of their fundamental connectedness to the universe.