Shenandoah National Park is Hosting a Night Sky Festival This Weekend—and It’s Free

The annual festival takes place from July 19 to July 21

When you come home at night and flip on the lamp switch, do you ever stop to think about what you might be missing?

In 1880, less than 150 years ago, electric light first came to American cities.
In 2017, roughly 80 percent of people in North America cannot see the Milky Way due to electric lights at night. In other words, our dark night skies often really aren’t all that dark. When was the last time you were able to experience the awe of seeing a sky full of stars? It can be easy to feel disconnected from or simply forget about the beauty and sheer vastness of the cosmos.

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National parks are some of the best places to appreciate night skies because the National Park Service works to protect these places from the increasingly prevalent effects of light pollution. The National Park Service recognizes dark night skies as a valuable resource that needs to be protected.

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National Parks are becoming a refuge for people from city light pollution. Dozens of national parks around the country have earned designations such as International Dark Sky Parks and Sanctuaries. These distinctions recognize “an exceptional or distinguished quality of starry nights and a nocturnal environment that is specifically protected for its scientific, natural, educational, cultural heritage, and/or public enjoyment,” according to the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA).

Many of these parks have astronomy programs where people of all ages can learn more about the wonders of the night sky—and all of them have places to lay out a blanket and simply enjoy the darkness. Grand Canyon National Parks hosts an annual Star Party in June.

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Under the stars at Shenandoah National Park

The crisp, clear Blue Ridge Mountains air in Shenandoah National Park makes everything brighter in the night sky. Stars sparkle with more intensity and constellations come into clearer view.

Related article: Where to Stargaze

While Shenandoah National Park may not get as dark as some of the Parks in the West, its high elevation combined with its relative remoteness from dense urban areas makes the Park a great place to engage in stargazing on the east coast.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

On moonless and cloud-free nights it is a wonderful spot to view the Milky Way or some of the 2,500 stars visible to the unaided eye that make up one of the 88 official constellations. Finding and observing constellations, phases of the moon, meteor showers, and eclipses can provide a sense of wonder about our place in the universe.

Starting in 2016 Shenandoah National Park began a Night Sky Festival, full of ranger programs and activities to help celebrate our disappearing dark skies.

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Tips for Stargazing

A good place for stargazing in Shenandoah National Park is by the Big Meadows area near the Rapidan Fire Road. The amphitheater in the Skyland area is also appropriate.

Related article: The Grand Canyon Is Hosting a Star Party This Week—and It’s Totally Free

Most people are a bit uncomfortable in the dark. Try getting used to it by walking outside in a dark area while keeping your flashlight in your pocket.

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Allow your eyes time to adjust; it takes about twenty minutes for your eyes to become accustomed to the nighttime darkness. You may be surprised how well you can see by starlight.

Make a red flashlight or use one with a red LED. To make your own, use red paper or cellophane to cover the white light of the flashlight. Red light allows your eyes to adapt better to the darkness than white light while still providing visibility for safety.

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Enjoying the night skies is for everyone, you don’t need expensive equipment. If you don’t have a telescope, grab your binoculars to get a better look at the fuzzy spots in the sky overhead. Also, use the binoculars to gaze upon the Milky Way.

Educate yourself on the constellations overhead with the use of a star chart or a star-finding app downloadable for your smartphone or tablet.

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When venturing out to stargaze in the park make sure to bring a red flashlight to journey from your car to your destination. Be sure to dress in layers, as summer nights are often cool on the mountain ridge. Bring a blanket or a set of chairs to sit on.

Related article: Ride the Sky along Skyline Drive

Shenandoah National Park will conduct its sixth annual Night Sky Festival from August 19-21. Rangers and guest speakers will present a variety of programs at sites throughout the park focusing on space, celestial objects, nocturnal residents, and the importance of dark night skies. 

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Guest speakers presenting will include NASA Solar System Ambassador Greg Redfern and amateur astronomer Rich Drumm. These programs are sponsored by Delaware North, the park concessioner.  

Other activities include special ranger-led talks, discussions, children’s activities, and telescope/night sky viewings. Programs will take place at Dickey Ridge Visitor Center (Milepost 4.6), Mathews Arm Campground (Milepost 22.1), Skyland Amphitheater (Milepost 42.5), Byrd Visitor Center (Milepost 51), Big Meadows (Milepost 51), and Loft Mountain Amphitheater (Milepost 79.5). 

Related article: Shenandoah National Park: Daughter of the Stars

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All programs are free. No reservations are needed. However, park entrance fees apply ($30/vehicle, valid for 7 days). Participants should be weather-prepared and bring a flashlight with a red filter. The complete program schedule can be found on the park’s website.  

Worth Pondering…

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.

—Brian Greene

Where to Stargaze

Planning a camping trip? Consider these starlit gems.

Imagine being able to see billions of stars in the Milky Way just with your naked eye from your backyard. It was once a common reality until artificial lights from our growing cities started encroaching upon the night sky. Today, to see the Milky Way—and most constellations other than, say, the Big Dipper—you have to trek far, far away from humanity. The darker the sky, the better the view!

The ultimate stargazing spots are fittingly called Dark Sky Places, designated pockets where light pollution is at a minimum and the stars can shine in all their glory. And the keeper of those Dark Sky Places is the International Dark Sky Association (IDA). 

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What began in 1988 as a grassroots movement among astronomers in Tucson is now international with 196 certified Dark Sky Places spanning 21 countries. Its mission is to protect natural landscapes, educate the public, and counteract the harmful effects of excessive light pollution linked to everything from insomnia to obesity to cancer.

“It messes with our circadian rhythms,” says Ryan Parker, secretary of the IDA’s Colorado chapter. “Our body naturally needs to sleep and rest and rebuild. And, when we don’t allow that to happen it interferes with our natural homeostasis.”

Arches National Park, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When the 24-hour cycle of light and dark is interrupted for wildlife the consequences can be dire. Nocturnal animals confuse night and day and become easy prey. Birds that migrate or hunt by moonlight get thrown off course by artificial light migrating too early or colliding into buildings. Baby sea turtles that hatch on the beach and find their way to the ocean by the light of the moon can be lured in the opposite direction by urban glow.

Related: Explore the Funky Art Towns and Desert Beauty of West Texas

Beyond that, the impetus to preserve our dark skies should be pretty obvious: Just look up. An unpolluted sky is glorious, awe-inspiring even. And more and more communities are working to get officially certified by the IDA’s standards—a process that can take up to three years. 

Borrego Springs, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Dark Sky Places fall under five designations: 

  • International Dark Sky Communities: Communities are legally organized cities and towns that adopt quality outdoor lighting ordinances and undertake efforts to educate residents about the importance of dark skies. Certified IDA International Dark Sky Communities include Borrego Springs (California), Sedona (Arizona), and Fredericksburg (Texas).
  • International Dark Sky Parks: Parks are public- or privately-owned spaces protected for natural conservation that implement good outdoor lighting and provide dark sky programs for visitors. Certified IDA International Dark Sky Parks include Anza-Borrego Desert State Park (California), Arches National Park (Utah), Lyndon B. Johnson National Historic Park (Texas), El Moro National Monument (New Mexico), Mesa Verde National Park (Colorado), and Stephen C. Foster State Park (Georgia).
  • International Dark Sky Reserves: Reserves consist of a dark “core” zone surrounded by a populated periphery where policy controls are enacted to protect the darkness of the core. Certified IDA International Dark Sky Reserves include Central Idaho and Greater Big Bend International Dark Sky Reserve (Texas and Mexico).
  • International Dark Sky Sanctuaries: Sanctuaries are the most remote (and often darkest) places in the world whose conservation state is most fragile. Certified IDA International Dark Sky Sanctuaries include Black Gap Wildlife Management Area (Texas), Cosmic Campground (New Mexico), and Medicine Rocks State Park (Montana).
  • Urban Night Sky Places: Urban Night Sky Places are sites near or surrounded by large urban environs whose planning and design actively promote an authentic nighttime experience amid significant artificial light night and that otherwise do not qualify for designation within any other International Dark Sky Places category. Certified IDA Urban Night Sky Places include Fry Family Park (Ohio), Stacy Park (Missouri), and Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge (New Mexico).
Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In addition to certifying Dark Sky Places, the 50 IDA chapters also run star parties like June’s Rocky Mountain Star Share, an annual extravaganza in Colorado on 35 acres of land with speakers, camping, and massive telescopes. The Premier Star Party of the Rocky Mountains was held June 22–26, 2022.

Related: The Grand Canyon Is Hosting a Star Party This Week—and It’s Totally Free

There’s also International Dark Sky Week in April and both Utah and Colorado host Dark Sky Months with events and extra outreach to inspire visitors to make changes in their own homes and communities. Utah’s 23 accredited International Dark-Sky Association places include four of Utah’s Mighty Five national parks, 10 state parks, and two towns. Colorado currently claims 15 of the world’s 196 International Dark Sky Places.

Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The coolest Dark Sky Places in the US

Across the 94 Dark Sky Places in the United States, you’ll find friendly amateur astronomers and ample opportunities to gaze uninterrupted into the heavens. Consider picking up a red light headlamp—a hands-free way to illuminate your path but not obstruct the experience. Check the weather forecast, bring layers and plenty of water, tell someone where you’re going, and don’t forget to look down every once in a while. You can fall off a cliff if you’re not paying attention.

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Big Bend National Park, Texas

The bend isn’t the only thing that’s big in one of America’s most underrated national parks—the number of stars you can see here is massive. Big Bend is an ultra-remote superstar. Located in far West Texas, you’ll find yourself with plenty of peace and quiet as you hike through desert canyons, marvel at the Chisos Mountains, or kayak down the Rio Grande. But don’t forget to save some energy for after dark: Big Bend’s extreme isolation makes it the least light-polluted of all the national parks in the lower 48 so that as the sun goes down the heavens explode with stars. Park yourself anywhere beneath its 1,112,000 acres of dark skies for a night and take it all in.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

The Grand Canyon may be the best national park in America! That’s debatable. But it is the most recognizable and extraordinary place to stargaze. A few years ago, the Grand Canyon Village began retrofitting its lighting to be more dark sky-friendly and in 2016 was rewarded with Provisional Dark Sky status. Between that effort and its accessibility, Grand Canyon’s allure for the astronomically inclined is not up for debate.

Related: Exploring a State Park or National Park this Summer! How to Choose?

There’s an annual Grand Canyon Star Party held each June and the Desert View Watchtower is a popular spot for capturing the Milky Way with astrophotography. On a full moon night, take a ranger-led hike along the rim, or on other nights a ranger-led constellation tour. Here’s how to plan your visit.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah

Like its state parks, Utah’s national monuments often hide in the shadows of its big five national parks. As such, only about 100,000 people visit Natural Bridges each year and most of those folks don’t stick around once the sun goes down. This is unfortunate—Natural Bridges became the first international Dark Sky Park back in 2007 owing to it having some of the absolute darkest skies in the country and countless astronomy events held through the summer. At night, the sky positively explodes with stars and celestial bodies and the canyon walls are pitch black in contrast to the celestial river that is the Milky Way rising over Owachomo Bridge. Let your gaze drift through the arch, upward and uninterrupted.

Worth Pondering…

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.

—Brian Greene

The Grand Canyon Is Hosting a Star Party This Week—and It’s Totally Free

The annual party takes place from June 18 to June 25

Imagine being able to see billions of stars in the Milky Way just with your naked eye from your own backyard. It was once a common reality until artificial lights from our growing cities started encroaching upon the night sky. Today to see the Milky Way and most constellations other than, say, the Big Dipper you have to trek far, far away from humanity. The darker the sky, the better!

The ultimate stargazing spots are fittingly called Dark Sky Places: designated pockets where light pollution is at a minimum and the stars are out in all their glory. And the keepers of those Dark Sky Places are the International Dark Sky Association (IDA). 

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What began in 1988 as a grassroots movement among astronomers in Tucson is now international with 170 certified Dark Sky Places in 21 countries. Its mission is to protect natural landscapes, educate, and counteract the harmful effects of excessive light pollution linked to everything from insomnia to obesity to cancer. “It messes with our circadian rhythms,” says Ryan Parker, Chair of the Colorado chapter of the IDA. “Our body naturally needs to sleep and rest and rebuild. And when we don’t allow that to happen, it interferes with our natural homeostasis.”

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon National Park was designated as an International Dark Sky Park in 2016. Many of the best protected night skies in the country are found within national park boundaries.

Grand Canyon joined eleven other national park sites certified by IDA. Including Grand Canyon, eight of the national park sites with IDA Dark Sky Park status are located on the Colorado Plateau. The NPS especially focuses on sustainable outdoor lighting because it combines technology, design, and practice in a way that allows parks to increase energy efficiency and enhance visitor experiences.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Between its Dark Sky status and its ease of accessibility, the Grand Canyon attracts the astronomically inclined. There’s an annual Grand Canyon Star Party held in June and the Desert View Watchtower is a popular spot for capturing the Milky Way with astrophotography.

For over 30 years, the Grand Canyon National Park and Grand Canyon Conservancy have hosted a week-long June stargazing party with free entrance to the park and a multi-day program. And while during the COVID-19 pandemic the annual event went viral, the in-real-life celebration runs between June 18 and June 25 this year. 

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

According to the National Park Service (NPS), the event kicks off Saturday after sunset. So, 9 p.m. is reportedly the best time for viewing and visitors are encouraged to bring a red flashlight rather than a white one as that can interfere with the viewing.

“Skies will be starry and dark until the moon rises the first night,” the NPS wrote on its website. “It rises progressively later throughout the week of the Star Party.”

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

On the South Rim, the seven-day event kicks off with a Mars Perseverance presentation on June 18 where visitors can learn about the Red Planet rover from the person who built it followed by presentations throughout the week on everything from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope to learning how astronauts trained in northern Arizona in the 1960s and 1970s.

Each evening, the NPS will also host a telescope viewing behind the Grand Canyon Visitor Center while park rangers will offer constellation tours. Night sky photography workshops will also be available.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

On the North Rim, an astronomy-related evening program will be offered at 8 p.m. in the auditorium of the Grand Canyon Lodge and constellation talks will also be given throughout the night. During the day, solar telescopes will also be set up at the lodge.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Things to Know about the 2022 Star Party

  • Attend this free, open-to-the-general public, event. The park entrance fee ($35/vehicle) is valid 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 p.m. and many telescopes come down after 11 p.m.; however, on nights with clear and calm skies, some astronomers continue sharing their telescopes into the night.
  • Campground or lodging reservations are recommended.
  • Dress warmly. Temperatures drop quickly after sunset—even during summer months.
  • View an assortment of planets, double stars, star clusters, nebulae, and distant galaxies by night and perhaps the Sun or Venus by day.
  • Skies will be starry and dark until the moon rises the first night. It rises progressively later throughout the week of the Star Party.
Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

South Rim Star Party 2022

  • Events include an outdoor evening program nightly just outside Grand Canyon Visitor Center at 8 p.m. followed by telescope viewing in the large lot behind the Visitor Center. To attend the evening programs arrive before 8 p.m. to be sure of getting a good view of the screen or arrive after dark and head straight to the telescope lot.
  • Park rangers offer constellation tours at 9, 9:30, and 10 p.m. The slide show, constellation tours, and at least one telescope are wheelchair accessible. The closest accessible parking is in lot 4. Lots 1 through 3 offer additional parking. During the Star Party, the Village Route (blue) shuttle bus runs every half-hour until 11 p.m. sharp.
  • The South Rim Star Party is sponsored by the Tucson Amateur Astronomy Association. Amateur astronomers from across the country volunteer their expertise and offer free nightly astronomy programs and telescope viewing.
Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

North Rim Star Party 2022

  • Telescopes are set up on the porch of the Grand Canyon Lodge every evening. An astronomy-related evening program will be presented at 8 p.m. in the auditorium of Grand Canyon Lodge. Check park bulletin boards for the evening program schedule. Constellation talks are also given, throughout the evening.
  • By day, solar telescopes are set up at the lodge, the Visitor Center, and the general store (by the campground.)
  • The North Rim Star Party is sponsored by the Saguaro Astronomy Club of Phoenix, Arizona.

Park Alerts in Effect

  • Alert 1, Severity danger, Inner Canyon High Temp of 100 °F (38 °C) Excessive Heat Warning – Saturday, June 18, 2022; hiking into Grand Canyon is not advised this week. If you do, don’t hike between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Bring water and electrolytes, food and salty snacks, sunscreen, sunglasses, a water spray bottle, loose/protective Clothing, wide-brimmed hat.
  • Alert 2, Severity danger, Grand Canyon National Park is in STAGE 2 FIRE RESTRICTIONS. Campfires are prohibited. Wood burning and charcoal fires including campfires and warming fires are prohibited.

Worth Pondering…

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.

—Brian Greene