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Eco Travel

The Eco-Pleasure of Dark Skies

“For my part, I know nothing with any certainty, but that the sight of the stars makes me dream.” – Vincent van Gogh

Those who came before us had the immense joy of sheltering beneath brilliant stars. In Navajo lore, Father Sky was placing the stars, perfectly aligned, at the beginning of time—he wanted to help frail humans chart their course around this Earth. Coyote got impatient. He climbed up the ladder behind him, carrying a blanket that was filled with stars. He shook them into the sky. This is why some stars look like random glitter, some are a dense smear, and others are in formation.

The easiest way to find the North Star, Polaris, is to look into the sky and find the Big Dipper. Now, find the ‘pointer’ stars—these are the two that a liquid would run off if you tipped your dipper. The North Star is always five times the distance between these two ‘pointer’ stars, and in the direction that they point, up and away from the dipper. True north is directly under Polaris, which sits over the North Pole.

The moon, too, tells us where we are. Look at a crescent moon. Now, imagine a line that connects the tips of the crescent, and extend that line down to the horizon. If you’re in the northern hemisphere, it will give you a rough idea of south.

But, what happens when we look up and see only faint, blurry shadows? We feel let down, disappointed. Untethered. We have been inspired by stars since the dawn of time. Night skies have moved our imaginations in the realms of science, religion, art, literature, and philosophy. A dark sky, strewn with stars, helps us remember our place in the vast, eternal universe. It is part of our human heritage, and we long for it.

The International Dark Sky Places organization has designated more than 100 parks, communities, reserves, and sanctuaries as Dark Sky Preserves. If you’re within a few hours’ drive, consider going to one when an astronomical event comes around. Here is a list of some of our favorite places that have little light pollution:

Canyonlands National Park, Utah

The sunsets glow and blaze across the sky, settling to the ground in liquid fire. After the sun sets, the shadows created by an entire park full of red rock canyons and ghostly formations is like nothing else you will experience. Imagine complete peace beneath the stars.

Denali National Park and Preserve, Alaska

This is a must. During the day, there is unparalleled natural wonder and adventure. At night, the stars sing a song of healing and rejuvenation.

The Cosmic Campground, New Mexico

This is designated as the darkest place in the United States. Located in the Gila Bend National Forest, the closest source of artificial light is more than 40 miles away. This is a must-see for stargazers. There are many areas in the four-corners that are as dark—they simply haven’t been discovered yet.

Rainbow Bridge National Monument, Utah (near Page AZ)

Accessible only on a two-hour boat trip on Lake Powell from Page, AZ, this area is held sacred by both the Paiute and Navajo people. Because it’s remote, its skies are pristine and remain naturally dark.

Central Idaho

This area was America’s first Gold-tier International Dark Sky Reserve. These stars shine over the Sawtooth National Recreation Area. Go backcountry rafting or hiking during the day, then feel yourself relax under this extraordinary sky. If you’ve decided to go to Sun Valley, Idaho, you’re not far—make the drive and discover bliss.

Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico

This is a protected area in New Mexico, managed by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, as part of the National Wildlife Refuge System. It is located 7 miles south of Albuquerque, New Mexico. This land, which used to be a dairy farm, abuts the Rio Grande Valley State Park, right next to the Rio Grande River.

Tumacácori National Historical Park, Arizona

Tumacácori serves as a role model in the conservation of night skies. “We’ve enjoyed a long history of night sky scholars and enthusiasts visiting the mission,” said park Superintendent, Bob Love. “Native people, astronomers like Father Kino, and settlers and cowboys who may have stopped to camp at the mission, all looked to the sky at night. Our designation as an International Dark Sky Park protects that experience for current and future generations.”

Westcliffe, Colorado

Visit Colorado’s first, and ninth in the world, certified International Dark Sky communities of Westcliffe & Silver Cliff.  They are located in Southern Colorado’s historic Wet Mountain Valley, between the Wet Mountain and Sangre de Cristo mountain ranges. These are the highest altitude International Dark Sky areas in the world.

Oracle State Park, Arizona

Arizona is home to a variety of stargazing opportunities thanks to ample dark skies throughout the more rural sections of the state.  Oracle is one of those special stargazing parks that offers up great night sky views throughout the year. 

Death Valley, NV and CA

Death Valley National Park is designated as the largest Dark Sky National Park in the country—it is designated as a Gold-Tier Dark Sky Park, the highest level awarded.

Located 120 miles northwest of Las Vegas and 295 miles northeast of Los Angeles, Furnace Creek is far enough away from major Southwest cities to give unobstructed views of a dazzling night sky.  And, it’s close enough for people who live in these cities to escape and enjoy a blanket of stars for the weekend.

It is said, by many Indigenous groups, that we are all related.  This is now truer, and bigger, than we might imagine.  A new survey of 150,000 stars tells us that humans, and their galaxy, consist of about 97% of the same kind of atoms.  The crucial elements for life on Earth are carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and sulfur.  Astronomers have catalogued the abundance of these same elements in stars—they like to say we are made of stardust.  Think of that the next time you go stargazing . . .