Space might not yet be the final frontier, but it’s an intriguing one. The International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) recommends places for Earthlings to stargaze—especially places absent the yellow haze of light pollution.
The association’s Dark Sky Places program sets a high bar for national and international communities, parks, and reserves. Parks that demonstrate their dedication to conserving heavenly views earn certification as International Dark Sky Parks. They must not only have dark skies, but also demonstrate a long-term commitment to keep those places dark in the future, says program project manager Dr. John Barentine. Sometimes this requires the parks to change their practices—for example, 2013 designate Chaco Culture National Historical Park replaced all the outdoor lighting in its jurisdiction. Additionally, the park offers visitor programs teaching about the cosmos and the pre-Puebloan people’s connection to the star system.
In 2007, Utah’s Natural Bridges National Monument was the first to receive designation as an International Dark Sky Park; Arizona’s Parashant International Dark Sky Province is the latest, in 2014, to earn the hat tip. The providence includes the pristine, breathtaking skies above 1.05 million acres of land in northwest Arizona at Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument.
Other U.S. havens for astronomers include Cherry Springs State Park in Pennsylvania, Clayton Lake State Park in New Mexico, Big Bend National Park in Texas, and Death Valley National Park in California.
Although not officially designated IDA destinations, Barentine also recommends Rocky Mountain, Grand Teton, Yellowstone, Canyonlands, Glacier, Everglades, and Acadia National Parks . That many of these destinations are in the West is no coincidence: With low population density, large national parks, and low humidity—water vapor can impact brightness—the lands west of the Mississippi offer prime viewing.
But that’s not always the case. Several parks in Great Britain—Galloway Forest Park in Scotland, and Northumberland National Park and Kielder Water Forest Park in Northumberland, England—have earned gold-level recognition.
Preserving pristine night skies goes beyond sighting Orion’s Belt and the Milky Way. The IDA points out that light pollution disrupts human circadian rhythms and ecosystems, with effects ranging from stunting plant growth to altering animals feeding, reproduction, and movement cycles. All the more reason to go dark this summer.