In an era of light pollution, the darkest skies in the West


Looking down on the Earth a few years ago, the darkness enveloping the northern plains, northern Rockies and much of Alaska would have stood in stark contrast to the glittering lights of Los Angeles and San Diego. No more. Images from NASA’s Black Marble project show bursts of artificial light emanating from the oil fields of North Dakota’s Bakken region and Alaska’s North Slope rivaling those of California’s coastal cities. The sparsely populated Bakken now appears to be one of the brightest nighttime locales in the American West.

The U.S. at night. Courtesy NASA.

Fortunately for stargazers, Western states still offer plenty of dark skies. Yet as the Tucson, Ariz. nonprofit International Dark Sky Association points out, the once-universal human experience of walking or sleeping under a sky brimming with stars – the inspiration for thousands of years of science, religion, philosophy, art and literature – is becoming increasingly absent from our lives. Two-thirds of Americans can’t see the Milky Way from their homes anymore; for many of us, the glow of neon signs and street lights have overtaken those of the cosmos.

Outdoor lighting that’s too bright, stays on all night or illuminates the sky rather than the earth not only obscures the stars, it disrupts the rhythms of human, animal and plant life. Light pollution confuses birds and reptiles, represents an enormous waste of energy (the Dark Sky Association estimates $11 billion worth in the U.S. alone) and has been linked to human health issues, including the suppression of melatonin, a cancer-fighting hormone.

To help protect dark skies for human and ecological health – as well as cash in on the increasing popularity of night-sky tourism – towns, parks and preserves can now apply through the Dark Sky Association to become an official Dark Sky Place. The first Dark Sky Place was designated in 2001; today there are more than two dozen worldwide, and while Western states in the U.S. boast eight such spots, there are plenty of ultra-dark places in the region not yet designated. Grand Canyon and Glacier national parks are in the process of applying, says Scott Kardel, managing director of the Dark Sky Association, and plenty of other sites in Utah, Alaska and the northern Rockies are also eligible.

Arches National Park at night. Courtesy International Dark Sky Association and National Park Service/Jacob W. Frank.

To become a Dark Sky Place, sites must meet certain brightness and glare metrics, but designation depends as much on darkness itself as on residents or volunteers’ commitment to preserving night skies through codes, ordinances and education. As National Park Service director Jon Jarvis notes, light pollution is easy to control, simply by turning the lights off, dimming them or pointing light fixtures downward.

In celebration of International Dark Sky Week, here in no particular order are some of the region’s best stargazing spots.

  • Death Valley National Park, California

With 91 percent of the park’s 3.4 million acres designated as wilderness and prohibited to development, Death Valley’s dry climate, clean air and expansive horizons make it one of the best places on the planet to see meteor showers and lunar eclipses.

Borrego Springs, Calif., with the lights of San Diego to the west. NASA/GoogleEarth image. Click to englarge.

  • Borrego Springs, California
    The town of Borrego Springs, population 3,429, may not offer skies as pristine as those of a national park, but as the second community in the world designated a Dark Sky Place, Borrego residents have worked with local businesses to install motion-sensor lights, redirect outdoor lighting and educate the public about the value of dark skies.

  • Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument, Arizona
    Located in northwest Arizona on the edge of the Grand Canyon, the monument was awarded Dark Sky recognition in March and is the first Bureau of Land Management-managed site to receive the distinction.

    A NASA image of Flagstaff, Arizona, at night, with Phoenix to the south.
  • Flagstaff, Arizona
    An early adopter of stringent lighting codes, Flagstaff is pretty dim for a city of 67,000. In 2001, one resident told High Country News that the night skies were one of his reasons for moving there. “One of the things we required when we had children was that they be able to see the stars.”
  • Goldendale Observatory State Park, Washington
    Home to one of the country’s largest public telescopes, this tiny five-acre state park is only two hours from Portland, making it one of the best stargazing spots within striking distance of a major metropolitan center.
  • Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah
    Natural Bridges became the country’s first Dark Sky Park in 2007. Nomination letters describe its view of the Milky Way as with “intricate detail resembling veined marble” and point to the cultural significance of the night sky: “Standing at one of the park’s many archeological sites, one can easily imagine another human centuries earlier gazing awestruck into the same universe.”

    The night sky in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, with an ancient stone building in the foreground.Courtesy National Park Service.
  • Chaco Culture National Historic Park, New Mexico
    Designated last year, 99 percent of the park is without permanent outdoor lighting. Rangers have inventoried existing night sky conditions to use as a baseline for a continuing monitoring program.
  • Clayton Lake State Park, New Mexico

Nearby schools bring students to these rolling northeastern New Mexico grasslands to learn about the stars, while local hotels promote dark sky tourism.

In the comments section below, tell us about the darkest place you’ve been in the West.

Krista Langlois is an editorial fellow at High Country News. She tweets @KristaLanglois2.

marc  hoshovsky
marc hoshovsky
Apr 24, 2014 11:27 PM
It probably doesn't get much darker in the US than High Rock Canyon in NW Nevada. Just look at the US-lights-at-night map for that huge dark area in the West. Smack in the middle of it. 150 to 200 air-miles from Reno, Boise, and Medford, which are the nearest "big" cities. Camp out there on a moonless night, after a storm has come through and cleared the air, you will be awestruck. The Milky Way is a dazzling white band across a night sky that is almost gray with more stars than I've ever seen.
Colin Magowan
Colin Magowan
Apr 25, 2014 11:26 AM
While you can see the lights of Vegas in most parts of Death Valley, the north half of the Owens Valley (Big Pine, Bishop) California have no light pollution from any major city leaving a nearly perfectly dark night sky; plus, world class rock climbing, mountain biking, and hiking.
Liana M Aker
Liana M Aker Subscriber
Apr 25, 2014 12:52 PM
Fort Irwin, a large Army installation where I work just south of Death Valley has some pretty fabulous stargazing: my current home, Newberry Springs, CA is no slouch either as far as dark skies that can still be experienced within populated areas. I also watched the 2008 Perseids from middle-of-nowhere, Millican, Oregon and won't soon forget it.
Peter Pearsall
Peter Pearsall
Apr 25, 2014 02:28 PM
Ditto to Marc's comment. I live in Gerlach, Nev., gateway to the Black Rock Desert-High Rock Canyon-Emigrant Trails National Conservation Area, whose 1.2 million acres encompass High Rock Canyon and many other notable locales. Much of my work entails camping out in the field, often under a blanket of stars so thick and profuse as to beggar belief. Sometimes, on clear moonless nights camped out on the bone-white alkali playa, starshine appears to reflect off the planed surface like billion-year-old albedo. I'm from Seattle. Before moving out to the desert I had glimpsed the Milky Way maybe half a dozen times in my life. Nowadays, out here, its opaque glow is almost as reliable as the moonrise.
Steve Snyder
Steve Snyder Subscriber
Apr 29, 2014 05:24 PM
I call foul on the Arches pic. I've seen it elsewhere, first; I'm not sure it originates with the Dark Sky Assn. Second, it's pretty clearly a photoshopping of two different sky images. (I've seen an even worse version, with Delicate Arch itself backlit, too.) I blogged about this here: http://socraticgadfly.blogs[…]ery-from-department-of.html Please, HCN staff, remove the picture, especially if the Dark Sky Assn cannot verify its origin and that it's a single image.
Krista Langlois
Krista Langlois Subscriber
Apr 30, 2014 10:00 AM
Hi Steve - You're right that the Arches photo did not originate with the Dark Sky Association; they erred on not crediting it to NPS/Jacob W. Frank, and proper credit is now given above. (As an NPS photo, it falls under a Creative Commons license, which is why you've likely seen it elsewhere.) I also just got off the phone with Mr. Frank, who confirmed that the photo is indeed a single exposure.
David C. Bruton
David C. Bruton
Apr 30, 2014 08:15 PM
U/S NIGHTIME SAT IMAGE: Shocking if the Bakken (N. Dakota/Montana) is flaring that much gas.
Robert Hollis
Robert Hollis
May 11, 2014 05:58 PM
Eastland, UT, a little over 10 miles SE of Monticello near the Colorado border.
Karl Kumli  III
Karl Kumli III Subscriber
May 12, 2014 04:39 PM
Head about 20 miles SE of Eastland, UT and you'll be in Canyons of the Ancients National Monument. Alternatively, try Mills Canyon on the Canadian River in the Kiowa Grasslands east of Wagon Mound, New Mexico.