Astrophotographer Kevin McMullen has been stargazing and photographing dark skies for about four years. (Check out some of his images below and at @astrodermatologist on Instagram.) Capturing the dark side of beautiful places requires long drives to remote locations and challenging hikes in the dark, but McMullen’s hooked.
And he’s rarely ever run into other people on his late-night excursions — until this year. If McMullen’s experience is any indication, the containment and restriction of living through the 2020 pandemic have inspired more people to seek out remote places.
Adam Dalton, program manager at International Dark-Sky Association (IDA), agrees that this year has been unlike any other, and he says the increased interest in dark sky places is a continuation of a larger trend.
“There’s been renewed interest in protected landscapes,” Dalton points out. “During COVID we’re seeing an even more acute version of this. People are looking for ways to connect to nature and feel at ease.”
When our lives have shrunk to the size of our homes and the screens we spend so much time on, the infinite aspect of innumerable stars in the night sky can be a reassuring reminder that we're all still part of something much bigger.
If you’re itching to escape to someplace safe and awe-inspiring, a trip to a dark sky location could be just what you’re looking for. Below is everything you need to know.
What Are Dark Skies?
Dark skies exist in places where there is minimal or no light pollution, allowing an unencumbered view of the sky for stargazing.
Light pollution is the widespread abundance of artificial light — from street lights to cell phones — and it has become an increasingly large problem throughout the U.S. About 80 percent of North Americans can’t see the glittery smear of stars that make up the Milky Way from where they live. And the increasing light pollution from land development is making it harder and harder to find truly dark skies.
The IDA works to preserve dark skies while educating the public on the impacts of light pollution and ways to reduce it.
For a location to earn official designation as a Dark Sky Park (one of five distinctions offered by the IDA) it must “provide an exceptional dark sky resource” and be at least partially accessible to the public. Other designations include Communities, Reserves, Sanctuaries, and Urban Night Sky Places.
Why Are Dark Skies Important?
There are so many benefits to preserving and enjoying dark sky locations. From a health perspective, we sleep better when our circadian rhythms are in sync with the earth’s natural light-dark cycle.
And while sleep is important, so is the experience of witnessing natural grandeur. The glow of a full moon or the twinkle of a clear constellation can fill one with awe, a feeling proven to lower stress and improve overall well-being.
McMullen likens the allure of traveling to a dark sky destination to the excitement of experiencing a great vista in the daytime.
Take Half Dome in Yosemite National Park, for example, he says. You see this massive boulder rising above the valley, and “you get this immense sense of awe for the size of it all,” says McMullen.
At nighttime, McMullen believes, it gets even better.
“The difference at night is you juxtapose what you already know is grand and huge and you put it against something so much bigger — the endless night sky,” he says. “Those two things next to each other are such a great reminder of how small you are.”
Where Are Dark Sky Places?
Many dark sky places exist in locations you might already be familiar with. For instance, Arches National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park, Grand Canyon National Park, Joshua Tree National Park, and Voyageurs National Park are all IDA-certified Dark Sky Parks.
To find a dark sky location near you, the IDA’s dark sky map can help.
National parks tend to be an accessible stargazing option. Convenient gateway towns offer amenities like motels, camping options, and grocery stores, and knowledgeable park rangers can answer any questions once you’re there.
If you don’t have an official dark sky location nearby, you may still be able to find remote destinations to view clear nighttime skies that may not have received the official title.
McMullen uses lightpollutionmap.info, which is like Google Maps with an added layer for light. Look up your address, and then zoom out to see how far you’ll need to travel to reach the increased darkness best for viewing stars.
The Bortle scale is used to rank the darkness of the night sky. It ranges from 1 (the darkest night sky where airglow, the faint emission of light from the Earth’s atmosphere, is visible) to 9 (a city sky where only the moon and the brightest stars are visible). To experience the best stargazing opportunities, McMullen recommends looking for a Bortle 3 or lower.
Tips for Stargazing and Enjoying Dark Skies
Once you’ve chosen a destination, you’ll need a place to sleep. Dalton prefers to camp when the weather allows — without a rain cover and sometimes even without a tent — so the stars are visible all night long.
If you’re opting to sleep outside, this handy dark skies camping map from Hipcamp can point you to the darkest camping destinations, including glamping accommodations, such as yurts, domes, and other unique lodging options.
Cottages, cabins, and vacation rentals are a warmer option for winter dark sky trips. Many dark sky destinations have capitalized on the draw of darkness, and you can find rentals specifically designed for enjoying the night, like this dome tent with a transparent roof near the Grand Canyon. If you aren’t able to find a place with a clear roof, look for accommodations with comfortable outdoor spaces like porches and fire rings.
What to Bring to a Dark Sky Park
Comfort is key when you’re planning to be outside late into the night. If you’re uncomfortable, you might bail early and miss the darkest time of night and the brightest of stars. So, make sure you understand the environment of the place you’re visiting, and pack accordingly. And remember: Higher altitudes offer clearer skies, but they’re also colder, so bring layers, and if there's any chance of snow, pack boots and snow gear as well.
“Warm beverages never hurt,” adds McMullen.
Another pro tip? Bring a map of the area and be aware of the type of roads you’ll need to cross to access your destination. The darkest places are often reached by dirt roads, so you’ll need to know if your vehicle can handle the terrain.
Lastly, pack specific gear for any activities you’re planning to pursue.
“Be aware of what kind of experience you’re hoping to have,” says McMullen.
He enjoys hiking to the most striking views of dark places. This is only a good idea if you’re an experienced hiker, comfortable traversing unfamiliar ground in the dark. If you’re going that route, bring everything you need to hike, along with a headlamp, extra batteries, and a backup source of light, such as a flashlight.
A telescope or binoculars might help, but if you don’t already own them, it’s OK: Often the beauty of a dark sky is how much you can see with the naked eye.
What to Know Before You Go Stargazing
There are a lot of variables that can affect dark skywatching and stargazing. It's essential to do a bit of research and check an astronomical calendar of celestial events before you depart.
For instance, the lunar cycle will greatly impact what’s visible. While a full moon can be stunning, you won’t see as many stars while so much moonlight floods the sky.
Similarly, a view of the Milky Way is a goal for many dark sky stargazers. Keep in mind that the Milky Way is not visible in the Northern Hemisphere during most of the winter.
That said, the winter months are a great time for stargazing because cold air holds less moisture, making a cloudless sky even clearer.
The Bottom Line on Viewing Stars in Clear Dark Skies
You don’t have to be an astronomer or an astrophotographer to appreciate all that glitters in the night sky.
There are plenty of resources for identifying stars and planets, including the Skyview app, which helps you find constellations through the camera on your phone and Lonely Planet’s Dark Skies: A Practical Guide to Astrotourism.
Whether you’re road-tripping to visit an official Dark Sky Park or simply getting outside to spend an evening in a place that’s darker than home, experiencing a sky full of stars is as beautiful and magical as the universe surrounding them. You just have to get out there.
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