How dark is your neighborhood sky on a moonless night? Can you see millions of sparkling stars, planets and perhaps even the International Space Station?
If it’s truly dark, the Milky Way’s seemingly infinite number of stars, celestial bodies and cloudy clusters spread themselves across the night sky. However, most people never experience such darkness unless they live near or visit an International Dark Sky-designated preserve, park or community.
Steven Miller is lucky. Growing up in New Mexico, his grandfather and uncle introduced him to the Milky Way as a teenager.
“I can remember them taking me to White Sands National Park when I was 16,” says the Orlando, Florida, professional photographer. “I just laid on the sand and looked up at the sky. It was spectacular—incredibly amazing—to see millions of stars, the Milky Way, constellations and other objects in the night sky. I’d never seen anything like it. After that, I was hooked.”
He augmented his love of the night sky by experimenting with photography. His hobby grew into a profession as a wedding photographer, but he still looks for every opportunity to take his gear outside on dark nights to capture astronomical events. Steven is far from alone in his fascination with the stars.
Tap into the Dark Sky Network
The International Dark Sky Association was founded in 1988, primarily to protect the night sky from light pollution and protect wildlife life cycles. After creating the International Dark Sky Places designations in 2001, it began certifying sites around the globe that provided the darkest skies for stargazing. As of early 2023, the association had designated 200 Dark Sky places.
Steven now lives a couple of hours’ drive from Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park, named Florida’s first International Dark Sky Park in January 2016. In October 2016, the 720,000-acre Big Cypress National Preserve became Florida’s second site to earn the Dark Sky designation and the first National Park Unit east of the Mississippi.
“My first look at all the twinkling stars with my grandfather and uncle made quite an impression on me, but even then I didn’t realize that I was viewing something extraordinary,” Steven says. “You know, about 98% of the nation’s people live under light-polluted skies and have never seen these celestial sights. They just don’t know what they’re missing.”
West of the Mississippi River, where the population is less dense, the association identified multiple areas ideal for watching the stars. Arizona has 19 sites, followed by nine in New Mexico. While California has five, Montana and Idaho both have four. Nevada and Oregon each have two. Every site offers something unique.
Sunriver Nature Center & Observatory in Sunriver is Oregon’s first Dark Sky place, certified in August 2020. The 5-square-mile nature center in Deschutes County is surrounded by the Deschutes National Forest, and the observatory offers access to several types of telescopes.
On a moonless night in the Massacre Rim Wilderness Study Area in far northern Washoe County, Nevada, the Milky Way and the Andromeda Galaxy are visible to the naked eye. Visitors can access the site from two gravel highways, Nevada 8A and Nevada 34. However, the roads are extremely rocky, so travel in vehicles with four-wheel drive, good clearance and a spare tire.
Meanwhile, Lost Trail National Wildlife Refuge in Marion/Flathead County, Montana, is one of the nation’s newest International Dark Sky sanctuaries, receiving its certification in October 2022. Big Sky Astronomy Club members host at least one event each summer.
To determine the best times to go to a Dark Sky location, search online for 2023 astronomical events. Many websites list meteor showers, planets’ positions, phases of the moon, lunar and solar eclipses, and how to view them.
If You’re Going
Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park
Big Cypress National Preserve
Sunriver Nature Center & Observatory
Massacre Rim Wilderness Study Area
Lost Trail National Wildlife Refuge
Suggested Apps and Websites
These smartphone apps can make it easier to find stars, constellations, planets and other celestial objects:
- Sky Guide
- Sky Map
- Star Chart
- Star Walk 2
These websites offer information about astronomy and celestial events throughout the year: