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America spends about $3 billion a year on “bad” lighting.
It shines down on our grocery stores, our city streets and our back porches, but it also expands upward and outward, brightening up a once-dark night sky.
The cheaper this lighting gets, the more of it people use—and that’s how we’ve arrived at a pretty damning side effect of all this light pollution: We can’t see the stars anymore.
That’s where the International Dark Sky Association (IDA) comes in. They’re working to preserve our disappearing night sky by studying and helping to reform the ways we use light in our cities.
Sadly, 99% of the population in the continental U.S. still lives in places considered polluted by light, meaning most of us can’t even see the massive spiral galaxy we call home: the Milky Way.
More than 100,000 light years in diameter, with more than 100 billion stars and at least as many planets, the Milky Way is arguably the most impressive feature of the night sky that you can see with the naked eye.
But actually seeing it these days? Well, that requires a little more effort than simply craning your neck.
The Milky Way seen from Tende, France. Photo: Courtesy of Denis DegioanniFirst, you’ll need an app that shows you the moon phases of the calendar.
Then you’ll need a clear night sky with little to no fog or humidity. Most importantly, you’ll need to find a viewing location that’s completely void of light pollution – no easy task if you live near a major metropolitan area.
That’s why the IDA has compiled a list of International Dark Sky Places – regions protected by staff and volunteers who are committed to making them some of the “darkest and most pristine skies in the world.”
Here are seven spots where you can outsmart light pollution and catch a glimpse of our galaxy.
Though small (6 acres of land in the Blue Ridge Mountains), this spot in western North Carolina is recognized by the IDA as the first Dark Sky Park in the southeastern U.S.
During the day, you can marvel at three towering natural bridge formations at this national monument, but save your real oohs and aahs for the dark, when you can peer through them into some of the darkest skies in the country. (This was the first certified Dark Sky Park.)
It’s possible to see up to 15,000 stars throughout the night; in contrast, you can see fewer than 500 in most cities.
The Milky Way over Death Valley, California. Photo: ShutterstockHottest, driest, lowest—and darkest. Death Valley is known as a “land of extremes,” so it’s no wonder its skies live up to the hype. When you’re done diving Devils Hole or mountain biking some of the hundreds of miles of bike trails, grab a blanket and catch the park’s true highlight: some of the darkest skies in the country.
Heralded by hundreds of eager astronomers for its dark skies, this rugged 82-acre state park is surrounded by the 262,000-acre Susquehannock State Forest.
Stop by the Night Sky Viewing Area, complete with a backlit summer sky map. Just be warned: No white light is permitted in this area of the park, so come prepared with a red light.
The Milky Way contains more than 100 billion stars and at least as many planets, including Earth. Photo: ShutterstockThey say everything is bigger in Texas, and it’s hard to argue with the sentiment when you catch a glimpse of the expansive night sky from one of the most celebrated places in North America for stargazing.
Big Bend boasts the least light pollution of any national park in the Lower 48.
This 5-acre educational facility sits atop 2,100 feet of elevation just north of downtown Goldendale and plays host to one of the nation’s largest public telescopes.
The telescope was built by four amateur astronomers (only one with a college degree) up in Vancouver, but it was transferred to Washington in the ’70s after a Goldendale café owner introduced the astronomers to the town’s mayor.
Look up into the same night sky that ancient Chacoan civilizations gazed up to at this national park. Chaco is the fourth unit in the national park system to earn the International Dark Sky Park distinction, and at the gold-tier level, which means it not only looks dark now, but, thanks to measures like improved outdoor lighting, it will stay that way for years to come.
Natural Bridges Monument, Utah
Death Valley National Park, California
Cherry Springs State Park, Pennsylvania
Big Bend National Park, Texas
Goldendale Observatory, Washington
Chaco Culture National Historical Park, New Mexico
In addition to camping gear, it would be wise to bring a telescope, binoculars and red light with you …
Petzl e+LITE HeadlampPhoto: Courtesy of REI
As mentioned above, some dark sky parks do not allow white lights. This $30 headlamp is waterproof, compact and includes a red light setting – making it perfect for every setting. Head to REI to purchase and get more information.
Celestron National Park Foundation 60mm TravelScopePhoto: Courtesy of REI
If you are going on a trip to view the Milky Way, why not view it from up close? In addition to this telescope’s smooth and easy pointing features, it has a tool-less setup, comes with a backpack and supports the National Park Service with every purchase. Head to REI to purchase this telescope for only $80.
Celestron SkyMaster 15×70 BinocularsPhoto: Courtesy of REI
These binoculars are specified for astronomical (or terrestrial) viewing. At only $70, these binoculars are your best bang for your buck option as they come with a plethora of features that will not disappoint. They too can be purchased at REI.
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