The night sky is a spectacular sight dotted with planets, stars and meteor showers. These Western locales offer groups plenty of activity by day and a setting to explore stunning skies at night.
As the place where Pluto was discovered and astronauts trained before first visiting the moon, Flagstaff has a unique connection with starry nights. Furthermore, Flagstaff is a pioneer in the Dark Skies movement. It has the distinction of being the first city to adopt a comprehensive lighting code, paving a path for Dark Skies—and stargazers are the beneficiaries of this today.
While many locations offer inspirational skies, Flagstaff is unique in being able to offer all the comforts of a big city with access to the night’s celestial wonders. Surrounded by mountains, desert and ponderosa pine forests, the city offers a combination of stunning skies with a range of amenities like restaurants, hotels, shopping and endless options for outdoor recreation. Groups can step away from dinner or a flight at one of Flagstaff ’s craft breweries to be stargazing in Buffalo Park in a matter of minutes.
“Flagstaff is a beautiful location with clear mountain air,” said Christian Luginbuhl, president of Flagstaff Dark Skies Coalition. “The southwest offers a great deal of clear weather for superior night- time viewing: when the sun goes down, the window to the universe opens up.”
Flagstaff is also home to the Lowell Observatory, among the oldest in America. A team of talented educators will share helpful tips for spotting different constellations while recounting the epic tales that inspired these starry portraits. Telescopes
throughout the campus provide visitors with magnificent views of distant stars and an impression of the vastness of space.
Joshua Tree National Park, California
Every August, the Perseid Meteor Shower reliably rockets across the sky over Joshua Tree National Park. Groups based out of Palm Springs can take a front row seat for that cosmic display.
“You can take in incredible views of the Milky Way year-round,” said Jessica Myers, co-owner of Sky Watcher, Inc., one of the outfitters eager to explore the night sky with visitors.
Guides will take groups to places like Cap Rock, a perfect spot for taking astrophotos with the famed Joshua trees silhouetted against a starry expanse. With the howls of coyotes in the distance, Twin Tanks and Turkey Flats near the Ocotillo Patch are among the park’s darkest areas for even more spectacular stargazing.
Guests are invited to look into telescopes or simply stare up into space as they marvel at the starry expanse.
“I look to bring the myths and legends of the night sky to life alongside the astronomy,” Myers said. “We are excited not only to talk about familiar Greek and Roman myths but also legends about the sky from across the world. Our guides are entertainers who also happen to know a lot about astronomy.”
Merritt Reservoir, Nebraska
With miles of rolling plains clear of light pollution, Nebraska has some perfect spots to gaze into the starry dome above.
The annual Nebraska Star Party welcomes novice astronomers and veteran stargazers to marvel at constellations with the naked eye. The Beginner’s Field School will show visitors how fun it is to explore the sky with or without a telescope. Experts from local astronomy clubs are happy to share their knowledge. The party includes observing challenges, an astrophoto contest, and a fantastic light pollution-free sweep of the summer night sky.
The Public Star Party held on the last evening of the event is a special treat.
“The evening begins at dusk, about 9 p.m., with a general orientation to the sky, and follows with folks spreading out to find observers with their own telescopes and asking what’s of interest to see.” said Clete Baker, committee member. “It is a way to thank the surrounding communities for keeping their lights low and their skies dark.”
Western Montana’s Glacier Country
It is not tough to spot the Milky Way in Western Montana’s Glacier Country, and on some evenings, visitors might even see the famed Northern Lights dancing across the horizon.
Covering eight counties worth of glacial-carved landscape, Glacier Country offers groups a variety of outdoor adventure activities and plenty of breweries, distilleries, and dining options to cater to every taste.
“Stargazing in Glacier Country is as fabulous as the landscapes, and there are no shortage of places to do so—grab a blanket and a comfy spot outdoors in one of our many small communities,” said Aerionna Skrutvold, group sales manager at Montana Glacier Country.
On clear nights, the Blue Mountain Observatory just outside Missoula is a great spot to view planets, galaxies and nebula. Attend an open house, and astronomers from the University of Montana enjoy connecting with visitors to share what folks are seeing through the telescopes, discuss current discoveries, point out constellations, and demonstrate how to find interesting celestial objects with the naked eye or a pair of binoculars. Or the Payne Family Native American Center on the University of Montana campus in Missoula includes a Star Gazing Room, which hosts celestial stargazing shows open to the public.
Educational programs from the National Park Service like “Half the Park Happens After Dark” provide visitors to Glacier National Park an opportunity to take in the awe-inspiring sky with sophisticated telescopes. These ranger-guided talks help stargazers zero in on the cosmos while learning about how Montana tribes looked to the sky to guide their seasonal movements.
Article by Michael McLaughlin
Main photo: Flagstaff Star Party; credit: Flagstaff Dark Skies Coalition