Winter Wonderlands Above National Parks
Clusters of stars glitter the night sky above natural parks, creating displays far more impressive than any holiday decoration.
Consider packing a tent and heading to one of these destinations for stargazing and outdoor recreation this holiday season. It’s affordable, enjoyable, and a wonderful way to help the National Park Service close out its year-long centennial celebration.
Big Cypress National Preserve: Ochopee, FL.
Water isn’t the only part of the swamp that’s dark--the night sky above the Florida Everglades can be pretty inky as well. Located in Florida’s famous marshlands, Big Cypress National Preserve is specifically geared toward stargazers. Designated by the International Dark-Sky Association as an International Dark-Sky Place, the south Florida hideaway is far from bright city lights and other visual pollutants.
The preserve needed to retrofit its lighting systems in order to achieve the prestigious designation, and Big Cypress joins Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park as International Dark Sky Places in Florida.
Ditch the telescope and watch the Milky Way unfold above.
Phone: (239) 695-2000
Bryce Canyon National Park: Bryce Canyon, UT
Located in Utah’s southwest corner, Bryce Canyon National Park remains a destination for stargazers across North America. Park rangers and volunteer astronomers host classes and seminars in a place that sees roughly 7,500 stars on a moonless night.
A popular attraction is the Night Sky Program, which features multimedia shows and stargazing with telescopes.
Phone: (435) 834-4747
Joshua Tree National Park: Joshua Tree, CA
This is a destination for stargazers all year long, especially on winter solstice. The first day of winter (Wednesday, December 21) means the longest night of the year. Stand among the sand dunes and stare at the celestial symphony.
Phone: (760) 367-5500
Rocky Mountain National Park: Estes Park, CO
Rocky Mountain isn’t an official International Dark Sky Park like the Western Slope’s Black Canyon National Park, but the more than 12,000-foot elevation offers idyllic conditions for stargazing.
Phone: (970) 586-1206
Mt. Rainier National Park: Paradise, WA
Kill daylight hours skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing, and more in the park that receives more than 54 feet of snowfall every year.
Phone: (360) 569-2211
Arches National Park: Moab, UT
Snow blankets the desert in this Utah national park, where roughly 2,500 stars a night are visible under normal conditions. Plan ahead, as snow can make some roads and trails inaccessible.
Phone: (435) 719-2299
What You’ll See
-Orion, the Hunter. Perhaps winter’s most prominent constellation. Three stars in the southern sky form Orion’s belt, and three additional stars outline his sword. The Orion Nebula, a massive stellar cloud made of dust and gas, is visible with a telescope.
-Sirius, the Dog Star. Follow the trace of Orion's belt down and to the left to encounter Sirius, the brightest star. Sirius lies in the constellation Canis Major, the Great Dog.
-Gemini, the Twins. A pair of bright stars form the heads of Castor and Pollux, who stand with their arms about each other's shoulders.
-The Big Dipper. The last two stars in the cup of the Big Dipper point to the North Star, which is slightly dimmer than another of the stars in the Big Dipper.
Stargazing is a often a group activity, and the National Parks Service offers the following etiquette suggestions and packing advice:
-Be patient. It can take around half an hour for our eyes to fully adjust to very low light conditions.
-No white lights. Use red lights, which can be made by covering the lens with red cellophane, tape, red fabric, red construction paper, etc. Although most outdoor stores sell red lights and red headlamps.
-Turn off the smartphone. They give off artificial light. Take car of calls and texts another time.
-Bring food and water. But don’t snack around telescopes--they are fragile and expensive.
-Bring warm clothes, blankets and lightweight chairs. It can get cold and you might want to sit down.
-Leave the dog behind. Leashes can get tangled in telescope tripods, causing tripping hazards and potential for expensive damage.
How to look through a telescope:
Lower your eye to the eyepiece. Avoid handling the telescope, which can disrupt the focus or change the field of view. When in doubt, let the scope operator know and they can check/adjust it for you.