In West Texas, Big Bend National Park is known for craggy canyons, rugged hiking trails, and its namesake bend in the Rio Grande. This month, the national park’s lustrous night skies sparked a new superlative: Big Bend became part of the largest dark sky area in the world.
Clocking in at over nine million acres, the Greater Big Bend International Dark Sky Reserve, which spans West Texas and Northern Mexico, joins the 195 sites around the world certified by the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) and the more than 60 protected dark sky areas in the United States.
Dark sky areas—parks, communities, and reserves—safeguard true wilderness conditions vital for space research and local ecosystems. They are reminders of the critical importance of protecting public lands, day and night.
When human-made lights began to shine as bright as the sun and moon, urban dwellers quickly lost sight of the vast galaxy that twinkled above—and the benefits of dark skies.
“Arguably, the light bulb is the most transformative invention humans have introduced to this planet. But if light bulbs have a dark side, it’s that they have stolen the night. The excess light we dump into our environments is endangering ecosystems by harming animals whose life cycles depend on dark,” wrote Nadia Drake, in her Nat Geo story about electric lights and their unexpected toll on wildlife and human health. “And in a primal sense, we’ve lost our connection to nighttime skies, the tapestries into which our ancestors wove their star-studded stories, timed the planting and harvesting of crops, and deduced the physical laws governing the cosmos.”
Enter the IDA. Founded in 1988, the United States nonprofit recognizes public parks, reserves, and places across the world with the least amount of light pollution. Most are open to campers or offer lodging—meaning you can spend the whole night looking up at the sky’s universal beauty—making them all that more important to protect.
In the U.S. there is a growing list of official Dark Sky Preserves that provide ideal settings for stargazing. More and more cities, towns, and regions are working to preserve their night skies, support light-sensitive wildlife populations, ensure their residents have access to dark skies, and enhance their tourism industry.
Many stargazers seek out Dark Sky Preserves simply for unobstructed views of the Milky Way. But dark skies are more than just a tourist attraction; they’re a crucial part of wildlife protection and conservation efforts. At Big Bend National Park, everything from blooming cactus to migrating birds depends on dark nights..
“Due to the intense heat of the day, many species are only active at night,” says Kaylee French, West Texas education and outreach coordinator for The Nature Conservancy. “Dark skies provide cover for predators and prey alike, and also conserve energy and water for both plants and wildlife. 400 bird species migrate through the Big Bend region and many migrate at night using the stars and moon for navigation.”
Dark sky protections not only contribute to healthy ecosystems but also serve as natural laboratories for large-scale field studies. At Big Bend, these protections allow for revolutionary research about the cosmos. This includes surveying dark energy, the force causing the acceleration of the universe’s expansion, at the University of Texas’ McDonald Observatory.
“Artificial light at night scatters molecules in the atmosphere, making it more difficult for astronomers to observe objects other than stars,” says Teznie Pugh, superintendent at the McDonald Observatory. “Our dark energy survey (HETDEX) is particularly sensitive to this scattered light as it impacts the number of observable objects in distant, thus faint, galaxies and the quality of the observations.”
For travelers, national parks tend to attract larger crowds, but they aren’t the only places to catch a glimpse of the cosmos. Here are protected areas in Texas, Arkansas, Idaho, and Nebraska, where you can see the stars above—and appreciate the conservation work of the people around you.
The darkest skies in the U.S.’ lower 48 states
The newly designated Greater Big Bend International Dark Sky Reserve is remote and rugged; early Spanish settlers nicknamed this region El Despoblado (“the uninhabited”). A day’s drive from San Antonio or Austin, the reserve has now been recognized for its strict measures to preserve its dark skies.
“Any exterior lighting installed in the park has to point down and have some shielding, so as not to create glare and block out people’s view of the sky,” says Annie Gilliland, supervisory park ranger at Big Bend National Park. “We choose locations where we really need lighting strategically, and don’t light anything that isn’t necessary. We also use minimum levels of brightness. I generally tell people: light what you need, when you need it, and only to the extent you need it.”
The surrounding towns also updated their outdoor lighting ordinances to use similar methods to reduce light pollution, but the rules also benefit the community. “Night-sky friendly lights save energy, cost less to operate, improve visibility and safety, and minimize the harmful effects of artificial light on plants and animals; they’re a win-win solution,” Pugh says.
In the park, travelers can participate in night sky interpretive programs throughout the year, but especially in fall, winter, and spring. Rangers help visitors use park-owned telescopes to see far-off planets, nebulae, and star clusters. Other ranger-led special events include meteor shower viewings, full moon guided hikes, and solar viewing during the day.
In the summer, prime stargazing is best late at night, which Gilliland recommends travelers do on their own. “It’s really easy to find a dark spot just off the road and look up. I recommend that people bring a red light so as not to disturb their night vision, and a star chart to help decipher what they’re seeing above them. Binoculars are also great; some very powerful ones can often do as much as a small telescope.”
When it comes to researching the detection and characterization of new planets and supermassive black holes at the center of galaxies, experts at McDonald Observatory have that covered. They’re working on these projects in the darkest skies of any major research observatory in the continental U.S., with one of the largest telescopes—Hobby-Eberly Telescope (HET)—in the world.
Big Bend National Park’s varied mountain, river, and desert habitats create one of the most biologically diverse arid regions in the world. It’s not just animals who depend on the Circadian rhythms of the day/night cycle—local flora like the Prairie Evening Primrose depend on nighttime bee and moth species to pollinate its flowers.
“Several species of cacti in the Greater Big Bend Region bloom only at night,” French says. “While many desert plants do photosynthesize during the day, they rely on nighttime conditions to open their stomata, which allows them to absorb carbon dioxide for photosynthesis but minimizes water loss. Light pollution can drastically alter these conditions.”
Starry nights in Arkansas
Established in 1972, the Buffalo National River in northwest Arkansas became the country’s first National River and, in 2019, it received its International Dark Sky designation. According to Cassie Branstetter, chief of interpretation at the Buffalo National River International Dark Sky Park, the team worked closely with the park’s community partners early in the certification process because “it’s not just our own infrastructure that may pollute the night sky, it’s light pollution from nearby communities.”
Surrounding towns weren’t required to make changes for Buffalo National River to receive its IDA designation. But, inspired by the park’s efforts, officials in nearby Gilbert changed their town’s lighting to better preserve the night sky.
Ben Fruehauf, a former mayor of Gilbert and the owner of Buffalo Camping & Canoeing, anticipates—and is looking forward to—dark sky tourism increasing in the area. Since the park doesn’t have any plans to hold any dark sky parties, Fruehauf and his neighbors decided to plan their own. This October Gilbert will host its first Dark Sky Festival, with 1,500 to 3,000 people expected to attend.
According to Fruehauf, there’s no shortage of campgrounds for tents and RVs, in addition to a few dozen cabins and guesthouses in and around Gilbert. He adds that because Gilbert is a popular destination in the Ozarks for rafting, kayaking, hiking, biking, and zip-lining, festival attendees have plenty of outdoorsy activities to complement scheduled events.
Idaho and the cosmos
Idaho is home to Central Idaho Dark Sky Reserve, the nation’s first IDA-recognized region and the country’s only gold-tier sky (a status reserved for the darkest of skies.) Soon, it may be joined by Bruneau Dunes State Park. Bruneau, which has North America’s tallest single-structured sand dune at 470 feet above the surrounding desert, began seeking its IDA designation in 2015.
Park staff spent years securing funding and installing IDA-certified fixtures. But the pandemic forced staff to redirect its efforts to park maintenance because of increased visitation. Park manager Bryce Bealba says the new goal is to secure the certification by May 2023 to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the park’s telescope, as well as the opening of a new observatory.
Built in 1998, the observation tower has brought in thousands of visitors each year, and Bealba hopes the new telescope and dark sky designation will teach people about “the importance of preserving the night sky and the potential impacts of light pollution on both humans and wildlife.” Not only will the new scope be more powerful, it will eliminate the need for a ladder to reach the eyepiece, making it ADA-accessible.
Constellations over Nebraska
Located 25 miles southwest of Valentine, Nebraska, the Merritt Reservoir State Recreation Area has been hosting its annual Star Parties since the mid-90s, a time when stargazing parties only existed in about five cities around the world.
Now that the lesser-known area has met IDA requirements including installing shields around outdoor light fixtures and low-temperature bulbs, as well as conducting a lighting inventory, staff are working toward a Dark Sky Sanctuary designation. This category is intended for especially remote and geographically isolated areas with few or no threats to the quality of their night skies.
For stargazers wanting to take in the Milky Way in a group setting, Nebraska’s annual Star Party brings in hundreds of dark sky enthusiasts each summer. The space over the Merritt Reservoir and nearby Samuel R. McKelvie National Forest provides phenomenal star gazing from April through October, and this year’s 29th Annual Nebraska Star Party is scheduled for July 24-29, 2022.
“We want everyone who visits Merritt to enjoy the pristine star-gazing,” says Jenn Bartja, adventure travel specialist for Nebraska Tourism, “but our participation in the International Dark Sky Program is aimed at helping foster stewardship of the night sky.”
According to Bartja, it’s often as simple as just turning off the lights.