As we all know, the nighttime sky is full of stars. How many stars you can see is very dependent on where you are viewing them. If you are in an urban area with a lot of lights your chances of catching a glimpse of the Milky Way are next to zero. Even just standing in your driveway near a street lamp will dampen your view of the night sky as haze and light pollution will cloud your view through the atmosphere.
Haze is obvious during the day when airborne particles obscure views of the horizon, but light pollution is more evident at night when man-made glow washes out the natural illumination of the stars and moon. A first-time camping trip in a remote place, under a truly dark sky, is a mind-blowing experience—revealing an unfathomable number of stars in the universe.
The International Dark Sky Association (IDA) works with areas around the world to designate official 'dark sky' areas. A ‘dark sky’ is one that allows celestial sources to shine through without being overpowered by artificial lights. You can find 'dark sky' locations in various areas around the country.
Grand Canyon National Park and its greater region is an ideal place to experience dark skies. The park is surrounded by 1.7 million acres of mostly wildlands—prairies, canyons and plateaus—with little development. The region's remoteness from urban areas leaves the sky relatively free from light pollution, and its geography also positively affects nighttime visibility.
Grand Canyon region has high elevation and dry air, which are both good for viewing stars because there are fewer water droplets and other particles to diffuse light. The proposed Greater Grand Canyon Heritage National Monumentencompasses these lands surrounding the Grand Canyon, and would ensure that development is kept in check and these skies stay dark forever.
In addition, Grand Canyon National Park has just been named a provisional dark sky park by the IDA, joining 11 other certified national parks. ‘Provisional’ status means Grand Canyon can gain true dark sky status after upgrading the majority of its lighting. IDA certification combines behavior, design, and efficiency to focus lighting only where it is needed and to use electricity sparingly. Preventing lights from shining upward reduces light pollution, and the lean electricity use benefits the environment by conserving energy. The goal is to finish this by 2019, which will be the 100th anniversary of the national park.
Achieving IDA certification will ensure the future of dark skies over the Grand Canyon, but there's no need to wait for that, you can experience stars like you’ve never seen before right now. Here are some of the best places for viewing the night sky in the national park and on the surrounding lands.
Where to Go
Grandview Lookout Tower
Grandview Lookout Tower is a fire tower located just outside the park boundary in Kaibab National Forest. Because it is on public land and not within the park, it is free to get in here and to camp. You can lay under the stars all night, and the eerie old tower makes an interesting foreground against the sky.
Crazy Jug Point
Crazy Jug is one of many lesser-known spots in the Kaibab National Forest where you can drive right up to the Grand Canyon rim without ever entering the national park. Access and camping are free, and the views will blow you away, during day or night. Located on the North Rim, it is relatively isolated but well worth the drive.
Jacob Lake Campground
Jacob Lake Campground is a great place to stay if you are visiting the North Rim. Like anywhere else on this remote and high-elevation plateau, the stars are brilliant at night. It is a developed campground in the national forest, so there is a fee for the amenities of drinking water and toilets.
White Horse Lake Campground
Part of the Kaibab National Forest is removed from the rest, and is located well south of the Grand Canyon, near the city of Williams, AZ. The skies here are no less impressive, however, and you will rarely encounter crowds among the thousands of acres of pine forest that blanket this landscape. White Horse Lake has excellent fishing and great views of Bill Williams Mountain. The developed campground has potable water, fire rings, grills, toilets, garbage cans, and plenty of sites for tents and RVs.
South Rim Visitor Center
Every summer in June, the Park Service organizes a Star Party that takes place each night for a week. Volunteer astronomers share their telescopes and expertise with anyone who wants to learn more about the night sky, stars, planets, and galaxies. There is also an educational slide show and constellation walking tours. All events are free for any park visitors.
You can always appreciate starry skies any clear night of the year from inside the park on your own or as part of a tour. Rangers sometimes lead guided night walks, which you can ask about at the visitor center.
Of note: A proposed national monument that encompasses these lands surrounding the Grand Canyon would ensure that development is kept in check and ensure that these skies stay dark forever. Learn more about the proposal to designate the public lands surrounding the Grand Canyon as a national monument and get involved.
Originally written for Sierra Club.