Lights Out: 5 New ‘Dark-Sky Places’ for Top-Shelf Stargazing

The International Dark-Sky Association awards certifications to sites with exceptionally high-quality night skies, including national parks, sanctuaries and reserves.,

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Vast expanses of glittering stars. Pristine views of the night sky. And no glare to muddy the Milky Way.

Those are the defining features of what are known as dark-sky places. As of this week, 187 such sites across 21 countries — among them, national parks, remote sanctuaries and nature reserves — have been determined to meet the International Dark-Sky Association‘s standard for the designation: “a land possessing an exceptional or distinguished quality of starry nights.”

The group, which is based in Tucson, Ariz., grants the certifications as part of its mission to restore night skies to their natural state. It has certified 30 new dark-sky places so far in 2021, with a few more scheduled before the end of the year, according to Ashley Wilson, the association’s director for conservation.

To help reduce light pollution — obtrusive artificial light that obscures views of the stars and planets — the group suggests simple changes, such as angling exterior lights downward to limit the disturbance to nocturnal wildlife.

“Each dark-sky place acts as an important vehicle to bring messages about the importance of dark skies and quality outdoor lighting to a wider audience, most notably people who live in cities,” Ms. Wilson said in an email.

All protected public lands as well as private ones that provide nighttime access are eligible for the certification.

Ms. Wilson said sites “must demonstrate that the Milky Way is readily visible to the unaided eye” and that “no nearby artificial light sources yield significant glare.”

Here are five sites that have recently received dark-sky designations.

Kentucky

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Mammoth Cave National Park is home to the world’s longest known cave system.Credit…National Park Service

At nearly 53,000 acres, this national park in southern Kentucky is known for its labyrinth of caves and lush forests. Last week, it became an official dark-sky park.

“We hope that this designation will encourage the public to appreciate the vastness of not only the miles of deep underground passageways of Mammoth Cave, but also the beauty of the night sky above the park,” Barclay C. Trimble, the park superintendent, said in a statement.

The certification involved an evaluation of over 700 outdoor light fixtures and retrofitting the fixtures to make them dark-sky-friendly. The park, the first National Park Service-operated site to receive the designation, also had to show a commitment to promote the benefits of dark skies to the public.

West Virginia

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Watoga State Park Foundation board members began seeking dark-sky certification for the park in 2018.Credit…Jesse Thornton/Watoga State Park Foundation

In October, Watoga State Park in West Virginia received its dark-sky status along with nearby Calvin Price State Forest and Droop Mountain Battlefield State Park.

The three areas, which collectively encompass 19,800 acres of public land in southern West Virginia, were the first places in the state to receive dark-sky designations.

In 2018, the Watoga State Park Foundation began seeking the certification. Two board members obtained a grant to replace light fixtures at the park and worked with volunteer astronomers to measure the quality of the park’s night skies over a year.

John Goodwin, the foundation’s president, said in a statement that “our many sensitive animal species will live and thrive in their accustomed darkness just as their ancestors did, free from artificial light pollution.”

Texas

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The Black Gap Wildlife Management Area in Alpine, Texas.Credit…Stephen Hummel

In August, the Black Gap Wildlife Management Area in Texas was named a dark-sky sanctuary.

In the association’s nomenclature, a dark-sky sanctuary is “typically situated in a very remote location with few (if any) nearby threats to the quality of its dark night skies.” They are even more remote — and usually darker — than dark-sky parks or reserves.

Black Gap, which covers about 103,000 acres with little development, is in the rugged Trans-Pecos region of West Texas.

Black Gap is the second state park-run property to receive the sanctuary status. (The Devils River State Natural Area was certified in 2019.) Additionally, Texas has four dark-sky parks.

Maine

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The Maine Woods International dark-sky park.Credit…Jamie Malcolm-Brown/Appalachian Mountain Club

In May, the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Maine Woods property became the first dark-sky park in New England.

The area, which offers clear views of pitch-black skies, is one of the darkest places on the East Coast, which has significant light pollution, experts say.

The dark-sky park sits at the edge of the North Maine Woods, an area of 5,400 square miles of largely uninhabited forest stretching from Monson, Maine, to Canada.

“We hope this designation will draw further attention to the value of this natural resource as well as its regional scarcity,” Ruskin Hartley, the International Dark-Sky Association’s executive director, said at the time of its designation.

Arizona

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The Chiricahua Mountains adjacent to Chiricahua National Monument in southeastern Arizona.Credit…Alan Dyer/Universal Images Group, via Getty Images

The nearly century-old national monument, in southeastern Arizona, was named a dark-sky park in April.

The association said that the monument “protects some of the darkest night skies remaining in the American Southwest.”

Known for its looming rock pinnacles or “standing up rocks,” the park been described as a sky island because of the isolated mountain range above the surrounding grassland sea.

The park’s “geographic isolation” from major metropolitan areas provides “great natural protection from light pollution and sky glow,” the dark-sky association said in April, describing the park’s night sky quality as “nearly pristine in the zenith.”

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