National parks can show us some of the intrinsic beauty of our planet. From roaring waterfalls to vast, red canyons, jagged snow-capped mountains and serene, blue glacial pools.
But, as the sun sets and the stars begin to dot the night sky, national parks can also help us see far beyond our own planet. National parks may be a paradise for the outdoor enthusiast, but they are also a paradise for the night sky enthusiast. Here is why you should visit national parks after dark.
"Half the park is after dark."
"Half the park is after dark" is more than a clever saying; it's a way of life — especially for Tyler Nordgren. He's an artist, astronomer and national park enthusiast who coined the phrase and illustrated the accompanying poster series for the national parks. The posters depict the midnight blue sky streaked with the vastness of the Milky Way. They usually portray a star-lit silhouette of one of the park's driving attractions, and most posters will mention "See the Milky Way" or "Half the Park is After Dark." They are vital in spreading awareness of one of the national parks' best features.
"I love being able to hike in that wonderful moon-lit peacefulness where you don't even need a headlight," says Nordgren. "Or, if you're out there on a moonless night, to be able to go out to an overlook at, say, the Grand Canyon and have it be utterly black beneath you and then suddenly the star-filled sky above."
Nordgren traveled to various national parks, talking to visitors and teaching park rangers about the night sky. He was even the first astronomer in residence at Grand Canyon National Park.
Unfortunately, the night sky, or the actual night sky, isn't something most people get to experience fully. According to a 2016 study, over 80 percent of the world can not see the whole night sky due to light pollution. From street lights to buildings to giant advertisements — think Time Square — artificial light illuminates the night sky, stealing the stars from us. This is why Nordgren encourages us to get away from light pollution and experience the true night sky. It may just change your view of the world.
Importance Of The Night Sky
We've always been able to see constellations and the Milky Way, but recently light pollution has dimmed the stars.
"Think about all the history and all the people who ever looked up at the stars and wondered about the universe. That's something that we're losing today," says Nordgren.
With light pollution and other distractions, such as phone screens, people spend more time looking down than looking at the night sky. For many people, there isn't anything to see anymore. The night sky has essentially been taken away.
Because of this, Nordgren encourages everyone to travel to national parks to experience the beauty of day and night.
"Get out into nature, see the universe beyond our own atmosphere, and it tells us that we are part of a larger universe. And when you see that, you feel awe," says Nordgren.
According to the 2018 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, experiencing awe can increase feelings of humility — making one kinder, more humble and more positive. One can feel this sense of awe after hiking a mountain, seeing the Milky Way or even experiencing other phenomena, like an eclipse.
Kate Russo, a psychologist who studies the effects of seeing a total solar eclipse on someone, finds that those who experience an eclipse feel happiness and a sense of being part of a larger universe, according to Nordgren. He shared these same feelings when he saw a total solar eclipse.
"Believe me, if you have ever seen a total solar eclipse, you have felt awe," says Nordgren.
At Grand Canyon National Park, Nordgren led groups on stargazing tours, helping people understand the stars above them.
"One of the comments I always get is, 'it makes me feel so small,'" explains Nordgren. He emphasizes that the night sky can help you realize that you're part of something greater in the universe. He says this is another way of feeling humble and awe-struck before the galaxy above.
Experiencing A National Park After Dark
As the sun goes down, the park empties out. Many park visitors return to their campsites or hotels, and now the park is quiet and peaceful. This is a great time, Nordgren says, to experience some of the park's best features.
"If you want to see Old Faithful erupt and not be surrounded by 3,000 of your closest friends, go watch Old Faithful erupt by moonlight," Nordgren says.
He also mentions visiting the salt flats of Badwater Basin at Death Valley National Park on a moonless night.
"You go out there, and there's no cars, there's no insects, there's no birds, there's no background noise, there's no light," says Nordgren. "And it's the most strange sort of sensory deprivation experience."
When the moon is full, you can see a park in a different light.
"Walking around in this cool, moon-lit blueness in whatever park you happen to be at… maybe it's a park with a lake or river and see that light reflecting off the water, it's absolutely beautiful," says Nordgren.
Parks such as Craters of the Moon and White Sands National Monument are great places to hike in the moonlight. Your eyes will most likely adjust with the moon, but bringing a headlamp or flashlight is always a good idea. It's always wise to ensure you're not hiking near cliffs in the dark and be aware of what sort of wildlife may be in the park.
The main nighttime activity in the parks is stargazing. Some parks offer night sky programs and stargazing tours. Find a spot to stargaze yourself, or follow along with a ranger. Look for constellations, shooting stars and even the International Space Station. However you choose to do it, look up and enjoy your place in the universe.