Milky Way as seen from a dark sky place photo from Pixabay

Dark Sky Places in Arizona And Why They Are Important

Dark sky places are the best for stargazing, for watching the stars, constellations, galaxies, nebulae, and as much as possible from our planet. As we live in brighter and brighter environments, few of them exist, hence the importance of the term itself.

Throughout a year we may see meteor showers in dark sky places. For example, in April we have the Lyrid meteor shower, the Persids show up in August, the Leonids in November, and in December the Geminid meteor shower is usually visible. While sometimes we sew a few of meteors even from the city (when my neighbor’s lights are off), they would be best viewed from a dark sky place.

We used to drive to dark sky places for meteor showers. Decades ago, we used to drive hundreds of miles and spend full nights in the middle of the desert, watching for meteors, or looking for constellations and obscure stars through telescopes. But at the time we were members of an astronomy club.

My Days as a Member of an Astronomy Club

When we first moved to Arizona, we noticed how clear the night sky was. Even in our back yard. But it was our first camping trip to Sunset Crater National Park, when I really understood the difference between the sky in a town and in the middle of nowhere, especially in a dry environment. There, the Milky Way stretched before our eyes clearer than I even imagined it before.

After that trip, we got involved with the East Valley Astronomy Club in Phoenix. We attended star parties, where we drove out of town to remote areas and met up with other members. Those who had them, would bring telescopes and we would all watch the celestial objects through them.

We spent full nights camping out in the middle of the desert, far from civilization, sometimes freezing with our blankets on our backs, watching the night sky. Sometimes, we would crawl out from our warm sleeping bags to find a few people who never even went to bed, still watching constellations that rose at three or four in the morning.

We took a telescope mirror making class, I made a 6-inch mirror, then we built a telescope around it.

Our interests changed when we became parents, we got too busy and lost contact with the astronomy club. But we still appreciate the dark sky, and understand the importance of preserving it.

The Importance of Dark Sky Places

Over time we noticed how the dark sky places we once used for star parties were disappearing, gobbled up by the ever-expanding city we live in.

One obvious example is the Reach 11 area not far from our home. It wasn’t too far from the city, but it was dark enough for star parties. Now, about two decades later, the area is flooded with lights all night long, part of a large development, with a mall, homes, apartment buildings, highway nearby, basically part of the city. No more dark skies there. But the disappearance of dark skies is not only annoying for star party participants.

Light Pollution Hurts the Environment

Plant and animal life on earth depend on earth’s cycle of night and day for survival. With all the lights we put up at night, we disrupted this cycle. We are hurting our environment even with our lights.

Most people are not aware of this. After all, how can our lights harm plants of animals?

Nocturnal animals sleep during the day and are active at night. By turning night time as bright as day, we disrupt their cycle. A clear example I’ve been reading about is the baby turtles hatching at night. Normally, they would follow the dim light above the ocean. Instead, they now follow artificial lights in the cities away from the ocean, causing millions of them to die.

Light pollution is partially responsible for the frog population decreasing. Frogs and toads use night time, and the dark, for their mating rituals. Since artificial lights disrupt their habits, it eventually reduces their population.

Migratory birds also suffer the from the light pollution problem, since they navigate by moonlight and starlight. Artificial lights cause them to wonder off course and often collide with illuminated towers.

These are only a few obvious examples of how artificial lights disrupt and change natural habits of living creatures. besides ourselves. We can’t sleep well with our lights on, either, we are even disrupting our own internal clocks, though we are so used to this, we don’t even notice.

A Dark Sky Inspires Us

During most of the human history the night sky filled with starts inspired and taught us. Artists and poets, and many of our sciences (besides astronomy) benefited from it. Yet, we can find very few places on earth now where we can see the night sky the way our ancestors did, or even the way artists saw it a century ago.

The dark sky that inspired Van Gogh to paint Starry Night in San Rémy, in 1889, is no longer the same. If was in the same spot today, he would not see all those stars as clear as he did.

Living in a city, we have to drive hundreds of miles to find a patch of dark sky to see the Milky Way. We have good telescopes, but can’t see much through them other than the planets and the moon. The telescope I made and others are gathering dust in our garage, because it’s not worth taking them out.

Protecting the Dark Skies Where Still Possible

Obviously everyone noticed the disappearance of the dark skies. So, the International Dark Sky Association started the International Dark Sky Places Program in 2001 to encourage communities, parks, and protected areas to preserve them. The program offers public education about responsible lighting and designates dark sky places.

International Dark Sky Places are all over the world, and include Dark Sky Communities, Parks, Reserves, Sanctuaries, and Urban Night Sky Places.

Of course, it’s easy to imagine Dark Sky Parks, Reserves, and Sanctuaries. But how can communities, whole towns become dark sky places? This is where community education comes in place. No, these dark sky communities can not be quite as dark as parks or sanctuaries in the middle of nowhere. But it is possible to use lighting in a responsible way, where a dark sky is still possible, where I could take out my telescope and see the Orion nebula the ancient Maya considered the hearth of the world.

Dark Sky Places in Arizona

Arizona is home to more designated Dark Sky Places than any other state in the US. We have dark sky parks, dark sky sanctuaries, and even dark sky communities.

We all understand dark sky parks and sanctuaries, but how can communities be dark sky places, I wondered when I first heard of it. While they will never be as dark as places without buildings and roads, some communities can be dark sky places, when they protect their night sky and use their lights responsibly.

Dark Skies Communities in Arizona

Flagstaff was the first dark sky community, in fact the first dark sky place. Named in 2001, it started the dark-sky preservation movement.

Dark Sky Communities are towns that prove their commitment to keep their light pollution to a minimum. Arizona has six of the total sixteen in the country. Besides Flagstaff, they include Sedona, the Village of Oak Creek, Camp Verde, and Fountain Hills.

Dark Sky Parks in Arizona

While you can view the stars in the dark sky communities, the Dark Sky Parks offer much better opportunities for stargazing in Arizona. When camping in any of these parks, we like to walk outside in the middle of the night and look up into the sky. Sometimes we get up at two in the morning, after the moon has set, for spectacular views of the Milky Way.

Some of the best National Park units in Arizona are also certified dark sky parks, some easier access than others.

stars visible in a dark sky place photo credit: Hans Braxmeier on Pixabay
Stars visible in a dark sky place. Image byHans BraxmeierfromPixabay

Sunset Crater Volcano and Wupatki National Monuments

My favorite stargazing spot in Northern Arizona is Sunset Crater Volcano National Park. My family loves to explore the volcanic fields during the day, and camp at the Bonito Campground for some of the best dark sky views we ever experienced.

Wupatki National Monument, a bit farther on the same road offers opportunities to experience the night skies just as dark, though you’d need to drive there, since there are no other camping sites in its vicinity.

Grand Canyon National Park

Everyone visits the Grand Canyon for its gorgeous views during the day. But the night sky here is just as spectacular. In fact, in June astronomy clubs from different parts of the state organize a week-long star party, including slide shows and views through telescopes of different sizes. You’ll learn about the stars and constellations visible from the rims. For darker skies try to catch it at the North Rim.

Walnut Canyon National Monument

Another Dark Sky Park, Walnut Canyon is in the vicinity of Flagstaff, just like Sunset Crater and Wupatki, just off old route 66 northeast of town. It doesn’t have camping sites, but you could drive in after dark to a great spectacle of dark skies.

Petrified Forest National Park

In the colorful Painted Desert, far from cities and light pollution, the Petrified Forest National Park, preserving an ancient rainforest turned to stone, offers another opportunity for clear dark skies. You can camp in the park, though you need permit, since it is all back country camping, about a mile walk from your car. But it makes it that much more special. Alternately, you can also camp in the parking lot of one of the gift shops at the south entrance of the park.

Tumacacori National Historical Monument

Tumacacori, in Southern Arizona, a few miles from the Mexican border, offers family camping nights (on normal years, not during COVID times) at the mission, when you can sleep under the stars and enjoy talks about the importance of the night sky through history for the cultures who live in the area.

Tonto National Monument

Near Lake Roosevelt, in Eastern Arizona, Tonto National Monument showcases ancient ruins of the Salado people during the day, and stargazing opportunities from its camp ground after dark.

Kartchner Caverns State Park

National Parks are not the only Dark Sky Parks in Arizona, a few of the state parks also earned the designation. Kartchner Caverns is one of them, in southern Arizona, home to the most spectacular live caves in the state.

It also offers stargazing opportunities in the surrounding desert. It has a campground, also offering cabins for those who prefer it. Either way, walk out in the middle of the night (after the moon sets) for a gorgeous spectacle of stars, constellations, and the Milky Way.

Observatories in Arizona

Considering the dark skies in the state, Arizona has a few observatories open to the public. My family’s favorite, the easiest to get to is Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, where Pluto was discovered. We visit it often when we stay in Flagstaff overnight, and look through some amazing telescopes. Mt Lemmon near Tucson has another observatory open to the public, worth a drive.

Practical Tips for Stargazing in Dark Sky Places

For the experiences of stargazing make sure you give your eyes time to adjust to the dark. This usually takes about twenty to thirty minutes of sitting in the dark with no lights on. Notice how many more stars you see after being outside far from light for this time. It isn’t because more of them magically appear, but because your eyes once adjusted, can see much better in the dark.

Don’t ruin your night vision by turning on a flashlight or your phone. If you need to see something while stargazing, make sure you use a red filter on your flashlight, and no matter what, do not turn your phone on (unless you have the app that turns your screen red).

Make sure you are dressed right, nights even in the deserts of Arizona are chilly, especially in the winter. Make sure you are comfortable, and enjoy the show the night sky puts up. And help preserve these dark sky places, be aware of light pollution and do your part to minimize it.

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