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A guide to stargazing: Where to find the darkest skies

A clear night sky isn’t necessarily that far away

The Milky Way sparkles above the Blue Ridge Mountains in Shenandoah National Park.
The Milky Way sparkles above the Blue Ridge Mountains in Shenandoah National Park. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
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Kevin Bowman vividly remembers when he first saw the Milky Way. It was at Sky Meadows State Park, near Front Royal, Va., where Bowman is a park ranger. Only an hour outside of D.C., the sparsely populated area by the Shenandoah Mountains is a destination for local stargazers, and Bowman was assisting with the monthly astronomy program.

The skies were clear, attendance was high, and it was going well, except for one thing: “It’s a shame, we’ve got that one cloud right across the sky,” Bowman remembered saying to his colleague. The other ranger looked at him. “Kevin,” he said with a grin. “That’s not a cloud. that’s the Milky Way.”

Unfamiliarity with the night sky is common. A 2016 study found that 99 percent of people in the United States and Europe live under light-polluted skies and 80 percent of people in North America cannot see the Milky Way — the core of our galaxy named for the band of light produced by the densest collection of stars, planets and other celestial bodies visible to the naked eye.

But a clear night sky isn’t necessarily far away. It just takes a little preparation.

Do your homework

Pablo Charis, an educator at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Ariz., recommends starting with an observatory visit. What you see through observatory telescopes is far from what you see in the field, but an observatory visit can give a good stargazing foundation.

Some offer constellation tours, teaching visitors how to recognize constellations and the myths behind them. Charis compares it to learning a secret handshake, though some constellations don’t look like what they represent. For instance, Canis Minor (known as “little dog” or “lesser dog”) is just two stars, resembling a hot dog more than an actual dog.

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Before stargazing, Charis double-checks what is overhead by using Stellarium or an app called Star Walk. If going with someone, he also brings a high-powered green laser pointer.

Observatory staff can also recommend stargazing locations. Charis drives to Sedona sometimes, where the features of Red Rock Country provide an impressive backdrop and block nearby light pollution; but typically, he goes to Buffalo Park northeast of Flagstaff. The elevation of nearly 7,000 feet and low light pollution make for good stargazing.

Get to know the ‘dark sky’ scale

The Sedona area is considered Class 4 on the Bortle scale, which measures the brightness of the night sky and has nine levels. For comparison, downtown Phoenix is considered between Class 8 and 9.

Some Class 1 skies are in southeastern Oregon, in what executive director of Travel Southern Oregon Bob Hackett calls the “Oregon Outback.” The area also has a decently high elevation of between 4,000 and 5,000 feet, and its dry climate means that the skies are often clear.

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For the past 15 months, Hackett has taking sky-quality readings in the outback as part of the application process for the area to become an International Dark Sky Association (IDA) designated “Dark Sky Sanctuary.” The IDA has several dark sky designations, but the sanctuary designation is reserved for particularly remote places with almost no threats to their sky quality.

“The areas that I'm going to,” Hackett said, “are the darkest places in Oregon and have some of the darkest [sky] readings that these guys have ever seen anywhere.”

What gear you need

The full effect of truly dark skies is easy to see, Hackett said.

“You don’t need a telescope,” he said. “You actually don’t need a whole lot of astronomical knowledge to enjoy the night sky.”

The only stargazing tool he recommended was a free Night Sky Adventure Kit from a local library in Lake, Harney or Malheur counties in Oregon. The pack includes a sky-quality meter, red-light flashlight (which doesn’t compromise night vision), data log and star chart (also available online in different latitudes).

Grant Tandy, the manager for the Worthy Brewing Company observatory in Bend, Ore., said this area is the “largest section of pristine sky” in the continental United States. It’s where he goes stargazing when he’s not working, bringing his camping gear, a wide-lens camera for astrophotography and a pair of binoculars.

“You don’t need a telescope. You actually don’t need a whole lot of astronomical knowledge to enjoy the night sky.”
— Bob Hackett, executive director of Travel Southern Oregon

“People want to get started in astronomy and think they need a big telescope to go stargazing,” Tandy said. “The most fun I’ve had is just peeking around with a decent pair of binoculars and seeing what you can see.”

Tandy uses a pair of 8x42 binoculars that he bought for about $100; he recommended steering away from anything too fancy. “You don’t want so much magnification that the shaking from your hands is going to screw up your view,” he said.

Binoculars will let you see galaxies, nebulae, the Galilean moons and open star clusters; the naked eye is better suited to catching meteor showers, constellations, planets and even the International Space Station.

Where to go

The greater challenge is getting to these remote areas. "It’s not that they’re inaccessible, but you do want to be prepared,” Hackett said. He has heard about cars getting stuck after a turn in the weather and recommended a car with four-wheel-drive or good clearance. He also said to bring enough food and water in case of emergency and to know where the nearest town and gas station are.

Hackett’s tip for the camping-averse is to spend the night in a hotel or motel, and to drive to and from your destination.

When planning a stargazing trip, Tandy’s main consideration is the moon cycle. “The timing of the moon’s position with the sun is super important,” Tandy said. “You’re always going to be able to see cool stuff if you’re in a dark location, but the amount of stars you can see on a full-moon night versus a new-moon night — on a new moon, you can probably see five times as many stars.”

Despite spending his work nights peering through the lens of a telescope, Tandy remains drawn to stargazing for the bigger picture that it offers, comparing it to the “overview effect” that astronauts experience in space. “The perspective that stargazing gives you is that idea that Earth is one thing,” he said. “Obviously, we can’t all go up to the International Space Station and look back down at Earth.”

“Any town, any city, you may have to drive for an hour or so, but you’ll find your dark sky eventually.
— Pablo Charis, an educator at the Lowell Observatory

Tandy said he hopes to travel south of the equator, where the constellations are different and the Milky Way appears clearer because it’s seen through 10 miles of atmosphere instead of 250. A denser layer of atmosphere can lead to atmospheric turbulence, which causes stars to twinkle but also makes it harder to see them. Stargazing during the winter months, when there are more storms, can be difficult for that reason, although you don’t have to stay up as late for the stars to come out.

Looking at a light-pollution map, prospects for stargazing east of Kansas can seem dim. The greater population density is even encroaching on Dark Sky Parks such as Sky Meadows. But while the West’s pristine skies are out of reach, experts remain confident that you can find that breathtaking night sky.

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“Travel an hour away from a big city and you will notice a big difference,” said Paul Severance of the Northern Virginia Astronomy Club (NOVAC). “The further obviously the better, but it doesn't take a long trip to get to something.” He recommended bringing a lawn chair and warm clothes.

Sky Meadows is a reliable destination for NOVAC members, but they hold their annual gathering at Spruce Knob in W.Va., which has some of the best stargazing in the Mid-Atlantic.

The IDA’s map of Dark Sky Places can provide a road map of where to go, but don’t let it sway you from sites along the way. For Charis, the Lowell Observatory educator, some of the most-memorable stargazing moments came almost by accident, like back when he was a touring musician crisscrossing the country.

“I-80 was a road we went across a lot,” Charis said. He remembers getting out at a Flying J rest stop near North Platte, Neb., walking about 100 yards from the lights and having such a beautiful sky above him. “Any town, any city, you may have to drive for an hour or so, but you’ll find your dark sky eventually,” he said. “Within an hour, you can go pull into a field and look up.”

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