Half the Park Is After Dark
Although these days I try to spend as much time as possible outside, I grew up as an “indoor kid” whose main connection with the outdoors were articles in hand-me-down issues of National Geographic. It wasn’t until I moved west after college and discovered the mountains near Los Angeles that I even had the opportunity to visit a national park.
Because I was a somewhat late bloomer in the outdoor world – and a mostly solo traveler – my experience of visiting national parks was, perhaps, a bit more sedate than it would have been had I been traveling with my family or a larger group. While I’d been to many parks on my own (and, as a proud nerd, went to many a ranger-led program at those parks), the classic field trip experience of visiting a national park had still eluded me.
Until the National Park Foundation’s Find Your Park Expedition, that is.
On a brisk, clear evening in Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, our group met many of the park’s rangers and some representatives from the extensive network of partner organizations the park has in the region. As the sun vanished, we got ready for a Night Skies Program and two rangers escorted our group away from the picnic area and toward a darker spot near the empty parking lot.
At Great Sand Dunes, they are fond of the phrase “Half the Park is After Dark.” Due to its relative isolation and lack of large settlements nearby, the park has some exceptionally vibrant night skies to share with its visitors. As our eyes adjusted to the darkness, we learned that the vast majority of Americans live somewhere with light pollution – and that it’s now impossible to see our own galaxy in nearly two-thirds of the country.
As a resident of Los Angeles, I’m used to seeing maybe a dozen or two stars in the sky at night, but I’m also lucky enough to live within easy striking distance of some significantly darker areas. Getting to see the stars come out is an experience I always treasure, but many of my fellow expedition-goers had never seen the Milky Way before. Hearing their reactions as the black sky slowly revealed a ribbon of translucent alabaster was nothing short of astounding.
Once the rangers began the night sky program, the real fun began. When the rangers took out their astronomy laser pointer and turned it on for the first time, the entire crowd cheered – and it was kind of impossible not to cheer along. Because yes, on the one hand it’s just an educational tool – but on the other hand, it also looks like a giant freaking lightsaber reaching into the heavens, and how could you not love that?
Our group’s different experiences and diverse backgrounds informed every aspect of our time in the parks and made for an immeasurably more holistic event overall. Some of us were really interested in the botany, others lit up touring the archives or hearing about the history of the places we visited – and that wasn’t just limited to the expedition participants.
The rangers we met each brought their own level of expertise and enthusiasm to conversations, whether they were talking about preserving ancient artifacts or fighting fires. Other park visitors were eager to share their own stories and must-visit parks, and we even ran into a group of social science graduate students from all over the world who were learning how different visitors use the park system.
Traveling to these special places with other people – or even just striking up conversations with others – can exponentially increase your enjoyment of whatever place you’re visiting, whether it’s a new discovery or an old favorite. So say hello to a fellow hiker on the trail and see if they’ll stop for a chat. Ask where people are from when you’re eating at the same picnic area. And if there’s a ranger leading a night sky program, definitely make sure you ask them to show off some laser tricks.
Casey Schreiner participated in the National Park Foundation’s 2015 Find Your Park Expedition. He is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Modern Hiker, California’s most-read hiking blog. You can follow Casey’s adventures and connect with him on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.