The Wonder of the Night Sky in National Parks

Liz TrabuccoNPF Blog
Visitors and a ranger at Theodore Roosevelt National Park under the Milky Way and night sky with telescopes and a green laser pointer pointing upwards at the night sky
Theodore Roosevelt National Park — Jeff Zylland/NPS

Depending on where you live in the world, viewing the night sky in its natural, unhindered state can be a rarity. Due to light pollution, fewer than 500 stars are viewable in urban settings, compared to the 15,000 stars apparent in some of the darkest skies.

National parks provide some of the darkest and clearest night skies across the country. And that’s why the National Park Foundation supports programs that help connect visitors with night sky viewing opportunities in some of these special places.

Milky Way at night over Crater Lake National Park
Jeremy M White/NPS

A grant from the National Park Foundation funded the startup of Mammoth Cave After Dark, a program aimed at showing visitors the night sky at Mammoth Cave National Park. Visitors who participated in Mammoth Cave After Dark enjoyed a guided hike, guided cave tour, dinner, and stargazing.

New telescopes and night sky viewing equipment were purchased to support these night sky viewing events throughout the year. One participant of the program shared, “This encourages me and future generations to explore and learn about the world around us, hopefully teaching them to preserve our history and our Earth.”

Night sky programming will be offered at different times of the year to the general public. The park will also offer night-sky star parties to visitors who overnight in the park. The forest blocks city lights along the horizon making nighttime in the park very dark – a rarity in the eastern U.S.

Wire-framed sculptures of Native Americans riding horses silhouetted against a starry night sky over Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument
Brandon Blackburn, National Park Service

At Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, night sky viewing isn’t just about the stars, it’s about keeping cultural traditions alive. Throughout history, the night sky has shaped the beliefs and traditions of many Native American tribes. With funding support from the National Park Foundation, the park has expanded on its trail-related opportunities by opening the park to visitors after dark.

A park representative shared that the night sky programming “allows us to share new cultural information for Native American tribes associated with the Battlefield through their star stories.”

In 2017, over 500 visitors walked along several nearby trails that were major points of the battle, stopping to identify and view American Indian and Euro-American constellations and other astronomical features through telescopes and binoculars. Participants also heard the American Indian stories behind each constellation from tribal elders or scholars, or park rangers, deepening their connection to the experience.

In the winter months, this guided tour is offered by snowshoe. Visit the park’s website to learn more about the night skies as a cultural and historic resource, along with night sky viewing dates.

Want to learn more about how you can enjoy the dark skies in your national parks? This stargazing guide can help you find a nearby national park with a night sky program. And if you’re inspired to capture the view, then this astrophotography overview will have you covered when you head to out #FindYourPark/#EncuentraTuParque.

The wonder of the galaxy above comes to life when we take a moment to look up – and we’re proud to help ensure that this and future generations will continue to discover the true meaning of the old adage, “half the park is after dark.” Join us in protecting this unique experience and connecting park lovers to the beauty of the night skies.


What a great night shot of the "Little Bighorn" artwork, back-lit by the stars!

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