A week before the eclipse there’s a super-strong meteor show, so go hunting for the USA’s darkest skies
Road trip! The week before the Total Solar Eclipse – which is at New Moon by very definition (how else could the Moon go in front of the Sun?) – the Moon will be absent from the sky for most of the night. So why not take a dark sky-themed road-trip?
To see the Milky Way and shooting stars, you will need to be away from artificial light. That’s generally not easy in the USA. The release in 2016 of the new World Atlas of Artificial Sky Brightness showed that about 70% of the land area of the USA is in a state of perpetual twilight at night, never reaching natural levels of darkness.
However, there are some rules of thumb. Stick to the national parks of the southwestern United States and you’re mostly on the Colorado Plateau, a vast area of high desert, red rock and forests covering 130,000 square miles, and the darkest skies remaining in the contiguous 48 United States.
In Arizona, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico are a flurry of International Dark Sky Parks and other renowned ‘dark sky destinations’, all of them in the southwest of the USA, so ripe for a road trip on the way to see the Total Solar Eclipse.
1 – Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument, Arizona
Not to be confused with Grand Canyon National Park, this Gold-tier International Dark Sky Park is one of the most remote in the US, with 1.05 million acres north of the Colorado River.
2 – Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah
The first ever designated Dark Sky Park, this one’s a favourite of astro-photographers, who like to get the Milky Way streaming through the famous Owachomo Bridge.
3– Chaco Culture National Historical Park, New Mexico
Also on the Colorado Plateau, this park covers an area that was a major center of ancestral Pueblo culture between the years 850-1250, it has the highest concentration of pueblos in the USA. On August 19, 2013 Chaco Culture became an international Dark Sky Park.
4 – Canyonlands National Park, Utah
Another Gold-Tier venue, this recently designated park in southeast Utah now has nearly 100% night-sky friendly lighting. Island in the Sky is a great vantage point where a regular Night Sky Rangers program is followed by stargazing and telescope viewing.
5– Dead Horse Point State Park, Utah
The same Night Sky Rangers from Canyonlands also hold programs at Dead Horse Point near Moab, Utah. An hour from Arches, there are three yurts near La Sal mountains in the east that offer great night sky views.
6– Arches National Park, Utah
Another iconic location for astro-photographers, this Dark Sky Park in Utah is the third destination for regular talks and stargazing sessions from the Night Sky Rangers. Head to the Delicate Arch Viewpoint for a great panoramic.
7 – Cedar Breaks National Monument, Utah
Now officially a Dark Sky Park, this compact yet stunning geologic amphitheater hosts an award-winning Summer Star Party each May. Its 10,000ft altitude really helps with the clarity of the stars. You can stay in alpine-style accommodation in nearby Brian Head, which acts as a ski resort in winter.
8 – Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah
Bryce has a long tradition of night sky education, with 100 astronomy lectures per year held at the Visitor Center, followed by guided telescope-viewing in the car park. A Star Party is held each June.
Photo credit: NPS