So dark and clear are the night skies over Death Valley National Park that it's easy to connect the dots to form the constellations. So dark, in fact, that the park has been awarded a gold certification as an International Dark Sky Park, just the third unit of the National Park System to gain such distinction.
Among the requirements for gold certification are that the "typical observer is not distracted by glary light sources. Light domes are only dim and restricted to sky close to horizon" and "the full array of visible sky phenomena can be viewed—e.g. aurora, airglow, Milky Way, zodiacal light, and faint meteors."
“Death Valley is a place to gaze in awe at the expanse of the Milky Way, follow a lunar eclipse, track a meteor shower, or simply reflect on your place in the universe,” said National Park Service Director Jonathan B. Jarvis. “We greatly appreciate the International Dark-Sky Association certification. It illustrates the park’s commitment to protect natural darkness and supports the wider mission to protect nightscapes in the entire National Park System.
“As the world becomes more urbanized,” the director continued, “the value of a starry sky only increases and our ability to offer visitors these incredible experiences is an integral part of the National Park Service mission to preserve our nation’s most cherished places for this and future generations.”
Death Valley’s natural darkness, along with National Park Service actions to reduce excessive outdoor lighting, led the International Dark-Sky Association to designate the park as the third and largest International Dark Sky Park.
“Death Valley’s night skies are a thing of beauty that everyone should have a chance to see. We hope that the action the park has taken to preserve the night sky within its borders will inspire surrounding communities to follow their example," said Bob Parks, the association's executive director.
To qualify for the dark sky designation, the park improved external lighting at facilities in the Furnace Creek and Stovepipe Wells areas, reducing energy consumption, sky glow, and glare. The designation requires the park to sustain its efforts to protect night sky resources and visitor education. Implementation of the park’s lighting guidelines will improve the natural character of the night and leave the stars untarnished in other areas of the park.
“The Dark Sky Park designation represents not only the efforts of the park and its partners, but the dedication of avid amateur astronomers who have sought the park’s world-class starry skies for decades,” said Dan Duriscoe, of the Park Service’s Natural Sounds and Night Skies Division.
Park rangers offer monthly night sky programs and hold stargazing events with astronomy organizations. Using high-powered telescopes, visitors can explore the mysteries of Death Valley’s dark, night skies.
“At Death Valley the sky literally begins at your feet,” said Tyler Nordgren, associate professor of Physics at the University of Redlands (Calif.) and International Dark-Sky Association board member. “When my students and I look up at night from our southern California campus, we can usually count 12 stars in the sky. However, less than a five-hour drive from Los Angeles there's a place where anyone can look up and see the universe the way everyone could 100 years ago.”
The park’s actions to reduce unnecessary lighting also tie in with “Starry, Starry Night,” one of the goals in A Call to Action—the National Park Service’s stewardship and engagement priorities for its second century.
The other National Park System units to gain gold certification for their dark skies? Natural Bridges National Monument in Utah and Big Bend National Park in Texas.