Astrotourism: Stellar Stargazing Spots

Bruneau Dunes State Park. Courtesy of Idaho State Parks Rec | Photo by Doug Stoneback

I once saw a moonbow or what’s called a lunar rainbow through a telescope at the Mauna Loa Observatory on the island of Hawaii. The very rare moonbow—when the moon’s light is reflected and refracted off water droplets in the air—was strikingly beautiful. But with the beauty also came sadness. In the lower 48, comparable views of the night sky, like that in Hawaii, have mostly been destroyed by light pollution.

Good news: On clear nights in certain, mostly remote, Northwest locales, you can still interact with the cosmos by observing a brilliant night sky. At least seven stellar stargazing spots are sprinkled throughout the Northwest, each offering a unique astrotourism experience.

CENTRAL IDAHO DARK SKY RESERVE
In 2017, more than 1,400 square miles of Central Idaho was designated as America’s first Gold-Tier International Dark Sky Reserve. That means in this area you can see objects not visible throughout most of the United States, like the Milky Way, the Andromeda galaxy, constellations and even the Space Station satellite. Often you can spot them with the naked eye or binoculars, but a telescope makes it easier to observe deeper into space.

Some of the prime areas for viewing include the towns of Stanley, Ketchum and Sun Valley. All three towns are in the Sawtooth Mountains, where the topography has discouraged development, a major source of artificial light. Residents have also been educated about the perils of light pollution. That makes the night sky here extremely dark.

Nearby, Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve has been designated an International Dark Sky Park. Visit nps.gov/crmo/learn/nature/night-sky.htm to plan your stargazing visit to the park. Find out more about the Central Idaho Dark Sky Reserve at idahodarksky.org. To make Idaho travel plans, go to visitidaho.org.

BRUNEAU DUNES STATE PARK OBSERVATORY
Located near Mountain Home in Southwest Idaho, the Bruneau Dunes State Park Observatory opens to the public every Friday and Saturday from mid-March through mid-October. An additional showing is added on the Sundays of holiday weekends.

You can come early and safely view the sun through their solar telescope. A 30-minute orientation program in the Steel Reese Education Center follows. Amateur astronomers talk about what they think might be visible that night and answer visitors’ questions. Through their powerful 25-inch telescope you can spot distant galaxies, nebulae, Saturn, Jupiter and the moon.

Find more information at parksandrecreation.idaho.gov/star-gaze-bruneau-dunes-state-park-observatory. Learn about travel in Southwest Idaho at visitsouthwestidaho.org.

BLUE MOUNTAIN OBSERVATORY,UNIVERSITY OF MONTANA
To get to Blue Mountain Observatory, follow a dirt road to the fire lookout an hour from Missoula, Montana. Upon arrival, June through September, you can view clusters, nebulae, stars being born and galaxies in a relaxed, family-friendly atmosphere. Knowledgeable people walk around and respond to questions or give you guidance on what you can see.

Wear warm clothing and walking shoes. Bring binoculars if you have them, beverages, snacks and if you like, sleeping bags for the kids. Blue Mountain also holds limited-capacity events for a maximum of 25 people.

To check dates, directions and to plan your trip to Blue Mountain Observatory, go to hs.umt.edu/physics/Blue_Mountain_Observatory. Find information about travel in Western Montana at glaciermt.com.

PINE MOUNTAIN OBSERVATORY, UNIVERSITY OF OREGON
Situated 34 miles southeast of Bend, atop a mountain in Eastern Oregon’s high desert, the Pine Mountain Observatory provides a panoramic view of the area’s dark skies. Events open to the public take place on Friday and Saturday nights from Memorial Day to sometime in September (no exact date set for closing yet).

Alton Luken, operations manager, recommends arriving before sunset to enjoy the Walk of Planets path with its informational plaques. Otherwise, come any time before 10:00 p.m.

“There’s no set program. We have free-ranging guests,” says Luken. “We use as little light as possible and then, only red. No white lights allowed. Otherwise you lose your night vision and can’t see a thing through a telescope.”

Celestial objects, including meteors, constellations, planets and the moon are regular features on viewing nights. Find more information at pmo.uoregon.edu. Plan your Central Oregon travels at visitcentraloregon.com.

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