What gets around 5 million visitors per year and has some of the world’s best views of more than 8,000 stars?

By Jamie Carter
June 07, 2019
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Although it’s known for its wondrous rock formations, Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona is set claim another title. It's about to become the latest International Dark Sky Park.

An International Dark Sky Park is “a land possessing an exceptional or distinguished quality of starry nights and a nocturnal environment that is specifically protected for its scientific, natural, educational, cultural heritage, and/or public enjoyment,” according to the Phoenix, Arizona-based International Dark Sky Association (IDA).

In effect, a Dark Sky Park is a remote destination that boasts nights as dark as those that existed before the introduction of electric lighting in the late 19th century. They’re not to be confused with Dark Sky Reserves, which are about preventing the spread of more light pollution rather than celebrating an almost total absence of it.

There are currently 70 International Dark Sky Parks and 13 International Dark Sky Reserves around the world.

The Grand Canyon has had “provisional” status as a dark sky park since 2016, when park authorities began a project to retrofit two-thirds of the park’s lights to night sky/eye-friendly lighting fixtures, primarily in the busy Grand Canyon Village on the South Rim. That includes the area around Bright Angel Lodge and El Tovar Hotel that looks down into the canyon, an area that had become severely light-polluted.

The end result should be fewer lumens and warmer colors from lighting fixtures that are fully shielded. That will make stargazing and astrophotography much better.

Its new status is set to be confirmed at a media event on June 22, 2019 at Grand Canyon Village, though the IDA told Travel + Leisure today that it’s still waiting on documentary evidence from the park that they have achieved 67-percent compliance with their adopted lighting management plan.

The Grand Canyon is a place where you can look billions of years back into history. Peer down into the canyon and you can see layered bands of red rock that go down 2 billion years into Earth's primeval history. Thanks to the new lighting, you can now look up and see stars whose light has taken as long as 15,000 years to reach your eyes.

As a bonus, the area around Grand Canyon Village is 6,800 feet above sea-level, which makes it an even better place for stargazing because it’s high above the hottest part of the Earth’s atmosphere.

If you want to have the greatest experience the Grand Canyon’s sparkling night skies, aim for the annual Grand Canyon Star Party from June 22–29, 2019. Jupiter and Saturn are on show this summer, and Mars, Venus and even Mercury can also be glimpsed through the many telescopes that will be set-up and shared by amateur astronomers, at the South Rim by the Tucson Amateur Astronomy Association, and on the North Rim by the Saguaro Astronomy Club of Phoenix.

If you arrive at any other time, you can go stargazing anywhere on the South Rim or North Rim, though for the very darkest skies, head to the more remote Desert View or Lipan Point. Or, of course, trek down into the Grand Canyon itself, where your view of the South Rim will be far less light-polluted than it was a few years ago.

Wherever you go within its boundaries, the Grand Canyon’s upcoming International Dark Sky Park status will take it back to a time when the natural world dominated and, once again, this famous old park will be able to show-off one of the best night sky observing sites in the entire United States.

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