Discovering a Hidden Gem in Big Sky Country

Montana is known for its natural beauty and diverse wildlife. “Big Sky Country” houses a hidden gem that only comes out at night. The state’s vast areas of open space and population of about 1.1 million make it possible to find the secret treasure.

Star Attractions

With attractions like the Rocky Mountains, Glacier National Park, and Yellowstone National Park, it is no wonder visitors desire to see Montana’s stunning landscapes. Although the day is spectacular, the night is when the stars come out. Unlike many areas, Montana’s night sky is brilliant.

The International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) estimates eight out of ten people live under a light-polluted sky, unable to see the spectacular Milky Way or many constellations. Data shows global light pollution is increasing at twice the rate of our world population. IDA’s goal is to protect the night sky from light pollution so we can enjoy the splendor of the stars.

Dark Sky Places

IDA began its International Dark Sky Places program in 2001 to preserve our dark skies through education and responsible lighting policies. A place can be certified as an International Dark Sky sanctuary, park, reserve, place, or community. 

Candidates must undergo a rigorous application process, meet strict requirements, and demonstrate substantial community support for preservation to become certified in one of these five categories.

As of January 2023, IDA has certified 201 places across the globe. Parks hold the most certifications, with 115. Various United States national park sites are recognized.

Montana’s Glacier National Park is a designated International Dark Sky Park. Other popular national parks that are International Dark Sky Parks include Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona, Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah, Great Basin National Park in Nevada, Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado, and Joshua Tree National Park in California. 

Beyond National Parks

A dark sky park is not required to be a national park. Nor are all the dark sky parks located on the west coast. Cherry Springs State Park in Coudersport, Pennsylvania, is recognized as one of the best stargazing spots in the United States. Virginia has four state parks with the prestigious designation.

Some areas may be excellent for stargazing without official certification. The process takes time. Lassen Volcanic National Park is working through the application process and hopes to earn its designation.

Many national parks draw substantial crowds. Glacier National Park typically has about 3 million recreation visits annually. Recognizing that the state has plenty of other prime stargazing locations, Montana developed a unique initiative for people who love stars but prefer to avoid crowds.

Trail to the Stars

milky way on mountains in Montana's night sky
Milky Way. Photo credit: Denis Degioanni

Many regions of Montana have minimal light pollution, making it an excellent state for stargazing. Visit Montana wants to share their night skies with you, welcoming all stargazers, explorers, and dreamers.

Montana’s Trail to the Stars comprises dark sky sanctuaries across the state’s eastern and central regions where visitors can admire the celestial wonders above. Sites range from bare-bones recreation areas to extensive RV parks. No matter the size, all sites share a sense of remoteness, delivering pristine dark skies.

Scott Osterman, Director of the Montana Department of Commerce, says, “Montana’s Trail to the Stars is a gateway to the wonders of the universe. Our dark skies and the communities in between offer an unparalleled opportunity to connect with the cosmos, inspire awe and foster a sense of wonder. We invite all astronomy enthusiasts, from novice stargazers to seasoned astronomers, to embark on this extraordinary journey and witness the beauty of Montana’s star-filled skies.”

Special Events

To celebrate Montana’s commitment to preserving its unforgettable night skies, the Trail to the Stars will host various educational programs and stargazing events at select sites. Visitors can learn more and ponder the mysteries of the night skies.

As a lead-in to its annual Dinosaur Shindig, Carter County Museum will host Dinosaurs & Dark Skies on July 20 at Medicine Rocks State Park, Montana’s first International Dark Sky Sanctuary. 

Visitors can learn about constellations, watch for meteor showers, and capture photos of distant galaxies. The park holds its second Summer Solstice event on August 16.

Big Sky, Day and Night

Many people envision Montana’s big sky as blue with white puffy clouds and soaring mountains on the horizon. Now visitors may picture an endless black sky strewn with shimmering white lights. As long as we do our part and keep the skies clear, we can enjoy the beautiful skies day and night.

This article originally appeared on Media Decision.

Featured image credit: Chris Leggat

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We are Scott and Julie at Miles with McConkey. After nearly 30 years, we took a leap of faith out of the corporate world to enjoy a life of travel and adventure. We hope to inspire you to find ways to travel more and enjoy life now.