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Hang Out With the Stars at the 2023 Night Sky Festival

Pack a bag and bring your telescope for a weekend of adventure in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Shenandoah National Park will hold its annual Night Sky Festival from August 11-13, 2023. Serious astronomers and novice stargazers are welcome. The park has many events and activities planned for the festival.

How is Shenandoah National Park a Night Sky Destination?

Shenandoah National Park is renowned for its scenic views along the iconic Skyline Drive. Some may not think of it as a stargazing nirvana. 

Admittedly, the region’s skies are less dark than some western and northern United States national parks. Due to its high elevation in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains and relative remoteness from urban areas, Shenandoah National Park is among the best spots for stargazing on the east coast.

Why Should We Celebrate Dark Skies?

A recent study published in Science reveals that the average night sky got nearly 10% brighter per year from 2011 to 2022. The study’s authors estimate that 80% of people in the United States and 30% worldwide cannot see the Milky Way’s ethereal arc on a clear night. 

Lead author Christopher Kyba says, “At this rate of change, a child born in a location where 250 stars were visible would be able to see only around 100 by the time they turned 18.”

Shenandoah National Park recognizes that our dark skies are disappearing due to light pollution. The park started its Night Sky Festival in 2016 to celebrate our precious dark skies.

What Can You Expect at the Night Sky Festival?

Park rangers and guest speakers will present various special programs and activities to encourage visitors to appreciate our dark skies. Guest speakers will include amateur astronomers, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Solar System Ambassadors, and a veteran NASA astronaut. 

Topics will include asteroid defense, space weather, space travel, the most giant known impact crater in the United States, and our future in space.

Ranger discussions will include the following: 

  • Animals that rely on dark skies
  • Each planet’s role in the solar system
  • Stories told by the constellations

Visitors can participate in stargazing, constellation tours, and more. Rangers will host junior ranger activities for children.

All events are free with park admission.

Where Will Activities Take Place?

All festival events are quickly accessible from Skyline Drive, which runs the park’s entire length. Shenandoah National Park uses a mile marker system to help guests find points of interest. The park’s north entrance, Front Royal, sits at Mile 0, while Rockfish Gap’s south entrance is at Mile 105. 

Festival programs and presentations will take place at the following locations:

  • Dickey Ridge Visitor Center – Mile 4.6
  • Mathews Arm Campground Amphitheater – Mile 22.1
  • Skyland Amphitheater – Mile 42.5
  • Byrd Visitor Center and Big Meadows – Mile 51
  • Loft Mountain Amphitheater – Mile 79.5

Visit the Night Sky Festival site to verify the times and locations of events.

What Can You Do During the Day?

seat with a view at Stony Man
A seat with a view at Stony Man. Photo credit: Miles with McConkey

Presentations and activities are scheduled from morning to evening, giving visitors plenty to do throughout the day. 

Beyond the festival, Shenandoah National Park offers excellent hiking trails ranging from strolls to challenging treks. Skyline Drive is one of America’s best for those who enjoy scenic drives, providing many overlooks with stunning views of the Blue Ridge Mountains. 

Tips for Stargazing in Shenandoah National Park

Park rangers offer several tips for stargazers. Big Meadows and Skyland Amphitheater are two fantastic stargazing spots within the park.

Give your eyes time to adjust to the dark. It typically takes about twenty minutes. Many guests are pleasantly surprised at how many stars they observe when giving their eyes sufficient time to adapt.

Cover your flashlight with red cellophane. Red light generates less light pollution, allows your eyes to better adjust to the dark, and provides enough visibility for safety. 

Turn your flashlight off when in position to observe the skies. It allows your eyes to get accustomed to the conditions and is respectful of fellow stargazers. Use your red flashlight for safety when walking between your car and your destination.

Expensive equipment is unnecessary for an enjoyable experience. If you do not have a telescope, binoculars can sharpen distant stars that appear fuzzy. Most guests typically see plenty of stars without any equipment. 

Appreciate Natural Beauty Day & Night

Shenandoah National Park’s Night Sky Festival reminds us that natural beauty surrounds us day and night. Admire the park’s rolling mountains, unique rock formations, and lush forests during the day. You can gaze toward the heavens at night as the stars sparkle in the black sky. With alluring scenery and so many activities, the Night Sky Festival provides the setting for a memorable weekend in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Featured image credit: Joshua Earle

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