Great Basin National Park: The sky at night is big and bright

Road Journals Blog—I went to Great Basin National Park to see Lehman caves and Lexington Arch. I stayed an extra night in hopes of seeing something just as rare: the night sky in one of the darkest parts of the continental United States.

Hundreds of miles from any biggish city, the park offers one of the best places in the country to see the sky as it appeared before Edison’s invention.

The night sky over Great Basin National Park | Dan Duriscoe/National Park Service

The fact is, most of us don’t know what the sky really looks like. The competing lights of street lamps, neon signs, illuminated billboards and thousands of other outdoor electric lights create a glow that obscures the starry sky. In densely populated parts of the country you’re lucky to see a handful of the brightest stars on a given night. Even out in the countryside, the night sky is far less brilliant than it once was in many places.

Amateur astronomers gather at GBNP. | Blake Gordon/Aurora

I have become interested in the Dark Skies Initiative, which is dedicated to reducing light pollution in order to preserve the brilliance and splendor of the night skies. From time to time local groups hold “star parties”—nighttime gatherings to behold the sky and encourage more people to join the fight against light pollution. I arrived too late to attend one that had been held at Great Basin in late June, but I knew the sky would still be there for viewing.

Fat chance. Here I was in one of the most arid parts of the country, and on my first evening rain fell all night. The next night, heavy clouds obscured the sky. The third night, sunset colors lit up the partly cloudy sky, giving us a glimmer of hope—but then dark clouds rolled in and it began to rain again.

“Next time,” I told myself glumly over dinner.

When I stepped outside after the meal, the storm front had passed and it looked as if the sky might be clearing. I jumped in the car and drove into the park, pulling off the road at one of the overlooks. Unfortunately, the passing storm front was quickly followed by another set of dark clouds—but not before a brief clearing revealed a view of the sky. There was the Milky Way, so thick with stars that it looked like a glowing white ribbon twisting across the sky.

The next storm front blew in a minute later.  The stars disappeared.

I suppose if we’d had a clear night and all the time in the world to gaze up at that star-studded sky, we might have grown weary of looking. Instead, that passing glimpse was like seeing a beautiful face in the window of a passing train or bus—captivating, enticing, and utterly unforgettable.

This blog post was first published in July 2011. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.