The other half of Yellowstone: Viewing the park’s night skies
By Jessianne Wright EBS Contributor
BOZEMAN – Nighttime summer skies in Big Sky country are a stargazer’s paradise and in an effort to highlight the Yellowstone area’s night skies, Yellowstone National Park will offer astronomy programs throughout the summer. This programming, offered in cooperation with the Museum of the Rockies and known as Stars Over Yellowstone, is designed to help park visitors find and locate constellations, share stories, and view celestial objects through the lens of a telescope.
On select evenings in June and July, the National Park Service will offer thematic educational astronomy classes in the Madison Amphitheater, and topics include cosmic updates, water and life, touring the night sky and preparation for the August total solar eclipse. Each course will be followed by a night sky observation session at the Madison Information Station parking lot, weather permitting. Evening educational sessions begin at 9:30 p.m. and observation begins at 10:30 p.m. on June 16 and 17 and July 21 and 22. The Park Service will also host observation sessions of the sun on June 17 and July 22 at 12 p.m. at the Old Faithful Visitor Education Center.
While the NPS astronomy programming is held on select days during the summer, park visitors can gaze at the sky each and every night on their own. According to Yellowstone National Park spokesman Jonathan Shafer, there are just a few simple tips that beginners need to know.
The first, Shafer said, is being aware of light pollution. “Here in Yellowstone, there are fewer artificial lights than you might find in a big city, but the [lights] we have can still have a significant impact on dark sky experiences.” Shafer added that natural light can impact star observation, and it can be helpful to check what time the moon will rise and set, and time stargazing for moonless periods.
“Visitors should allow their eyes to adjust to the darkness by keeping all lights turned off after they pick a spot to stargaze,” Shafer added. “Far more stars are visible when your eyes get used to the darkness.”
While difficult to predict, cloud and smoke conditions can drastically impact star visibility as well.
The best stargazing can be done at large, empty areas in the park, well away from developed areas, where views of the sky will be unobstructed. Several locations that are easily accessible and recommended by Shafer include the open area beneath National Park Mountain behind the Junior Ranger Station at Madison Junction; Swan Lake Flats, about 6 miles south of Mammoth Hot Springs on the road toward Norris Geyser Basin; Hayden Valley between Canyon Village and Lake Village; or along the shores of Yellowstone Lake away from Fishing Bridge or Lake Village.
Another way to see the sky is to embark on moonlight hikes. “Full moon viewings of geysers and other thermal features will help visitors avoid daytime crowds and see the park in a new light,” Shafer said. “Be ready for nighttime chills, though. Yellowstone’s nighttime temperatures can dip below freezing in any month of the year.”
“It is important for visitors to park legally in pull-outs or parking lots,” Shafer added. “Never stop in the middle of the road. A bear doesn’t care if you’re stargazing, so visitors should carry bear spray on walks at night.”
“If conditions allow, visitors who stargaze will be rewarded with spectacular views of the park’s ‘other half’ in the skies above,” Shafer said.
To learn more about night skies in our National Parks, visit nps.gov/subjects/nightskies.