Western Slope Skies - Which Way to the Milky Way?

Nov 30, 2018

Credit National Park Service

Over my ranger career, I’ve been posted at some of the most spectacular locations on the planet. Grand Teton, Zion, Everglades, Wind Cave, and the Black Canyon, conjure up images of grand landscapes, wildlife, and history. At each park, I’ve talked to visitors from Topeka, to Tacoma, to Tampa. As you might expect, they come with questions - "How deep is the canyon?" "What animals might I see?" and, of course, the ever urgent "WHERE IS THE RESTROOM?!"

A few years ago, a new question was posed to me. On a random Tuesday afternoon, a couple asked "Where can I see the Milky Way?" Even for someone who makes part of his living teaching people about the night sky, this question took me off guard. People come to national parks for wonder and inspiration - wildlife, geology, history - but what draws them to visit a park exclusively to see the night sky? The answer is simple: because most parks are dark and most places humans live are not.

How did national parks become some of the last dark places on land? By happy accident. Each park has what’s called enabling legislation which outlines why the park was designated by Congress. Most of the time it’s obvious - the Grand Canyon, Denali, Yellowstone. Look deeper and you’ll see that each of the 60 national parks are also protecting resources beyond the obvious show stoppers: Endemic plants, historic bridges, endangered snails and night skies.

Since Black Canyon was established in 1999, we’ve seen dark skies diminish at alarming rates throughout the world. This is why the question "Which way to the Milky Way?" is now common in national park visitor centers. People are coming to parks in search of that lost connection with the night sky. Among all of the stories national parks tell, this one is relatively new. My colleagues 100 years ago could never have imagined the need to protect dark skies - because everyone had them. Today we recognize that parks have become islands of preservation. By protecting the Black Canyon, we have also protected the sky above it.  What else might we be preserving in the national parks at this very moment that we don’t yet know about?

Western Slope Skies is produced by members of the Black Canyon Astronomical Society. This episode was written and recorded by Park Ranger Nick Myers of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.