November 24, 2023
99% of people in the United States can no longer see the Milky Way.
That means 99% of people in the US live in an area that has a lot of lights on at night, so many that you can’t see the stars.
Think about that for a second - if you had 100 people, 99 of them can’t see the night sky because they are drowning in an immense overabundance of artificial light.
For all of human existence, we’ve been able to see the stars every night.
But we are now the first generations in a long lineage of humans that can no longer see them.
Let’s change that. Take a trip out to a dark sky location so you can experience the night the right way.
Whether it’s to stargaze, photograph the stars, watch a meteor shower, or to just reconnect with nature - this info will help you find a great spot for viewing the natural beauty of the night sky.Light Pollution
The reason people are unable to see the stars anymore is because of the overuse of artificial light at night. This is a common situation in major cities and suburbs.
We call this light pollution.
I grew up in one of these light polluted places. I lived in the suburbs in California, and I could only see a few stars in the sky from where I lived.
I went 19 years of my life before I ever saw the stars from a truly dark place.
That moment of seeing the stars in their natural form transformed my life forever (this is something I’ll touch on in another video).
That place was Death Valley National Park in eastern California.
So what made Death Valley so different from where I was? Why could I see the stars vividly there, and not where I lived?
It wasn’t just a lack of artificial lights around.
It was the fact that these artificial lights were very, very far away.
How far are we talking?
The closest major city to Death Valley is Las Vegas. It sits 120 miles from the park.
And even though it’s 120 miles from the park, you can still see the city lights when you look towards Las Vegas.
Luckily, it’s far enough where it has almost no effect on your view of the night sky.
Believe it or not, we can actually determine how dark the night sky is from a specific location on Earth.
There is a scientific way to do this, but we’re not going to go into that here (though if you’re interested, it’s by measuring how much light is in a tiny piece of sky known as magnitude per arcsecond squared).
We’re going to use the simple way, which is something called the Bortle Scale.
The Bortle Scale is like a special ruler for measuring how dark the night sky is.
Imagine you're looking up at the sky at night. If you're in a big city with lots of lights, like where I grew up, you can only see a few stars.
But if you're in a place like Death Valley, far from city lights, the sky is so dark you can see almost every star a human can possibly see.
The Bortle Scale has numbers from 1 to 9 to describe how dark the sky is. 1 being the darkest, and 9 being the brightest.
Bortle 9 sky vs what a Bortle 1 sky looks like to the naked eye
This will be very important in the next section, where you will use the Bortle rating system to find a dark sky location to stargaze at.
The Bortle Scale helps us understand how many stars we can see at night, depending on how dark or bright the sky is where we are.
Now that we know the Bortle Scale, and the effects of light pollution, we can use a light pollution map to help you find a dark sky location.
There are several light pollution maps online. The one I use is the website lightpollutionmap.info.
When you visit the website, you’re greeted with a strange arrangement of colors laid on top of a world map.
NOTE: When using this map, make sure you have the Overlay set to World Atlas 2015. This is the simplest way to help you navigate.
This is a map of the light pollution around the world.
This is going to be the tool to help you find the darkest skies near you.
The darker the color on the map, the better.
The darkest locations, which we call Bortle 1, are the dark gray areas. The most light polluted, Bortle 9, are white.
In-between the best (darkest) and worst (lightest) are the other colors. In order of better to worse, it goes blue, green, yellow then red.
It’s also an interactive map, so you can click a location on the map, and it will tell you the Bortle rating of that spot.
Now let’s use the map to find a dark sky location.
To find a good spot near you, find your location on the map.
From there, find the nearest spot where the nearest dark site is located.
Remember, you want Bortle 1 or 2 for truly dark skies.
You want Bortle 1 or 2 to experience the night like how it was seen every single night for all of human existence.
You want those dark skies so you can experience something 99% of people in the US don’t get to experience.
Death Valley (Bortle 1 and 2) in relation to Las Veagas (Bortle 9)
Now, most of you will discover that these dark skies (Bortle 1 and 2 spots) are far from where you live (relatively speaking).
And if you live on the East Coast of the United States, you’re going to have a tough time finding a spot unless you travel very far.
I know what you’re thinking.
I have to travel THAT far to experience a truly dark sky?
Remember when we said 99%?
Hopefully now you are starting to realize why we’re so disconnected from the night sky.
Hopefully now you are realizing how bad light pollution has become. But back to the topic at hand: finding a dark sky site.
Bortle 1 or 2 is a must visit.
If you need to travel, go ahead and make travel plans. If you need to take time off, take time off.
It’s absolutely worth it, trust me. Seeing the night sky from one of these spots changed my life forever.
And all of the people I’ve taken to see these dark skies have marveled at the sea of stars above their heads - something that’s always there, but we never get to see.
Now, if you are unable to make it to a true dark sky destination, do not worry. Not all is lost.
A Bortle 3 sky will do just fine. You will still see the Milky Way, and a sky full of beautiful stars.
A site with this level of darkness is still worthy of visiting to stargaze, take photos, watch a meteor shower, or view a bright comet from.
And as a last resort, you can always try to get to a Bortle 4 site.
This may not be the best choice, but if there’s a can’t miss celestial event (like an epic meteor shower), and you are unable to get to a dark sky site, a Bortle 4 will do.
I consider any location brighter than a Bortle 4 not worth visiting for the sole purpose of stargazing.
Now that you’ve found a great dark sky location to visit, there’s a few things to keep in mind before you go.
First, make sure you plan around the Moon phase.
A big, bright, full Moon is a wonderful sight, but it’s a huge ball of light that will wash out the darkness of the night.
The best time to visit your new found dark site is around the New Moon, or when the Moon is a waning or waxing crescent.
When it comes to the best time of year to stargaze, the summer and early fall months make for great views of the Milky Way.
Late fall and winter give beautiful views of recognizable constellations like Orion and Cassiopeia.
But honestly, anytime is great to go stargazing.
The stars are waiting for you.
Now get out there and experience the night for yourself.