Map by Robert Lunsford

Southwest Virginia’s night skies are increasingly getting the recognition they deserve.

This October Natural Bridge State Park will celebrate its designation as Virginia’s fifth International Dark Sky Park.

According to the International Dark-Sky Association — which only grants the designation after sites go through a rigorous, sometimes years-long application process — Natural Bridge offers outstanding starry nights and is dedicated to dark sky education and preservation.

“Personally, just looking at the stars, I think it’s really neat I just I guess there’s that sense of wonder, and a feeling of how small we are the universe,” John Goss, president of the Roanoke Valley Astronomical Society and one of those slated to speak at the 6:30 p.m. Oct. 7 dedication ceremony said. If the weather cooperates, he said “Jupiter and Saturn will be ideally placed for viewing.”

The park has established stargazing sites at Jefferson Point, which has unobstructed views of the night sky, and the Children’s Area. 

“It’s kind of fun showing people this stuff,” Goss said. A number of Roanoke-area dignitaries are expected to speak at the event before Goss leads visitors through a tour of the night sky.

“We’re just now starting to recognize, you know, that it’s just like a resource, just like the flowers and the trees and the animals. It’s a resource,” Dave Collett, Western Operations manager for Virginia State Parks said.

Virginia’s five International Dark Sky Parks

James River State Park: 104 Green Hill Drive, Gladstone, Buckingham County

Natural Bridge State Park: 6477 South Lee Highway, Natural Bridge, Rockbridge County

Rappahannock County Park: 7 Park Lane, Washington, Rappahannock County

Sky Meadows State Park: 11012 Edmonds Lane, Delaplane, Fauquier County

Staunton River State Park: 1170 Staunton Trail, Scottsburg, Halifax County

Personally, Collett became enthralled with stargazing while working at Staunton River State Park, where starlight and pavement were his only guides through the dark.

Everyone needs to “go to a Dark Sky location and they need to just experience the wonder and the awe,” he said.

Tucson-based International Dark-Sky Association (IDSA), which educates people about the value of the night sky and dangers of light pollution, identifies lands with exceptional night skies through a quarterly application process. It designates lands as Urban Night Sky Places, International Dark Sky Sanctuaries, IDS Reserves, IDS Parks and IDS Communities based on the site’s location and goals.

In the West, dark sky sites are plentiful, according to Ashley Wilson, director of conservation for the IDSA.

East of the Mississippi it’s a different story though and Virginia has distinguished itself with ongoing efforts to decrease light pollution.

More than 80% of the world’s population and 99% of the population of the United State “live under light-polluted skies, and they have never seen the Milky Way with their own eyes,” Wilson said.

“The stars that are above us all the time, symbolize a sense of permanence and constants with the universe, with our lives,” Goss said.

There is no replacement for having an innate connection with the universe and “just going out and seeing the stars, and recognizing your place in the universe,” Wilson said “ … being transported into this different realm of thinking is an incredible experience that everybody should absolutely have.”

Natural Bridge Dark Sky Dedication

WHEN: 6:30 p.m. Oct. 7. Dedication will be followed by an astronomy program.

WHERE: The Children’s Discovery Area, off Golf Course Road.

TICKETS: Free and open to the public

The movement to identify dark sky parks in Virginia started when the Chapel Hill Astronomical and Observational Society (CHAOS) identified Staunton River State Park in Halifax County as an ideal location for stargazing.  

With the support of CHAOS, Staunton River State Park earned IDS designation in 2015. James River State Park and Rappahannock County Park became Virginia’s second and third IDS parks in 2019. Sky Meadows State Park in Fauquier County was the fourth followed by Natural Bridge State Park in 2021.

Currently, Douthat State Park in Alleghany is in the process of applying to become the sixth IDSP and the Fairfax County Park Authority is working to have Turner Farm Observatory Park become Virginia’s first Urban Night Sky area.

“I think people are amazed at what they can see through the telescopes we have. … They’re pretty excited about the darker sky and deep-sky objects that we show them,” Tammy Schwab, manager of education and outreach for the Resource Management Division of the Fairfax County Park Authority said. Situated just outside Washington, D.C. Schwab said residents are pushing for resolutions, ordinances, and overlay districts that reduce light pollution.

Light pollution is the unintended consequence of humans’ ceaseless ambition to squeeze more into each day and feel safe regardless of the hour. This constant presence of light is particularly harmful to animals and plants that use the cycle of light and dark as a guide.

“When you’re a park professional, and you care about wildlife, and the plants and all those sort of things dark skies are super important, light pollution is bad, really bad. But it’s one of those things that we can stop and we can fix,” said Schwab, where Friday night observations typically draw 100-120 visitors.

TIPS FROM AN EXPERT:  

Be prepared for the cold, in part because you won’t be moving around much. John Goss, president of the Roanoke Valley Astronomical Society, said if you are stargazing in the fall dress for winter weather, and in the winter dress for Antarctica.

Bring a red flashlight, or place red cellophane over your flashlight so as not to interfere with stargazing.

If you don’t have binoculars, Natural Bridge has some to lend out.

Statewide, Virginia’s parks are encouraged to pursue International Dark Sky designations, according to Collett. Some state parks have at least one staff member dedicated to the effort. Parks not eligible for IDSP designation are asked to follow IDSA guidelines to preserve the night sky and reduce light pollution. 

“We teach stewardship and so the idea that you’re conserving energy by doing proper lighting, it just fits so well with what we do that it’s one of those win-win situations, to do education about dark skies,” Schwab said.  

The work is paying off in the form of more visitors and more educational programs, according to Collett.

Although the state doesn’t have hard numbers for visitors pre- and post-IDSA designations anecdotally he knows a growing number of visitors are coming out to see the night sky at Virginia’s State Parks. The parks also now have countless allies helping preserve the night skies, from astronomy and service clubs to environmental and educational groups.

“I think anything that we do in the state park setting is to try and show an awareness and appreciation for the sensitivity of it in the environment around us, regardless of whether it’s the ground that we’re standing on or the skies above us,” Jim Jones, Park Manager for Natural Bridge State Park said.

He said the dark sky work is helping visitors understand how precious natural resources are. The effort has bolstered relationships with area schools and increased the park’s educational offerings. Natural Bridge, and others, now have telescopes and binoculars dedicated to stargazing.

When you see the reactions of first-time stargazers, Jones said, “you just know that what you’re doing is the right thing.”

Amy Trent is a Lynchburg-based journalist. Her work has appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers. She is a graduate of the University of Iowa and a member of the Society of Professional Journalists, Investigative Reporters & Editors and the Association of Health Care Journalists.

Natural Bridge State Park Dark Sky events

 10/06/2021, 5 p.m. – 11:45 p.m. Skyline Stargazing: New Moon

10/07/2021, 5 p.m. – 11:45 p.m. Skyline Stargazing: Draconid Meteor Shower

10/29/2021, 5 p.m. Skyline Stargazing: Venus at Greatest Eastern Elongation

11/04/2021, 5 p.m. Skyline Stargazing: New Moon

11/05/2021, 5 p.m. Stargazing: Uranus at Opposition

12/04/2021, 5 p.m. Skyline Stargazing: New Moon

Staunton River State Park Dark Sky events

10/4/2021-10/10/2021: CHAOS star party, check website for details. http://chaosastro.org/starparty/

11/06/2021, 7 p.m. Stories of the Stars

12/04/2021, 7 p.m. Stories of the Stars

Douthat State Park events

Through 10/31/2021, 9 p.m. Dark Sky Discovery: Uranus at Opposition

Amy Trent

Amy Trent is a Lynchburg-based journalist. Her work has appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers. She is a graduate of the University of Iowa and a member of the Society of Professional Journalists,...