If you enjoy stargazing and live — or will be traveling — on the East Coast, you need to make your way to Virginia. That’s because two more of Virginia’s state parks just received “International Dark Sky Park” status. The designation means Virginia now has more Dark Sky Parks than any other state east of the Mississippi River.
“It’s especially rewarding to see Virginia take the lead among eastern U.S. states,” International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) Executive Director Ruskin Hartley said in a statement. “It’s a prominent demonstration of the fact that nighttime darkness worth protecting still exists in one of the most densely inhabited regions of the United States.”
The Need For Dark Places
In 2001, IDA created the International Dark Sky Places Program (IDSP) to, as the association explains, “encourage communities, parks, and protected areas around the world to preserve and protect dark sites through responsible lighting policies and public education.” A designated International Dark Sky Park has “an exceptional or distinguished quality of starry nights and a nocturnal environment that is specifically protected for its scientific, natural, educational, cultural heritage, and/or public enjoyment.”
The program offers five designations: International Dark Sky Communities, International Dark Sky Parks, International Dark Sky Reserves, International Dark Sky Sanctuaries, and Urban Night Sky Places. These urban areas are either near or surrounded by large urban areas and feature a design that promotes what the association calls “an authentic nighttime experience in the midst of significant artificial light at night.”
Virginia’s Dark Skies
Virginia’s Staunton River State Park was designated a Dark Sky Park in 2015, and James River State Park received the designation in 2019. The newest state parks to receive the designation are Natural Bridge State Park and Sky Meadows State Park.
“The designation represents years of hard work and dedication by the staff and volunteers at both parks,” Virginia State Parks Director Dr. Melissa Baker said in a statement.
The process can indeed be lengthy and arduous. For example, the roots of the work for Sky Meadows State Park to be designated a Dark Sky Park began years ago when volunteers recognized the value of the park’s dark skies and began astronomy programs, the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation explains in a statement. More recently, staff and volunteers have worked together for more than five years to meet the light-pollution mitigation and education requirements that are required to receive Dark Sky Park certification, the department explains.
“Though a major milestone, this marks more a beginning than an end to our work in maintaining the dark skies that we and our visitors enjoy,” Sky Meadows Park Manager Kevin Bowman said in the statement. “We hope it will inspire others to consider the impact that outdoor lighting choices at home and in their communities make on the conservation and enjoyment of our valued resources.”
Know Before You Go
More information about Virginia’s Dark Sky Parks can be found here. By the way, Virginia’s state parks are open. However, visitors are reminded that they must wear a face covering in all park facilities as well as where social distancing of at least six feet is not possible.