Do look up: The best places to stargaze in Canada this summer

Dark Sky Preserves are the more affordable face of modern astro-tourism. 

  • Jun 23, 2022
  • 963 words
  • 4 minutes
Photo: Scott Munn / Parks Canada
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Much has been written about recent developments in space tourism, with SpaceX, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic ferrying the super-rich on exorbitant bucket list missions. There’s talk of a hotel wing on a new space station, moon resorts, and affordable sub-orbital flights in the mere tens of thousands of dollars per ticket. Yet space tourism has been around for millennia, and it’s a lot more affordable than you’d think.

People have always looked up at the stars in wonder, overwhelmed by the mysteries, light and beauty.  Stargazing created humanity’s seasons and stories, our road-maps and mythologies. Once we lit up our villages, towns and cities, urban folks stopped looking up until air and light pollution meant we wouldn’t see much even if we did. In 1988, the International Dark Sky Association was founded to protect both public and private land for scientific and educational benefits, and public enjoyment of stargazing. Welcome to the real face of modern astro-tourism. 

Dark skies in the north: Kejimkujik National Park. Photo: Parks Canada / J. Black
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Canada currently has 22 Dark Sky Preserves, making up over a third of all the current preserves recognized worldwide. Each location is rated according to the Bortle scale, a nine-level scale that measures the sky’s brightness in each particular location. A Bortle scale of 1 is the highest category, with the darkest of dark skies and the very best stargazing available. The 8s and 9s are city skies where you might see a couple planets and perhaps a few of the brightest star clusters, if you’re lucky.  

Grasslands National Park in Saskatchewan holds the distinction of being the darkest Dark Sky Preserve in Canada. As with the 13 other Dark Sky Preserves in its portfolio, Parks Canada holds regular events throughout the summer,  with astronomers or interpreters welcoming visitors during the summer months. During my visit to Grasslands, it took a short while for my eyes to adjust to the complete lack of artificial light, and I was glad I brought along warm blankets to ward off the late-night prairie chill. Soon enough, I was greeted by an absolute flood of the cosmos, spotting galaxies, constellations and roaming satellites. The Royal Astronomy Society of Canada holds annual star gazing events inside Grasslands’ East Block, beneath one of the darkest skies on the continent.

The Milky Way at night in the Dark Sky Preserve, in Grasslands National Park. Photo: Parks Canada / Ryan Bray
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Easier to get to is Jasper National Park, which holds an annual Dark Sky Festival in October. After Wood Buffalo National Park and the upcoming Greater Big Bend International Dark Sky Preserve (a new Preserve on the border of the USA and Mexico), Jasper is the third-largest dark-sky preserve in the world. The festival features astronomy experts, kids programs, star parties and other activities. Jasper’s incredible skies are of course available year-round, particularly around Pyramid Island, Maligne Lake, Old Fort Point and at the bottom of the Athabasca Glacier.

Ontario currently has eight Dark Sky Preserves, ranging between 1 and 3 on the Bortle Scale. Lake Superior Provincial Park, Killarney Provincial Park and North Frontenac Township boast the province’s darkest skies. Located about two hours’ drive from Ottawa, the North Frontenac Dark Sky Preserve was the first Canadian municipality to achieve the status, with regular stargazing events held between May and October, and special events taking place around cosmic shows like the annual Perseid Meteor Shower. For Torontonians, your best bet is a two-hour drive to the Torrance Barrens Dark Sky Preserve, protected from light pollution by surrounding undeveloped land. Killarney Provincial Park, overlooking Lake Huron, has an observatory with summer astronomy programs throughout the summer. 

Visitors observing the stars atop the Bog trail tower, Kouchibouguac National Park, Dark Sky Preserve. Photo: Parks Canada / Nigel Fearon
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On the East Coast, the annual Fundy Park Stargaze in New Brunswick is a September weekend of spectacular night viewing, offering visitors a variety of telescopes, hands-on tutorials about astrophotography, and a guided look at the planets, constellations, nebulas and star clusters. Visitors can camp for the weekend, and other than camping and park fees, the event is free to the public. Up north, Dark Sky Preserves are ideal destinations to see the Northern Lights, and provide ample benefits to nocturnal animals and plants that have evolved under natural dark skies

Beyond Dark Sky Preserves, The Royal Astronomical Society of Canada also designates the status of Nocturnal Preserves and Urban Star Parks. On the eastern coastline of Oak Bay near Victoria is the Cattle Point Dark Sky Urban Star Park, easily accessed by car, boat or foot, and popular with casual, first-time and more enthusiastic astronomers. Across the country is the Urban Star Parks is Irving Nature Park, a 600-acre undeveloped site located on the coast of the Bay of Fundy less than ten kilometres from Saint John. 

Photo: Parks Canada
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Expect particularly dark skies above NWT’s Wood Buffalo National Park, North America’s largest national park. Located below the aurora oval and rated 1-2 on the Bortle scale, it’s an ideal part of the world to witness the Northern Lights firing with their glory. Pine Lake is the most accessible camping spot, and has a large open air observation circle for group stargazing and astronomical events. 

With our abundance of dark sky, it’s worth noting you won’t see any stars on cloudy, rainy evenings.  Check the weather forecast before making any plans. It also gets dark late in the summer, so if you’re bringing the kids, plan on a late one. For kids – and adults – unaccustomed to seeing galaxies blossom above your head, the experience leaves one in awe and wonder. The longer you look, the more you will see. Seek out a stargazing event near you, and look up and forward to infinity, and beyond. 

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