How to best enjoy Jasper National Park's dark sky

Nine ways to get the most out of stargazing in the 11,000 square kilometer dark sky preserve
  • Feb 22, 2016
  • 1,052 words
  • 5 minutes
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The Jasper Dark Sky Festival has grown by leaps and bounds since the national park that houses it finally achieved official dark sky preserve status in 2011.

Last year’s festival was a resounding success and brought in visitors from across the country with events featuring luminaries as Colonel Chris Hadfield and the former co-hosts of Discovery channel’s Mythbusters.

A dark sky preserve is an area–usually surrounded by a park or observatory–where no artificial lighting is visible and active measures are in place to educate and rally the public to reducing light pollution. There are 17 designated dark sky preserves in Canada. Jasper’s is the second largest, after Wood Buffalo National Park.

“The astronomy gives you the eye candy, but the environment is what you’re trying to save,” says Robert Dick, manager of the dark sky preserve program with the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, as quoted in Jasper’s local paper The Fitzhugh.

Peter McMahon, manager of The Jasper Planetarium and the national park’s astronomer-in-residence, was on hand to guide attendees through the sparkling skies. Here, he provides his nine tips on how best to enjoy the dark sky preserve.

1. Take in a world-exclusive interactive show at The Jasper Planetarium
Guests in this 30-seat air-supported dome get to hang out with local presenters on a whirlwind orientation of the park at night including a look at the First Nations constellations of the area and the chance to use a sextant to measure the sky like geographer David Thompson, who mapped out the area 200 years ago.

2. Get the right stargazing app
The best new “telescope” is the augmented-reality app you can install on your phone – these apps now outnumber telescopes dozens-to-one. If you don’t already have one (no network or GPS required) grab Star Chart or Sky Map for Andriod devices (free) or StarWalk ($3.99 at the iTunes Store) for iPhone or iPads

3. Know where to go
With literally hundreds of breathtaking stargazing spots, Jasper is often called “the Disneyworld of Dark Sky Preserves”.
For example, these must-visit spots are all within a 10 minute drive of town:

  • The bridge to Pyramid Island
  • The beach at Lake Annette (near the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge)
  • Marmot Meadows at the Whistlers Campground

But if you feel like venturing a little farther from town:

  • See the stars (and maybe auroras) reflected in the glassy waters of Maligne Lake (or Medicine Lake, closer to town)
  • Journey down to the Columbia Icefield (watch the road at night!) to watch the Milky Way rise over a glacier for a similar sight much closer to town, drive up to Mount Edith Cavell and hike over to the Angel Glacier

4. Know when to go
At roughly 52 degrees North latitude, Jasper is fairly high for decent planetary observing and the sun sets later in the summer months (though the area doesn’t get that pesky “midnight sun” that areas further north get). If viewing in the summer months, you’ll have to wait a little longer to see the best the night sky has to offer (around 11-midnight in May and June, 1-2 am at the Summer Solstice, and 11-midnight in late-July and early August.) While summer under the skies of Jasper are amazing, winter is the best time to scope-out the heavens, and many astronomy experiences remain open and accessible here year-round. Finally, remember, no place on Earth will allow you to see the night sky at its darkest when the Moon is out, so plan your trip around the New (dark) Moon if possible.

5. Scope the skies using the largest telescope in the Rockies
In partnership with the planetarium, SunDog tours offers nightly (weather-permitting) guided stargazing sessions by the dome through a huge 16″ mirror telescope, as well as several other scopes for looking at the Moon and planets. Special evening star parties at the Jasper Airfield and morning “sun-gazing” breakfasts are also offered, where you can see solar flares exploding off the Sun as it rises over the mountains.

6. Dress warmly and bring a good headlamp
Even in July, it can get a little chilly in Jasper at night, so bring enough layers to stay comfortable. Also, don’t rely on the flashlight on your phone! Make sure you have a good LED headlamp with both safety white AND night-vision-preserving red for once you’ve reached your destination (most hardware stores and big box outlets sell such lights with the important red light option.) 

7. Drop by the Jasper Dark Sky Festival
In just five years, this has grown from a weekend event with a few curious ‘polar fleece astronomers’ to a multi-week celebration of the night that attracts thousands each October and features open-air concerts of the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, premium dining in the planetarium and under the stars, a kids fair, and guest speakers ranging from Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield to Discovery Channel’s Mythbusters. Buy your tickets fast – may aspects of the event sell-out weeks or more in advance.

8. Check out the sky from on top of a Mountain
Normally, the Jasper Skytram closes before dark, but every few weeks in the spring, summer, and fall, you can make the journey 3,000 above the town site for their special stargazing sessions, which include return “flights”, food and drink, cloudy-weather presentations/scoping out the Athabasca River valley from above, and guided tours of the sky from the highest-altitude telescope observing site in North America

9. Capture the aurora on your camera
With 2 million visitors a year, Jasper gets more aurora tourism than Yellowknife. Although further south than these well-known Northern Lights destinations, you’ll be able to see a decent display once a week or so when it’s dark. Even weak auroras you can’t see can be captured on your camera; just put it on a tripod (or picnic table, etc..), point it at the northern horizon and take a 10 to 20 second timelapse.

More info:

Canadian Geographic Travel: The Best of National Parks

This story is from the Canadian Geographic Travel: Spring 2016 Issue

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