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Star parties at these five dark-sky places bring the heavens to life

Star parties at these five dark-sky places bring the heavens to life
Stargazers can board the Great Basin Sky Train operated by the Nevada Northern Railway to see stars in one of the darkest areas in eastern Nevada. (Kevin D. Grant)

As dedicated stargazers know, you need really dark skies to take in the stars, planets and galaxies. These five places are so far from city lights that they have been recognized for their remarkable darkness by the International Dark Sky Assn. All offer star parties or sky tours that make for an inspiring tour of the universe.

Nevada

Great Basin National Park in the eastern part of the state near the Utah border is one of the least discovered dark places in the U.S.

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On a clear night, you can expect to see “thousands of stars, five of our solar system’s eight planets, star clusters, meteors, man-made satellites, the Andromeda Galaxy and the Milky Way” with the naked eye, the park’s website says.

A good time to go: Sept. 6-8, when a squad of Dark Rangers and volunteer astronomers set up telescopes during the park’s annual astronomy festival (free).

In summer, you also can board a vintage locomotive, called the Sky Train, in nearby Ely, Nev., operated by Nevada Northern Railway. Dark Rangers hop aboard for a ride and star tour on moonless evenings in summer (September is the last date in 2018, and it’s sold out. 2019 dates are May 17, June 7, July 12, Aug. 2 and Sept. 6.; $39 for adults, $20 children 4 to 12. Info: Great Basin Star Train

California
A view of the Milky Way over a spot in Joshua Tree National Park.
A view of the Milky Way over a spot in Joshua Tree National Park. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Late fall is a great time to go stargazing in Southern California’s eastern deserts, after the blistering heat of summer has passed. Joshua Tree National Park will hold a Night Sky Star Party on Nov. 10 in which astronomers line up with 20 telescopes and serve as guides to the heavens while guitarist Sharma Vikas plays.

Tickets cost $50 for adults, $35 for kids younger than 12; funds benefit a local arts council. Those who want to up their game and learn night photography and what's called light painting, photographer John Van Vliet leads a workshop Nov. 9 and 10 for $160 a person.

California

Death Valley National Park, the largest dark sky park in the U.S., also will host star parties Nov. 2 and 3 at the Oasis at Death Valley (formerly the Inn at Furnace Creek).

The nighttime events are free and organized by the Las Vegas Astronomical Society.

Canada

The tiny Rocky Mountain town of Jasper in Alberta invites all to “power down and look up” during its Dark Sky Festival from Oct. 12 to 21. You can take a Skytram journey more than 7,200 feet above the city, tour the solar system (and maybe even catch the northern lights) with astronomers, and enjoy a three-course meal (starting at $129).

Other highlights: Telescope viewing for daytime solar gazing and planetarium visit ($39 for adults) and keynote speakers Mark and Scott Kelly, identical twin astronauts, on Oct. 19 ($100).

Hawaii

The Maunakea Visitor Information Station in Hilo on Hawaii Island stands at 9,200 feet above sea level. It can be one of the coldest places on the island better known for its tropical temperatures. It’s also one of the darkest places around that offers good views of the night sky, but the ride to the top is long and winding. Free stargazing programs are offered 7 to 10 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Guides and rangers answer questions and give a star tour with a laser pointer. Two big caveats: Check the weather to make sure visibility is good before you go, and dress warmly; this is a part of Hawaii that can get snow. Go early to get one of the 115 parking spots given out first come, first served. Info: Maunakea Visitor Information Station

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