The Black Hills are full of natural wonders, from our abundant wildlife to exciting landscapes. Thanks to our wide open spaces, we have access to a wonderful resource many take for granted: the night sky. 

While our towering pine trees may seem like an obstacle to stargazing, there are plenty of amazing vistas in the hills that allow perfect views. Even in tree-covered areas, most often you can find a hole enough to find a constellation or two. 

Be Prepared

Before heading out on a night excursion, always check the weather. Make sure it isn’t supposed to be cloudy or uncomfortably cold out. Also check to see what phase the moon is in; a full moon will overpower all but the brightest stars. Pick a night that is clear and close to a new moon to maximize what you can see.

Once you’ve picked a night for your outing, the first thing to consider is comfort. Bring something to sit on like camp chairs or a comfortable blanket to put on the ground. Dress for the weather too, and bring extra layers just in case. Summer temperatures stay pretty consistent, but fickle spring weather can quickly get colder than what was forecast. Take along a thermos of cocoa for a fun treat when you go; everyone will have more fun if you don’t have to worry about being cold when you’re out.

The second consideration is whether or not you have access to any optical instruments, such as binoculars or a telescope. They certainly aren’t required, but may add a layer of fun for older kids. Even basic binoculars can make stars and planets easier to see, which makes the whole experience more enjoyable. If you locate Jupiter, you should be able to see four of it’s largest moons with everyday binoculars.

Where to Go

The best thing about stargazing is you don’t necessarily have to leave home. Most of us can see brighter constellations and planets from our backyards, which is the perfect way to gauge your family’s interest in stargazing before you pack up the car and head out somewhere.  

Turn off as many lights as you can and go outside at night. Look up; do you have an unobstructed view? Great! Gather up your family and head out for an evening of fun.

If the view from your yard or balcony isn’t great, look around your neighbourhood for a nearby park or greenspace. The further away you can get from large clusters of artificial lights — such as street lights, shopping centres, or office buildings — the better. 

If you’re up for an adventure, head out to Badlands National Park. Take a picnic and watch the sunset over the park, and then turn your eyes skyward for unbeatable views. In the summer they host an astronomy festival that will guide you through the basics of astronomy, and you can enjoy guided talks and demonstrations. Other popular places to go are Wind Cave National Park and Buffalo Gap National Grassland. Their large wilderness areas allow for uninterrupted skies with little light from nearby towns. 

Know What to Look For

Heading out to gaze at the heavens doesn’t have to be complicated to be fun. Start out easy by talking about the phases of the moon, or compete to see who can spot the most shooting stars before anyone else. Smaller moving objects like satellites can be harder to see; try upping the ante to see who can find one first!

When you’re ready to dive deeper, make a list of a couple of basic constellations or celestial bodies to look for when you go. The Big Dipper and the North Star are easy to find in our sky most of the year. The Seven Sisters, or Pleiades, are also easily findable and tied to stories from both Lakota and Greek mythology. If you need help to find them, downloading an astronomy app can help. Many also give you history or folklore related to the constellations, which makes stargazing an educational activity as well as fun. 

Preserve the Night Sky

A bright night sky makes it hard to stargaze, but it also changes the natural world around us. All of us have the predictable pattern of day and night encoded in our DNA; it’s what helps us sustain our own circadian rhythm. If we get out of sync with this rhythm, it can affect our health in all kinds of ways. The same can be said for the plants and wildlife that live around us. 

While we need lights at night to help us see — especially while driving — they cause what’s known as light pollution. In the same way garbage pollutes our oceans and parks, lights pollute our pristine night sky. They disrupt the natural cycle of day to night and back, which causes harm to the environment. Predatory birds like owls that hunt at night have a harder time hunting when their prey hides from light. Migratory birds like Canadian Geese depend on seasonal indicators to know when to migrate and artificial light can interfere with these cues.

We can all help preserve and protect the night sky at home. Make sure you’re using the least amount of light possible, and try to switch to warm colored light bulbs. They emit longer wavelengths, which minimizes sky brightness around them. When you’re out stargazing, put red filters on your flashlights or cellphones. This is as easy as tying a piece of red cellophane or plastic around the end of your flashlight. Red light has the longest wavelength of the visible spectrum, so it protects both your eyes and the wildlife around you. 

Apps we love: 

  • Meteor shower guide: know when the next shower is and when the peak observing times are for your time zone. 
  • Sky Live: includes weather forecasts, light pollution, visible objects, moonlight, location of the International Space Station, planets, etc. Once you set your location in the app, it will give you the next week’s schedule of best nights to head out. 
  • Star Walk 2: maps the sky in real time as you move your phone and gives you info about the celestial bodies you can see. Also has astrological events and celestial objects visible in your location, news, and deep sky objects.
  • Star Walk Kids: similar to Star Walk 2, but presented with animated characters and illustrations to appeal to younger kids. Includes fun games for kids to play in addition to facts and educational cartoons about constellations and planets.  

WORDS: ASHLEY JOHNSON
PHOTOS: JESSE BROWN NELSON