Lisa Brainard: Make friends with a star this summer: Look to the skies

PHOTO COURTESY NATIONAL PARK SERVICE A night sky program is held in the amphitheater at Badlands National Park in South Dakota. I attended one of the daily, summer night-sky programs in the past and really enjoyed it.
By : 
Lisa Brainard
Journey vs Destination

Summer is a great time to check out the nighttime skies. Grab a blanket for the ground or sit in a reclining lawn chair, another light blanket or jacket to chase away any chills, and bug spray. Another good idea – this time to protect your nighttime vision from bright, white lights – is to have a headlamp or flashlight with the option of a red light. Your eyes will be saved from the time needed to adapt again to a low-light environment.

To give ideas of options available for a nighttime program, or even an event of a few days you might want to work into vacation plans, I took a spin online to see what I could find. Examples of activities in national parks (with one exception) follow. Always make contact to verify events before making a trip.


Badlands National Park, Wall, SD.

At the amphitheater located between Cedar Pass Campground and Cedar Pass Lodge, a program is held nightly through Aug. 3, from 9:45 – 10:30, and continuing through Sept. 14 from 9:15 – 10:15 p.m. No registration or fee required, other than park entrance fee. Stand beneath the night sky and experience the magnitude of how large our universe is. Rangers will point out constellations, stars, and planets while providing interesting facts. They’ll also share stories about how our understanding of our place in the universe has shifted throughout the past. Telescopes are set up for viewing objects like the moon, Jupiter and Saturn.

July 5

Badlands Astronomy Festival, Badlands National Park, Wall, S.D.

Novices and experts alike will find things to enjoy. During the day, a variety of family-friendly workshops and special activities will provide opportunities for visitors to learn about the night sky, the sun and space exploration. Also, take in public stargazing activities, solar observing opportunities and planetarium shows, as well as equipment demonstrations.

July 28 – Aug. 2

Nebraska Star Party, Merritt Reservoir, Valentine, Neb.

This has tons of activities, as well as lots of recreation opportunities. I love the Valentine area and have participated in a brief, but amazing star program at the reservoir (and also floated the beautiful, scenic Niobrara River). Someday I need to get to this star party! Registration required.

Aug. 30 – Sept. 1

Dakota Nights Astronomy Festival, Theodore Roosevelt National Park – South Unit, Medora, N.D.

Join astronomers, rangers, and historians as they come together for a three-day festival celebrating North Dakota's starry nights and rich heritage! Stand under the expansive night sky that influenced cultures of American Indian tribes, inspired modern space exploration, and is still yours to experience today. Enjoy star viewing, special presentations, rocket building and launching, children’s activities, and much more. Most activities are included with your park entry fee, except when otherwise noted.

Daytime activities include Discovery Dome Theater, where you can immerse yourself in films about outer space, planets, stars, and black holes; free hands-on kid’s crafts and activities to learn about astronomy and unleash creativity; rocket building, painting and launching, with $10 rocket kits; safe solar viewing through telescopes and by other means; and even an easy, half-mile solar system hike, where you start at the sun and hike your way to Neptune (sorry, Pluto!), learning about the planets in our solar system.

Each night of the festival, the park’s Cottonwood Campground amphitheater hosts a guest speaker. Past programs have included astronomy, star stories, cultural values and significance of the night sky, natural darkness, and a NASA astronomer.

Each night, also get an up-close look at stars, star clusters, and planets in the telescope field at the park’s Peaceful Valley Ranch. Listen as astronomers and rangers share stories about the night sky. And here’s a reminder again: Get the most out of your experience and protect the night vision of others by leaving flashlights, cell phones, and all other light-emitting devices behind.


There are many more activities involving night skies. To start looking at the overall picture with the National Park Service – including great dark skies to view on your own (hint: I know from experience that Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota is one), go to

Also, remember to check listings for state and area parks, as well as local astronomy clubs for events. Happy stargazing!

Lisa Brainard still enjoys lifelong pursuits of the outdoors, history and travel as able following a serious accident and stroke in September 2012. She’s written this Journey vs. Destination column weekly for over 15 years.