National parks are some of the last, best places in the country to experience naturally dark night skies. Only one U.S. national park site features a planetarium to help visitors learn about the cosmos.
Darkness is a diminishing resource, and pristine night skies are increasingly difficult to find as the glow of artificial light obscures the light of the stars to the naked eye. Though a handful of remote national parks are world-renowned for their naturally dark night skies, urban areas have become so bright that most of the U.S. population can no longer see the Milky Way from where they live.
Perhaps it makes sense, then, that the only national park planetarium is not in a recognized “dark-sky” park like Natural Bridges, Big Bend, or Death Valley. This facility at Rock Creek Park in Washington, D.C., is actually part of one of the oldest urban national park sites in the country, where light pollution affects the ability to see the night sky.
Built in 1960, the planetarium is part of the Rock Creek Nature Center, which also houses a small museum with displays on native wildlife. The astronomy programs at this modest facility are primarily geared toward children, with youth programs on Wednesday afternoons and general programs twice on Saturdays and Sundays. The recently updated digital projection system displays large-format images of the stars and planets in real time on the building’s domed ceiling, giving rangers the ability to focus in on particular aspects of the solar system and beyond to show the path of the sun, the movement of the constellations, the craters on Venus, and the details of other star systems and celestial bodies. Perhaps most impressive is that the software simulates what the D.C. skies would look like without any light pollution. People who are accustomed to a limited starscape are treated to a sudden glimpse into what the night looked like centuries ago, before the city twinkled with its own electricity.
All the programs at the Rock Creek Park Nature Center and Planetarium are free, though space is limited and tickets are required. Learn more about the planetarium, the park’s monthly stargazing programs (April to November), and the many other offerings at this popular urban park—from its equestrian center to its bike paths to its outdoor concerts—on the Park Service website.
About the author
Jennifer Errick Managing Editor of Online Communications
Jennifer co-produces NPCA's podcast, The Secret Lives of Parks, and writes, edits and moderates online content.