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How to Enjoy the Central Idaho Dark Sky Reserve with the Family

Mike McKenna's picture
Mike McKenna

We make an adaption to an old saying around here. Instead of telling folks they need to “stop and smell the flowers,” we tell people they need to “stop and look up at the stars.”

Over 1,416-square-miles of Central Idaho, including Ketchum and Sun Valley, were recently designated as an official Dark Sky Reserve. The first in the nation and one of just 12 worldwide, our region was selected for its pristine night sky and our efforts to limit light pollution.

I often tell friends, family and even random people I meet around the valley visiting here for the first time, that star gazing is a “Must Do” in Sun Valley. It just seems like there are more stars above our skies than there are anywhere else in the world. On a clear night it makes the universe look endless and is downright awe inspiring.

Since star gazing is good here every season of the year, here’s are some tips for making the most out of the Central Idaho Dark Sky Reserve.

 

Be Prepared!

The best part about star gazing with the family is that it takes very little planning. Plus, it’s free! Just wait until it gets dark around here—which can be pretty late in the summertime—and then look up and voila, Dad, you’re a genius!

While it can be as simple as that, it doesn’t take much effort to properly prepare for some star gazing. Before you head off into the darkness you should have: something comfortable to sit on, a flashlight or headlamp (preferably one with a red light option), be dressed appropriately for nighttime in the Northern Rockies and water (it’s important to stay hydrated in the mountains).

Having a general idea of where you’re going helps, that’s where advice from local photographer Nils Ribi comes in handy.

There are some great apps for your smartphone that will drop some astronomy knowledge on you. Check out Star Chart & Night Sky.

 

Find a Nice Spot

Central Idaho Dark Sky Reserve photo by Ray J. Gadd
photo: Ray J. Gadd

“There are a lot of great places around here to enjoy the night sky,” Nils said. (Check out his gallery of local night sky shots here.)

Thanks to the efforts to become a Dark Sky Preserve there is far less light pollution than most places, so you don’t have to go very far from town to find some great viewing spots.

“Even town is fine, but if you can get a little bit away it makes a big difference, especially if you can get above the elevation of the buildings,” Nils said. “Most of the hills here have trails and if you’re willing to drive, the SNRA (Sawtooth National Recreation Area) just north is amazing.”

           

Enjoy the Darkness

It can take your eyes up to 15 minutes to fully adjust to the darkness. So it’s best to get comfy and to turn off your phones, car lights, and flashlights. If you have to use a light, it’s best to use red—which many headlamps sold locally now come equipped with. The red doesn’t impact vision as much as white.

The longer you enjoy the dark skies around here, the more you see.

The Milky Way is especially easy to see here most nights, which makes it pretty special.  The majority of Americans (about 80%) live in places where it can’t be seen. What is common in our dark skies is rare to most visitors. The Milky Way can bee seen all year but is most visible during winter and summer.

 

Capture the Moment

Central Idaho Dark Sky Reserve - Milky Way - photo by Ray J. Gadd
photo: Ray J. Gadd

Night photography requires longer exposure. Most cameras and even cellphones have longer exposure settings for night shots. The real key to capturing the stars is being able to keep the camera absolutely still.

Using objects like fence posts and car bumpers can work, but nothing beats a tripod of some sort. A variety of tripod options can be found locally, from big and professional to as small and easy as GorillapodsF-Stop and local sporting good shops like Backwoods and Pete Lane’s carry these products.

 

Kids Corner: Entertainment Ideas

Sure, most of us parents would be thrilled to spend lots of time kicking back and drinking in the endless night sky of Sun Valley, but the kids may need to do more than just look up. Here are few ideas to up the entertainment factor for families.

  • Hit The Community Library or a bookstore like Chapter One or Iconoclast to brush up on some star-based reading or to pick up an astronomy guide or Sky Map before you go a-gazing. Your newly gained knowledge and will impress your children and surprise your spouse—especially if can rattle off stuff like: The two stars at the bottom of the Big Dipper’s bowl point toward Polaris, the North Star; Or, did you know the sun is actually are closest star and Saturn is the most distant planet we can see with the naked eye?
  • Play connect the dot games with kids. It will help them find and understand the constellations better.
  • Count Shooting Stars: Almost ever night at least a few “shooting stars” can be seen.
  • Use your imagination. Make up your own figures from the among the endless stars. If all you see are pillows, martini glasses or chocolate bars, it’s time for a new adventure.
  • Set the mood and bring some tunes. Playing “The Planets” from Gustav Holst (which inspired the music for many Sci-Fy films like Star Wars) or Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of Moon” can add to the moment and is certain to up the entertainment factor.

We hope that you enjoy your time out there enjoying the stars! For more information on the Central Idaho Dark Sky Reserve, CLICK HERE

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