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Stars and Planets and Galaxies, Oh my!

By Brannon • September 30, 2021

The night sky at the Grand Canyon is not something that you will often read about in the brochures, flyers, and websites. This is one of the best-kept secrets of this spectacular place. Like everything else at the Grand Canyon, it changes with the days, weeks, and seasons.

Neon signs, streetlights, porch lights, and headlights turn the urban environment into an illuminated landscape that is safe to navigate at night and ensures that we can get our key into the doorknob without fumbling too much. Drive a few miles out of town and over a hill, it will be darker, however, the orange glow of the city will still dominate the horizon. It’s not until you get at least 30 miles away from even the smallest burg that the night sky shines in it’s true, unspoiled form. Fortunately, 95% of the Grand Canyon is much farther than 30 miles from the nearest artificial light. A majority of the Grand Canyon is classified as Class 1 on the Bortle Night Sky Scale, “excellent dark sky site.” In 2019, Grand Canyon National Park celebrated its 100th anniversary by officially being recognized as an International Dark Sky Park. The Milky Way appears as a marbled ribbon across the sky, Mars, Venus, and Jupiter are brilliant, and even the brightest galaxies are visible to the naked eye.

With a bright moon in the Grand Canyon, the colors of the canyon walls become illuminated and the silver light dances across the water. When the moon comes over the canyon wall and shines on camp, the light is quite bright making moving around camp without a light possible and casts moon shadows on the beach.

It is possible to become transfixed, laying on your cot as you doze off to sleep, studying the points of lights above. You may recognize a familiar constellation, learn a few new ones. People have seen shapes in the stars and used them as tools in storytelling for thousands of years. Incredibly, there is often a connection across cultures and time that can see the same thing. The Sumerians saw the brightest stars in the sky and saw a great hunter (Orion) fighting the “Bull of the Heavens” (Taurus). Similarly, the Navajo saw the same pattern of bright stars as a representation of Atse’ Ets’ozi’ (pronounced At say et so) or “The First Slender One” a young hunter.

Tips for Enjoying the Night Sky:

– Let your eyes adjust to the dark. It takes 30 minutes for your night vision to get really good and only a brief flash of light to ruin it. When your eyes are properly adjusted to the dark you can see twice as many stars.

– Bring a flashlight or headlamp with a red light. Red light does not affect your night vision and still allows you to move around camp and find things in the dark.

– Try some astrophotography. Modern cameras, even cell phones, do a surprisingly good job capturing the night sky. Keep in mind that having any electronic devices in the Grand Canyon comes with a few risks. Check out “What Type of Camera Should I Bring” for some insight.

– There are several good apps for iOS and Android that can help identify stars, planets, and other celestial objects. Search “star map” in your favorite app store. Keep in mind that these apps require GPS and can drain your battery very quickly. Use them sparingly and be prepared with a backup charger if you’ll need to charge your phone more often.