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Vacationing in the Dark

1-21-11 usa_night NASA
The United States at Night. Credit: NASA GSFC

For me, planning a vacation is the first step in enjoying the real thing. I love to whet my appetite for travel by sifting through guidebooks and browsing the internet for the perfect location. With spring break and summer vacation coming up for my kids, I'm looking forward to introducing them to some memorable locations.

I love traveling out west for many reasons. I love that it's not crowded; it's possible to sit outside and hear something other than the roar of a truck. I love that you can visit a chain of national parks within a week, if you are not the type to linger. I love the ruddy desert landscape of the southwest and the rocky, green and white mountains of the northwest. But one of the biggest treats for someone like me who works in astronomy every day is to see a truly dark sky. I think I have a pretty good grasp of just what's up there until I am presented with a sky that looks like I'm in another solar system, because there are so many "intruder" stars I'm not used to seeing. But after a little reorienting myself I can pick out the familiar constellations again and wind my way through the sky.

As you can see from the image of the United States taken at night, the East Coast and Midwest glow with more points of light than a Christmas tree. While there are still pockets of darkness to be found there (including Everglades National Park and Great Smoky Mountains National Park), the overall contrast with the western U.S. is remarkable. Northwestern Arizona (Grand Canyon National Park) and southeastern Utah (Monument Valley) are two locations that are not only beautiful in the daytime, but also put on a sparkling show at night. These are our picks for vacation this year. Meteor Crater is, of course, also on that list.

Maybe this light pollution map will help you to pinpoint your next vacation, too.

If you want to learn more about night sky conservation, visit the International Dark Sky Association website.

-- Kelly Kizer Whitt loves clean, clear, and dark skies. Kelly studied English and Astronomy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and worked for Astronomy magazine. She is currently the Feature Writer for Astronomy and Space at Suite101.com. You can follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/Astronomommy.

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