Many tour operators are creating nighttime programs for Jasper visitors. // © 2015 Parks Canada/Rogier Gruys
Feature image (above): The area around Jasper, Alberta, is one of the best destinations for stargazing. // © 2015 Parks Canada/Ryan Bray
Alberta’s Jasper National Park is known for its incredible landscapes, pristine lakes, spectacular glaciers, abundant wildlife and the stunning Rocky Mountains. But that’s only the view during the day. Come nighttime, another breathtaking sight appears — a black sky full of colored, flickering lights.
In 2011, the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada named Jasper National Park an official Dark Sky Preserve, meaning it’s a location with little or no artificial light. With 4,200 square miles of mountain wilderness, the park is the second-largest Dark Sky Preserve in the world.
Visitors here can see the night sky in all its glory. The length of the Milky Way, the Aurora Borealis, various planets, drifting satellites and the International Space Station can all be spotted just by looking up.
But what makes the Jasper Dark Sky Preserve better than most preserves is that it’s the only one in the world with a town in the middle of it. Not just any town, either — Jasper is a world-class tourist destination with a wide variety of amenities, from first-class hotels and restaurants to campgrounds and hiking trails.
“The skies have always been here, but with the preserve, word has gotten out,” said Rogier Gruys, product development specialist for Parks Canada, the government agency responsible for the park. “People now think about visiting us for the dark skies. Tourists usually come for the mountains and all they have to offer, but the preserve is a great added experience. We were literally blown away by the response — we had no idea how much interest it would create. We are also getting more people who wish to learn how to photograph the night sky.”
Though Parks Canada’s programs are still evolving, nighttime interpretive programs are offered at least once a week during the fall and winter. Many private operators are also getting into the act with nighttime sky tours that include hiking, skiing, snowshoeing and photography workshops. Parks Canada also has a number of designated sites more suitable for viewing the skies, many of them just minutes from the town of Jasper, such as Pyramid Island, Marmot Meadows and Medicine Lake.
“When you first go out, your eyes need to adjust, so when you look up, you’ll see a few stars,” Gruys said. “But if you lie down in a meadow for 10 to 15 minutes, your eyes will become accustomed to the dark, and soon the sky will be full of stars. You’ll be overwhelmed as you see the massive band of dense stars of the Milky Way, which you may never see in the city.”
Jasper also has created the annual Dark Sky Festival. The 2015 event runs from Oct. 16 to 25 and will feature guest speakers, guided night hikes, astronomy and photography workshops and cultural events such as special dinners or symphony performances under the night sky. In addition, astronomers from the Royal Astronomical Society come to the festival with their large telescopes so that everyone gets a chance to stargaze.
“Last year’s festival was absolutely fabulous,” Gruys said. “There were so many people here; it was warm, the skies were clear and we had astronaut Colonel Chris Hadfield as our main speaker. It’s always a great event.”
The entire schedule for the 2015 festival has yet to be finalized, but so far special guests will include the return of astronaut Colonel Hadfield, as well as Kari Byron, Tory Belleci and Grant Imahara from the popular television show “MythBusters.” More information will be available online.