The night skies above the Racetrack area of Death Valley National Park.
Credit: Dan & Cindy Duriscoe
Death Valley National Park — famous for being the site of the hottest temperature ever recorded on Earth — is being honored with a new superlative after being named a dark sky park, the largest in the world.
The International Dark-Sky Association announced the designation of Death Valley as a "Gold Tier" International Dark Sky Park today (Feb. 20). That tier is the highest bestowed by the IDA and means that you can view night sky objects only visible in the darkest skies on the planet.
Death Valley is a 3.4-million-acre park located in California in the Mojave Desert, near the border with Nevada. It contains the lowest point in the United States, at 282 feet (86 meters) below sea level.
The park is far enough away from the light-polluted cities of the West that its views of the night sky are "near pristine," offering a glimpse of what could be seen before such cities were erected, according to an IDA statement. [6 Stellar Places for Skywatching in the US]
The often cloudless skies also make Death Valley an excellent stargazing spot. (The park averages less than 2 inches, or 5 centimeters, of rainfall a year, with some years seeing no rain at all, according to the park website.)
"Death Valley is a place to gaze in awe at the expanse of the Milky Way, follow a lunar eclipse, track a meteor shower, or simply reflect on your place in the universe," National Park Service Director Jonathan B. Jarvis said in the statement.
The park hosts regular astronomy events. The next will be its Mars Fest from March 1-3.
The distant lights of Las Vegas and other major cities do pose a potential threat to the park's skies and nocturnal wildlife, the statement said. Park staff, volunteers and astronomy clubs have urged local towns and private groups to use dark-sky friendly lighting, the IDA noted. The park itself is developing a plan to use light fixtures that direct light downwards, instead of allowing it to spill out sideways or upward toward the sky, according to its website.
The hottest temperature ever recorded on Earth was made there at Furnace Creek Ranch in July 1913; it was a scorching 134 degrees Fahrenheit (57 degrees Celsius).
Other 'Gold'-level dark sky sites include a large portion of New Zealand's South Island, as well as Utah's Natural Bridges National Monument and Texas's Big Bend National Park.