Mention you’re off to enjoy a star-studded nighttime gathering and most people will assume you’ve got tickets to a Broadway show or swanky speaking engagement. Say that near one of Arizona’s many state parks, however, and folks will likely take such a statement to mean you’re heading out to a Star Party.
“You can see so many stars in the sky, it’s incredible,” says Ellen Bilbrey, chief public information officer for Arizona State Parks. For the past five years or so, almost a dozen of the state’s parks have capitalized on wide expanses of dark sky to draw in hundreds of interested and engaged visitors. “[The Star Parties] are all run by volunteer astronomers from different associations…. Some will present a slide show and give a talk about what you’re going to see, like nebulas, planets, a comet, star clusters or a whole galaxy. Then they set up all the different kinds of telescopes and point them at certain things in the sky. People go from telescope to telescope and see things they’ve never seen before, I’m pretty sure,” Bilbrey adds, laughing.
Each Star Party draws between 500 and 1,000 gazers, and two parks — Alamo Lake and Kartchner Caverns — have won “‘One Star at a Time’ Awards, acknowledging public stargazing events held in state parks that educate and increase awareness of astronomy,” Bilbrey says. “[Star Parties are] great for families — everybody learns something, and you get to see something unique and new. I was blown away by how interesting it is, and all the things you can see at night.”
Samantha Bartram is the Associate Editor of Parks & Recreation Magazine.