Witnessing a celestial lightshow or gazing up at a starlit sky feels magical. The best way to get the full experience is to get out of the city and be immersed in a dark sky preserves. There are 36 designated sites in the world, and 19 of those sites right here in Canada. Ontario proudly hosts six official Dark Sky Preserves.
What exactly is a Dark Sky Preserve (DSP)? As governed by the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, they’re officially recognized, protected areas with limited artificial light pollution (sorry cities, we’re over the artificial light)—and they’re used to promote astronomy. Plus, Parks Canada tells us that these areas also protect our ecosystems because of the many plants, wildlife, and insects that rely on darkness to forage, breed and navigate. There are other rural areas throughout the province and the country known as Urban Star Parks and Nocturnal Preserves.
For us, these precious preserves offer some of the best views of the galaxy you can see, without being granted a boarding pass to Elon Musk’s next space foray. DSPs are officially recognized areas that have limited artificial light pollution and are used to promote astronomy. They offer some of the best views of the galaxy that you are likely to see anywhere.
Torrance Barrens Dark Sky Preserve
Many central-Ontario cottage-goers can rejoice with this preserve being right in the heart of Muskoka, which happened to be the first permanent DSP in the world. It’s a whopping 1900-hectare area located west of Gravenhurst, just south of Lake Muskoka. Its designation was awarded in 1999.
Gazing goals: the Milky Way is visible to the naked eye on a cloudless night, as well as countless stars, constellations and even a planet or two from our own galaxy. Andromeda—our neighbouring galaxy (over two million light years away) can also be spotted here. A few lucky observers have also seen the Northern Lights from here.
Point Pelee National Park
This park, at the southernmost tip of Canada’s mainland on Lake Erie, already boasts a fabulous beach, camping and is a haven for nature lovers. It’s a peninsula gem that’s part of a bird and butterfly migration corridor where birdwatchers have logged over 360 species within the park.
Gazing goals: on the darkest nights during a new moon (that’s when the moon isn’t visible in our sky). Point Pelee stays open until midnight, allowing visitors to take in the magical views of the thousands of stars reflected over the canvas of the lake. The schedule is posted online.
Bruce Peninsula National Park and Fathom Five National Marine Park
These two national parks are blessed with virtually no light pollution but fascinatingly dark skies. They’re located near Tobermory on the shores of Lake Huron. Bruce Peninsula, which looks over Georgian Bay, has a dramatic backdrop of the cliffs of the Niagara Escarpment. Both parks were self-declared dark sky community in 2004, but were officially granted a designation in 2009.
Gazing goals: Breathtaking sunsets before the evening lightshow starts, and if you don’t happen to bring your own equipment, the Bayside Astronomy program lends out telescopes. It’s free and takes place every Friday and Saturday night at the Lions Head marina, from Canada Day to Labour Day at dusk.
Gordon’s Park Dark Sky Preserve
Manitoulin Island is home to this wide-open field dark sky preserve, designated so in 2009—Canada’s first Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (RASC)-designated commercial DSP. It’s the first commercial, privately owned preserve. Across the water from Bruce Peninsula National Park, it’s one of Ontario’s darkest observation sites—with almost no light pollution here.
Gazing goal: You may also be able to see the Northern Lights here, despite it being one of the most southern spots. In fact, this light show takes place sometimes weekly. The park is open May to September.
Killarney Provincial Park
Killarney Provincial Park was Ontario’s first provincial park granted designation as a DSP by the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada in 2018. Along with the chance to view stars in clear skies, this 645-kilometre iconic northern wilderness boasts 50 clear lakes amongst Jack Pine hills.
Gazing goals: In the same year as its DSP designation, the park’s observatory was upgraded to feature a new research-grade 16″ telescope that’s capable of full computer and smartphone control, and other equipment (an attached 5″ refractor) that will make for some outstanding astro-photography.
North Frontenac Dark Sky Preserve
Recognized as a DSP by the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada in 2013, the park is even equipped with a large cement pad for telescopes, benches and picnic tables and washrooms for when nature calls. This preserve is about a 120 kilometers north of Kingston, nestled in the township of North Frontenac.
Gazing goals: Beautifully dark skies, it’s a popular destination for both astronomers and amateur observers. Leveled observation pads, washrooms and electrical hookups for campers and RVers make the trip a convenient one.
Lake Superior Provincial Park Dark Sky Preserve
Only just established as a DSP in 2018, this park offers a fantastic, remote stargazing location in Algoma County. There’s an area specifically dedicated to stargazing on Agawa Bay’s beach (which is near the Lake Superior Provincial Park’s visitor centre).
Gazing goals: The park will offer the blackest of skies on earth as a backdrop for the constellations. This is because of its remote location. On top of its dark allure, it has breath-taking landscape that includes 600-metre-high cliffs, Indigenous pictographs and the Canadian Shield. As expected, this northern park means you’ll be able to see the Northern Lights.
Quetico Provincial Park
This park received International Dark Sky Park certification by the Dark Sky Association in February 2021. The park takes great steps to preserve its status and atmosphere; it created a light management plan and ensured light fixtures were compliant to minimize the amount of extra light emitted.
Gazing goals: This unsullied natural night sky is free of any light pollution, which will make evenings all the more magical. A perfect framework to see the Northern Lights.
The best spots to catch the Northern Lights in Canada
Blue Water Outdoor Education Centre in Wiarton
Another great Ontario stargazing location is Blue Water Outdoor Education Centre. This easy to access stargazing spot in Ontario sits just outside of the town of Wiarton and not far from the vast sands of Sauble Beach.
Gazing goals: There’s a 28-inch Webster telescope; you can also set up your own equipment in the fields.
-Check the weather before you go
-Take a chart or download a stargazing app
-Bring binoculars or a telescope
-Turn off any lights when not in use
-Put red cellophane over your flashlight (it’s less obtrusive than white and helps retain night vision)
Practice Dark Sky-Friendly Camping
Ontario Parks encourages you to abide by the following to ensure all visitors have a good experience:
-Use outdoor lights and lanterns only when necessary, and shut them off when you go to sleep
-Don’t install solar-powered garden lights that stay lit all night long
-Don’t install lighting, such as string lights, on your campsite
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