On clear nights, it may seem like you can see a million stars in the Milky Way, but even in cottage country, artificial light can limit how much we can see. Serious stargazers should try heading to one of Canada’s official Dark Sky Preserves. Since 1999, The Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (RASC) has designated 17 Canadian parks and observatories as such. To qualify, parks must meet and uphold strict standards that limit or eliminate light pollution, providing some of the country’s best constellation views and, more importantly, protection for migrating birds and nocturnal species. Here are some of the best stargazing sites across Canada.
Grasslands National Park
Grasslands is Canada’s only national prairie park and has been dubbed “the darkest Dark Sky Preserve in Canada.” This stretch of Saskatchewan prairie is home to 70 types of grass, tons of dinosaur fossils, and some of the nation’s top stargazing areas, with designated sites in both the east and west blocks. This region’s dark skies help the nocturnal and highly endangered black-footed ferrets to thrive (they were reintroduced to the park in 2009).
Jasper National Park
Alberta’s Jasper National Park is well known for its breathtaking Rocky Mountains, waterfalls, and sparkling glacier-fed lakes but it’s also the second-largest Dark Sky Preserve on the planet. Drop by the visitor’s centre for a peek through the on-site telescope and try to spot planets within star-speckled skies or dancing northern lights. Or, head to the annual Dark Sky Festival held every October. This year’s celebration features Canadian astronaut Col. Chris Hadfield.
Kouchibouguac National Park
You’ll find no shortage of starry nights at the Maritime park along New Brunswick’s Eastern Shores, which earned it a Dark Sky Preserve designation in 2009. The park’s name has Mi’kmaq roots and means “river of the long tides,” fitting for the region full of sand dunes, lagoons and marshes.
Mont Mégantic National Park Dark Sky Preserve
Quebec’s Mont-Mégantic Observatory and surrounding parkland is Canada’s only designated International Dark Sky Reserve. Tackle 30 kilometres of multipurpose and hiking trails with designated stargazing stops along the way, or head to the ASTROLab astronomy activity centre for evening tours of the observatory.
Point Pelee National Park
Point Pelee was designated a Dark Sky Preserve in 2006 and hosts regular stargazing events through the summer, including planetarium shows and special RASC public events where the park remains open until midnight. The Lake Erie site is perched at Canada’s southernmost tip and is an important stop for millions of migrating birds, many of which find their way via the stars.
Bruce Peninsula National Park & Fathom Five National Marine Park
Northern Bruce Peninsula earned its Dark Sky designation for having the darkest skies in southern Ontario and maintaining them helps the millions of migrating birds that pass through the Niagara Escarpment each year. The rocky islands, limestone cliffs and caves along Georgian Bay are home to an ancient ecosystem and there are plenty of camping sites with great views of the constellations.
Kejimkujik Dark Sky Preserve
This Nova Scotia national park and historic site was given its official designation in 2010. The Atlantic park offers plenty of woodland trails, sandy beaches, portaging routes and prime stargazing sites, especially at Sky Circle in Jeremy’s Bay Campground along Kejimkujik Lake. Dark Sky events are held throughout summer months, including educational programs around astronomy and its relation to Mi’kmaq culture.
McDonald “Dark Sky” Park Preserve
This dark park, sandwiched between Abbotsford and Chilliwack, B.C., gets its super starry skies thanks to Sumas Mountain, which blocks artificial light from the two towns. McDonald Park is open to the public during the day but when the stars come out, it’s taken over by the Fraser Valley Astronomer’s Society (and open to the public for special nighttime events hosted by its members).
North Frontenac Dark Sky Preserve
This town has the darkest skies in Southern Ontario and is the first municipality in Canada to be designated as a Dark Sky Preserve. Beyond being a major tourist attraction—the town has built a stargazing pad for locals and visitors to enjoy—the pristine skies also help support the region’s varied wildlife. Unfortunately, a new industrial wind farm is slated to be built in the middle of the preserve, which means it may not be around for much longer.