This Underrated Stretch of Route 66 Has Some of the Best Stargazing in the U.S.

At 1.6 million acres, it's the largest national monument in the contiguous U.S. — and it's almost entirely empty. Protected by President Obama in 2016 after a 20-year effort to protect this vast area, Mojave Trails National Monument in southeastern California is an untouched wilderness of mountains, volcanic spires, dunes, wetlands, Joshua tree woodlands, petroglyphs and the longest remaining undeveloped stretch of Route 66. 

It's also home to some of the last remaining inky-black, starry skies. "You can see the Milky Way here every night in a blanket of stars, and even globular clusters and our sister galaxy Andromeda," said Elizabeth Paige, an intern on the Women In Science Discovering Our Mojave (WISDOM) research project, and a student at College of the Desert in Palm Desert, California. 

"Go to other parks close to urban areas and you won't see these," she added during a virtual event hosted by the Mojave Desert Land Trust (MDLT) in Joshua Tree, California. "About 80% of the world lives under skyglow, but light pollution is the most preventable and easily fixable type — all you have to do is turn off the lights." 

WISDOM is a group of female college interns who gathered each new moon at Mojave Trails to measure the darkness of the night sky at eight different locations using a sky quality meter and smartphone apps like Dark Sky Meter and Loss Of The Night.  "Every location we were at we measured more than a thousand stars, and often way more," said Paige. To qualify as an International Dark Sky Sanctuary, the luminance of the night sky must have an average of 21.5 on the sky quality scale. The team discovered that all of the locations it visited met that criteria.  

If the attempt to make Mojave Trails an International Dark Sky Sanctuary is successful, it would join an elite list of remote regions around the world that boast some of the planet's last remaining, most preciously dark skies. 

Where is Mojave Trails National Monument and why is it ecologically important? 

Sandwiched between Interstates 15 and 40 close to California's borders with Nevada and Arizona, Mojave Trails is also home to bighorn sheep, tortoises, fringe-toed lizards, and more than 250 types of birds. All have evolved to cope with, depend on, and take advantage of the natural darkness. "It's an ecologically important area because it's a wildlife corridor connecting wilderness areas and two national parks," said Victora Reiser, WISDOM intern and recent graduate from the University of Arizona. "There's something profound in making sure we preserve this area and its night sky, not only for us but for these ecosystems." 

How light pollution is threatening Mojave Trails

It may be a remote and wild place, but light pollution from faraway cities is beginning to impact Mojave Trails. "We can see the light from Las Vegas during the night and it's enough to disrupt physiological behaviour in plants, some of which only bloom in the dark of night," said Paige. "Some insects use light to find water where they breed, but lights disorient them while birds use the light from the setting sun, the moon, and the stars to navigate and as directional cues and they veer hundreds of miles off course and get exhausted." 

How dark skies can bring people together

"It's such a profound experience to be able to share looking up at the night sky together, and to observe it month to month and watch it change," said Reiser. "We started doing this in September through February and the stars, galaxies and constellations brought us all together — you feel it deep within!" 

Some of the interns grew up in the desert region around Mojave Trails, but for others, this was a unique experience. "I had never seen the Milky Way before this internship," said Karina Jimenez, WISDOM intern and student at California State University, Northridge, who lives close to Los Angeles. "It was a really grounding experience for me to see the dark skies at Mojave Trails." 

They also developed some new techniques to dark-adapt your eyes before a stargazing session. "If you wear sunglasses at the dinner table and while watching TV, then when you get outside at 11 p.m. your eyes will see all the stars," said Paige. 

What is an International Dark Sky Sanctuary?

It's a place where the night skies are so utterly dark that it needs careful protection. They're designated by the Phoenix, Arizona-based International Dark-Sky Association (IDA), which also certifies International Dark Sky Reserves and Dark Sky Parks. A Dark Sky Sanctuary is defined as: "public or private land that has an exceptional or distinguished quality of starry nights and a nocturnal environment that is protected for its scientific, natural, or educational value, its cultural heritage and/or public enjoyment."  

Where are the other International Dark Sky Sanctuaries? 

There are now 14 Dark Sky Sanctuaries on the planet, mostly in isolated places far from human settlement. They range from the remote Pitcairn Islands and Niue in the South Pacific Ocean to the Gabriela Mistral Dark Sky Sanctuary in northern Chile, which is home to some of humanity's biggest ground-based telescopes. 

Recent years have seen a mushrooming of Dark Sky Sanctuaries in the U.S., with Mojave Trails National Monument seeking to join Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (Minnesota), Cosmic Campground (New Mexico), Devils River State Natural Area (Texas), Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument (Maine), Massacre Rim (Nevada), Medicine Rocks State Park (Montana), and Rainbow Bridge National Monument (Utah).  

It's hoped that the designation — which could happen later this year — will mean more locals and amateur astronomers going stargazing in the Mojave Trails, thus increasing tourism.  

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