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Meet the Newest International Dark Sky Park

By Andrea Smith, Lonely Planet Writer
January 12, 2022
View of the night sky in Great Sand Dunes National Park
Mark Norton/Dreamstime
Head to this gorgeous Colorado national park for peerless stargazing.

Fans of astronomy and beautiful night vistas have a new option for observing the Milky Way. The Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado has been officially designated as an International Dark Sky Park. It has more than 149,164 acres of dunes, wetlands, grasslands, forests and alpine tundra, which offer an array of opportunities to view the night sky and to explore the park after dark by moonlight.

What Is a Dark Sky Park?

The International Dark-Sky Association is a recognized authority on combating light pollution worldwide. Its designation recognizes Great Sand Dunes for the exceptional quality of its dark night skies and for the park’s commitment to preserving and educating about the night sky. It now joins three other national park sites in Colorado and approximately two dozen national parks around the U.S. that have been designated as International Dark Sky Parks.

Great Sand Dunes: A Magnet for Astronomers

Great Sand Dunes National Monument was established in 1932 to protect the tallest dunes in North America. In the late 1990s, it was expanded into a national park and preserved to protect the greater dunes ecosystem that was under threat at that time. It has served as an astronomy destination for decades, thanks to the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, which shelter the park from much of the sky glow created by Colorado’s Front Range cities.

According to Great Sand Dunes superintendent Pamela Rice, the dry air, high elevation and lack of light pollution all make the park an ideal dark-sky destination. It offers a variety of night sky programs on summer weekends as well as a Junior Ranger Night Explorer program, and it will host a celebration of its new designation in late summer.

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Inspiration

5 Wacky European Attractions You Probably Haven’t Visited (Yet!)

If you’re looking for visitor attractions with a difference, you may be interested in a list of Europe’s most underrated attractions. Author and comedian Danny Wallace has unveiled an alternative guide to exploring Europe in collaboration with train and coach app Trainline, based on research it conducted with vacationers. It found that 45 percent of travelers now demand an “authentic experience” while on vacation, and 26 percent cited “crowds of tourists” as their biggest travel irritation. This was followed by overpriced tourist traps at 24 percent and lines (14 percent) at more popular attractions. “A lifelong fascination of the unusual, unfamiliar and obscure experiences the world has to offer means that I’ve spent the last decade writing about some of the most incredible places and people I’ve met on my travels – often on long train journeys through the breathtaking landscapes of Europe,” says Danny Wallace. Here are the top five attractions selected as the most overlooked in Europe, and to see the rest of the top 30, please visit here. 1. The David Hasselhoff Museum Topping the list, the Berlin-based shrine dedicated to the life and works of “The Hoff” can be found in the basement of the Circus Hostel. A true project of passion, it pays homage to the cult star, courtesy of rare multilingual memorabilia and a wall mural of the man himself. It once sported “strokable” chest hair that has since been stolen by overzealous fans, and Hasselhoff himself paid a visit there in 2017. 2. Floating Cat Sanctuary The world’s only floating animal sanctuary is a refuge for Amsterdam’s stray and abandoned cats. With the chance to admire and play with hundreds of cute, sometimes grumpy and often feisty felines, the modern sanctuary was originally the home of the capital’s famous “cat lady,” Mrs. v. Weelde. 3. Mini Europe A one-of-a-kind shrunken wonderland located on the outskirts of Brussels. Mini Europe offers a Lilliputian view of over 350 miniatures. These represent iconic, important and culturally relevant landmarks across the continent. 4. Subterranean Art Gallery Sometimes referred to as “the world’s longest art gallery,” more than 90 stations in Stockholm that span the underground transport network form part of the Subterranean Art Gallery. They feature an awe-inspiring array of paintings, installations and sculptures. With the subterranean rockface acting as a canvas, this hidden gem offers a truly breathtaking experience beneath the city. 5. Museum of Alchemists and Magicians In a city brimming with history, the Museum of Alchemists and Magicians in Prague brings to light the darker side of the Czech capital’s fantastical past. Featuring genuine artifacts and antiquities from alchemists and magicians past, you can enter the world of some of the most famous dabblers in the dark arts.Get inspired to travel everyday by signing up to Lonely Planet’s daily newsletter.

Inspiration

Locals Know Best: Cincinnati

About three minutes into conversation with Molly Wellmann you fall under the spell of her enthusiasm for Cincinnati. Her lineage here goes back seven generations, so it makes sense that after 12 years working as a bartender in San Francisco, she couldn’t justify staying away any longer, so she went back home and opened a bar. Then another bar. Then another. And she cannot imagine doing that anywhere else. “There’s magic in Cincinnati. I’ve traveled quite a bit, but I never found the je ne sais quois we have here. There’s something about its heritage or history. It doesn’t matter who you are or what background you’re from. I think it feels welcoming to everyone.” We checked in with her to get the inside scoop on where anyone visiting the Queen City should eat, drink, hangout, and shop. Just one word of advice: arrive hungry. Very hungry. Eat Your Heart Out Cincinnati was once an enclave of German immigrants, and their legacy endures in some of the city’s longstanding eateries. 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Inspiration

Tap Into Your Creative Side at the Columbus Arts Festival

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Inspiration

Memorial Day 2019: 5 Affordable & Authentic Experiences

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Insider tip: Seek out Riverrun Books (32 Daniel Street), an exceptionally inspiring and well-stocked independent bookstore that regularly hosts author readings and other events. Memorial Day weekend festivities: See—and smell!—the Lilac Festival at the historic Wentworth-Coolidge Mansion the morning of May 25. An easy escape from: Boston (a one-hour drive), Providence (less than a two-hour drive), or Hartford, CT (less than a two-and-a-half-hour drive). Why it’s a bargain: Hotels from $121; Airbnb for two from $65. 2. Beacon, New York Artisans and makers in the Hudson River Valley Why you’ll love it: Whether you arrive in town via car or train, the sweeping views of the Hudson River will be your first glimpse of what Beacon has to offer. 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Keep an eye out for painter Rick Price’s murals on the exterior of the public library and both the exterior and interior of Tito Santana Taqueria (yum!). Beacon is also a stone’s throw (well, a short drive) from other Hudson River Valley hot spots such as Minnewaska State Park across the river in Ulster County, and the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum in Hyde Park. It's no wonder that Beacon earned the title "Coolest Small Town in America 2018." Insider tip: Zora Dora Micro Batch’s low-key exterior on Main Street is the gateway to incredible handcrafted gourmet paletas (popsicles), offering an evolving array of flavors including a mind-blowingly delicious pineapple, sea salt, and red pepper paleta you must taste to believe. Zora Dora earned a spot on Budget Travel’s list of the best ice cream shops in the U.S. Memorial Day weekend festivities: The Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum, in nearby Hyde Park, will host commemorative events all weekend long, including an exhibition devoted to the 75th anniversary of the June 6, 1944, D-Day invasion. Easy escape from: New York City (about a 90-minute drive; 90-minute train ride from Grand Central Terminal, with adult fares starting at $35 round-trip for an off-peak ticket bought at the station—it’ll cost you a few dollars more if you buy your ticket on the train) or Albany, NY (about a 90-minute drive). Why it’s a bargain: Hotels in neighboring communities from $79; Airbnb for two in Beacon from $67. 3. Orange Beach, Alabama A Gulf Shore beach town that also offers wild escapes A visit to Orange Beach (and its neighbor Gulf Shores) allows travelers to essentially enjoy two long weekends in one: The first vacation consists of the justly popular attractions that have been drawing Southerners here for generations, including the 30+ miles of Gulf of Mexico waterfront along the coast of what locals refer to as “Pleasure Island” with white-sand beaches, waterparks, zip lines, and fishing. The second vacation—which you can enjoy at exactly the same time—consists of a lesser-known and decidedly wilder side of the Gulf Coast, including the Backcountry Trail through Gulf State Park, 25 miles of trails ideal for cycling, running, or just strolling; and Graham Creek Nature Preserve in nearby Foley, boasting nearly 500 acres of habitat for kayaking or canoeing. 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Why it’s a bargain: Hotels under $200; Airbnb rentals for two from $111. 4. Rapid City, South Dakota A vibrant urban community in the midst of the Wild West Why you’ll love it: While South Dakota is renowned for wild spaces such as Badlands National Park and Custer State Park and for jaw-dropping feats of monument carving at Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse Monument, many U.S. travelers don’t realize that Rapid City, nicknamed the “Gateway to the Black Hills,” can serve not only as a home base for exploring those famous spots but also as a vibrant urban destination in its own right, home to a variety of live music venues and arts and cultural institutions and festivals. Spend some time on the charming town square, drop by The Journey Museum & Learning Center for interactive exhibits, the Dahl Arts Center for cultural exhibits and free “art adventures," and get up close and personal with Rapid City’s ancient past at APEX Gallery, on the campus of South Dakota School of Mining & Technology, with its fine collection of fossils and minerals. And, of course, you shouldn’t miss the aforementioned wild spaces and monuments, which can all be happily squeezed into your three-day weekend in Rapid City: Mount Rushmore is about a half-hour drive, Crazy Horse Monument is less than an hour, Custer State Park is about a half-hour, and Badlands is less than an hour. Insider tip: Off the city’s main square, look for Art Alley, an informal community art gallery with cool murals devoted to the region’s history and culture. Memorial Day weekend festivities: Visit the May 25 - 27 open house at the Crazy Horse Monument to honor veterans and those who gave their lives in defense of the U.S. An easy escape from: Minneapolis (a 90-minute flight from under $300 round trip) or Chicago (a two-and-a-half-hour flight for under $350); Rapid City is not an easy driving distance from any major urban area. Why it’s a bargain: Hotels from well under $100; Airbnb for two from well under $100. 5. Morro Bay, California A genuine fishing village that welcomes newbies like family Why you’ll love it: Morro Bay is first and foremost an authentic seaside community on the central coast of California. While it’s been a popular vacation spot for central coast residents for generations, the town has managed not to evolve into what experienced travelers would diplomatically refer to as “a little touristy.” We’d love to encourage discerning weekenders from the Bay Area and Southern California (and beyond) to discover Morro Bay’s welcoming locals and under-the-radar delights while appreciating its authenticity. Morro Bay will happily accommodate a variety of travel tastes: Want to chill on a beach and do practically nothing? There’s a beach for that. Want to learn to surf? Lessons are available. How about exploring a gorgeous lesser-known state park, kayaking the town’s eponymous bay, or pedaling your family in a rented surrey around the charming downtown? Gear rentals are an easy walk from comfortable lodging such as the Landing at Morro Bay (with views of the bay and iconic Morro Rock from many rooms) and the super-fresh seafood at Tognazzini’s Dockside Restaurant (stop by the fish market behind the restaurant for Instagrammable tableaus). Insider tip: The immensely delicious breakfast burritos at Frankie & Lola’s combine an old-timey diner aesthetic with Mexican chorizo and cheese and are so big they can serve as both an ample morning meal and a hearty snack or lunch whilst exploring the coast. Memorial Day weekend festivities: Visit Art in the Park, May 25 - 27, at Morro Bay Boulevard and Harbor Street. An easy escape from: San Jose (about a three-hour drive) or Los Angeles (about a three-and-a-half-hour drive); the fact that Morro Bay is not a super-short drive from any major urban area is part of what makes it Morro Bay. Why it’s a steal: Hotels under $150, some starting under $100; Airbnb rentals for two from $79. (All lodging estimates were accurate when we published this story, but as Memorial Day gets closer, hotel rates and Airbnb inventory will likely change.)For travel inspiration, know-how, deals, and more, sign up for Budget Travel's free e-newsletter.