Explore the Dark Skies of Nevada!
Anyone who has traveled through Nevada knows that our state is one of wide open spaces, quiet solitude, and miles upon miles of uninterrupted views. Because the American public owns so much of this wide open landscape, you won’t find “No Trespassing” signs or private developments, and you certainly won’t find a lot of lights. There are very few places left in the country, and in the world for that matter, where there is so little artificial light that you can literally see right through the Milky Way to the next galaxy with the naked eye... but you can right here in Nevada. From Great Basin National Park to Massacre Rim Wilderness Study Area to the most remote stretches of Highway 6, Nevada is home to some of the most spectacular night skies in the world.
Last year, on March 18, 2019, Massacre Rim WSA became the 7th International Dark Sky Sanctuary in the world!
Photo by Richie Bednarksi
Why are dark skies important?
Before the Industrial Revolution, celestial navigation ruled and nearly everyone could look up at night and see the bright expanse of the Milky Way. Now, only 150 years later, nearly 80% of the world lives under some type of light pollution. Our children are growing up having never seen a truly dark sky and even some adults have never seen the Milky Way. Although this plea appeals to our emotional and nostalgic sensibilities, there is more to it than just the feeling of awe we get when we look at a dark night sky teeming with stars. It’s science. Light pollution affects our environment, our safety, our energy consumption and pocketbooks, and ultimately, our health.
Plants and animals have evolved to depend on the Earth’s natural day/night cycle and any disruption in that pattern can affect migration patterns, predator prey relationships, nutrition and reproduction.
Nearly 30% of the artificial light that we use shines when and where it is not needed. According to the International Dark Sky Association, that’s the equivalent $3.3 billion and 21 million tons of carbon dioxide inadvertently wasted each year.
Keeping Nevada's night skies protected and visible is more relevant than ever as development sprawls and our urban centers grow. Your support will keep us working hard to protect Wilderness Study Areas like Massacre Rim, continue our light monitoring work there, and can help us expand our efforts to other areas, like the recently protected Gold Butte National Monument! Protecting the public lands under and around these skies will keep them dark, open, and accessible for Nevadans and wildlife to enjoy. We are so proud to have protected the dark sky above Massacre Rim, but we can't stop there! More support means that we can build upon that success and protect more pieces of Nevada's starry skies.
Massacre Rim Wilderness Study Area Dark Sky Sanctuary
On March 18, 2019, Massacre Rim became just the 7th designated Dark Sky Sanctuary in the world! This Wilderness Study Area is publicly-owned land managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to maintain its wilderness qualities.
Located in far northern Washoe County near the borders with California and Oregon, Massacre Rim is so remote that it has “exceptional quality of starry nights” and a nocturnal environment that is protected for its natural values, criteria necessary to meet the International Dark-Sky Association’s strict standards for a Dark Sky Sanctuary.
Because so much of our world is flooded with artificial light, most of us have no idea what we can actually see if we’re in a place as dark as Massacre Rim, so it’s hard to describe. Stunningly beautiful. Definitely awe-inspiring. So many stars on a moonless night that they actually cast a shadow. You really have to see it for yourselves. Read on for information on how to get there, stay a bit, and explore one of the darkest skies on the planet.
Getting to the Massacre Rim WSA Dark Sky Sanctuary
The Massacre Rim Area is accessible by car or truck, but the final approach from any direction to the perimeter of the Sanctuary will be on a maintained gravel roads. These roads may be impassible when wet or during the winter. View our custom map for more detail. The Sanctuary itself is a landscape administered to protect wilderness values. Vehicle travel inside the Sanctuary is limited to a few designated routes that require a high-clearance, 4-wheel
drive vehicle. The entire Sanctuary is accessible for hiking, backpacking, and horsebackriding.
The Sanctuary is about 230 road miles north of Reno, NV; about 170 road miles west of Winnemucca, NV; and about 200 road miles east of Redding, CA.
Please keep in mind that, although the Dark Sky Sanctuary is the core of the dark sky region, the entire region, from Cedarville CA to Gerlach NV to the Oregon border offer outstanding opportunities for viewing the phenomenal dark skies of northern Washoe county (see below for where to stay and eat in the area).
Other places to enjoy Nevada’s Starry Skies
Tonopah Star Trails and Star Park
Options abound to see the stars around Tonopah, which was rated the #1 Stargazing Destination in America by USA Today. In town you can visit the Clair Blackburn Memorial Stargazing Park with its cement pads designed for telescopes. Or download the Tonopah Star Trails Map at www.tonopahnevada.com so you can explore the extensive paved and unpaved options to see central Nevada’s night skies.
Ely’s Great Basin Star Train
Hop on a steam-powered locomotive in Ely for an educational and inspiring program featuring the National Park Service’s “Dark Rangers” and eastern Nevada’s breathtaking Dark Skies. Great Basin Star Train runs Spring/Summer. For details and schedule, visit the Nevada Northern Railway site at NNRY.com.
Visit America’s Darkest Town, as named by FiveThirtyEight in 2017. Enjoy a Picon Punch Cocktail at local watering hole Bruno’s Country Club & Motel. If the Black Rock Playa is dry, you can walk onto one of the largest, flattest surfaces in the world to get an expansive view of northern Nevada’s starry skies. Don’t forget to stop by the Empire Store on the way.
Desert Overlook Trail
See the stars over a sweeping view of southern Nevada’s Sheep Range Proposed Wilderness from this trail in the Spring Mountains. This half-mile, paved trail is accessible and has a parking area, making it an ideal star-watching spot for all Nevadans.
Great Basin National Park
“Half the park is after dark!” As a designated Dark Sky Park, Great Basin’s Night Sky Program highlights include guided full moon hikes, seasonal ranger-led astronomy talks, and telescope viewings at the Lehman Caves Visitor Center. The Park also hosts an annual astronomy festival every autumn.
Astronomy Festival - September 17 - 19, 2020. (Check for current updates on the event times and safety precautions)
Great Basin National Park will be hosting its annual Astronomy Festival. Enjoy three days and nights of astronomy-themed events, including the famous ranger talent show and stargazing through over 20 different telescopes! September 17th - 19th, 2020. Check times with Lehman Visitor Center.
Join Rangers to use powerful telescopes to view the stars at this free event hosted at Lehman Caves Visitor Center evenings from May - October. Check times with Lehman Visitor Center or visit https://www.nps.gov/grba/planyourvisit/calendar.htm.
Great Basin NPS Moon Hikes
Sunday August 2, hike to Stella Lake under the light of the moon.
Sunday August 30, hike to Stella Lake under the light of the moon.
Check availability with Lehman Caves Visitor Center - registration required.
Is the sky clear tonight? Check here! https://www.cleardarksky.com/c/VegaNVkey.html
Interested in Astrophotography? Check out this helpful guide from our friends at Nemo.
The best times to visit Massacre Rim International Dark Sky Sanctuary
The following are the best dates for viewing the Dark Sky at Massacre Rim:
2020 Massacre Rim Dark Sky Viewing Opportunities
The following are the best dates for viewing the Dark Sky at Massacre Rim*:
Jan 14 (Dark Sky from Dusk until Moonrise 8:30 pm PST)
through Jan 27 (Dark Sky from Moonset at 8:00 pm PST) until Dawn
Feb 12 (Dark Sky from Dusk until Moonrise 9:30 pm PST)
through Feb 24 (Dark Sky from Moonset at 7:00 pm until Dawn)
Mar 11 (Dark Sky from Dusk until Moonrise 9:30 pm PDST)
through Mar 25 (Dark Sky from Moonset at 8:30 pm PDST until Dawn)
April 9 (Dark Sky from Dusk until Moonrise 9:45 pm PDST)
through April 24 (Dark Sky from Moonset at 9:30 pm PDST until Dawn)
May 9 (Dark Sky from Dusk until Moonrise 11:00 pm PDST)
through May 23 (Dark Sky from Moonset at 9:45 pm PDST until Dawn)
June 8 (Dark Sky from Dusk until Moonrise 11:30 pm PDST
through June 22 (Dark Sky from Moonset at 10:30 pm PDST until Dawn)
July 9 (Dark Sky from Dusk until Moonrise 11:30 pm PDST)
through July 21 (Dark Sky from Moonset at 10:15 pm PDST until Dawn)
August 9 (Dark Sky from Dusk until Moonrise 11:15 pm PDST)
through August 21 (Dark Sky from Moonset at 9:30 pm PDST until Dawn)
September 7 (Dark Sky from Dusk until Moonrise 10:15 pm PDST)
through September 19 (Dark Sky from Moonset at 8:45 pm PDST until Dawn)
October 6 (Dark Sky from Dusk until Moonrise 9:00 pm PDST)
through October 19 (Dark Sky from Moonset at 8:00 pm PDST until Dawn)
November 4 (Dark Sky from Dusk until Moonrise 7:45 pm PST)
through November 19 (Dark Sky from Moonset at 6:00 pm PST until Dawn)
December 3 (Dark Sky from Dusk until Moonrise 7:15 pm PST)
through December 15 (Dark Sky from Moonset at 5:45 pm PST until Dawn)
*[These viewing opportunities are based on the absence of moon light in the sky. Typically, the viewing windows start during the waning moon period (following the full moon) and provides time to view the dark sky before the waning moon rises. Each successive night the viewing options will last about 50 minutes longer as the waning moon sets later over the course of the month. The best dark sky viewing is during the new moon, a 3 to 4 day period when there is no moon in the night sky. Following the new moon, an addition period of dark sky viewing is available after the waxing moon sets. This opportunity grows smaller as the waxing moon sets later each successive night until the full moon dominates the sky all night long.]
** CAUTION: All roads in the Massacre Rim area may be impassible and prone to washouts during rain events. Roads are not maintained in the winter and are dangerous and impassable in snow conditions.
Camping inside the Dark Sky Sanctuary
As mentioned, the interior of the Sanctuary/Wilderness Study Area can be accessed via existing tracks (so-called cherry stems roads that technically lie outside the boundary of the WSA) that require a high clearance 4-wheel drive vehicle.
Road conditions vary considerably depending on weather conditions. Know this! Even though this country is considered “high desert,” significant snowfall can occur fall through spring. Roads can be impassable due to snow, mud, and washouts.
Be prepared! Back country camping requires special planning, equipment and supplies. Here is a checklist to help guide you, but please know that travel of this nature is at your own risk. See a list of campgrounds below.
General Safety Information
- Bring what you need to survive. Self-sufficiency is as important today as it was for the Native Americans, emigrants and early pioneers.
- Let someone know where you are going and when you will be back.
- Pack all necessary water (one gallon of water per day), food and supplies. Surface water is unreliable and must be treated.
- Pack extra supplies in case you get stranded. Use good judgement if you do get stranded. It’s often best to stay at your vehicle.
- Be prepared for changing conditions. Daytime temps can reach over 100 degrees in the summer. Year-round temperatures can fluctuate more than 50 degrees in a single day. Even in summer nights can dip into the 30’s and 40’s. Dust storms are not uncommon in dry months.
- High clearance vehicles with off-road tires (at least 6-ply) are recommended, as is a second spare if you plan to travel on remote roads.
- There is very limited cell service in northern Washoe County.
- DO NOT drive on playas and lake beds when it is wet. Know what to look for, as it can often be wet just under the surface. If you get stuck, you may be there for a long time.
Other things to know
- Rattlesnakes, scorpions, mountain lions and coyotes are in the area. Be wildlife aware.
- Respect private property. Leave gates as you find them.
- Protect Archaeological sites. Sites are protected on federal land by public law. Removing or vandalizing artifacts is not only illegal, it limits their scientific value and the experience of future visitors
- Leave No Trace – Pack it in. Pack it out. Leave the area cleaner than you found it.
Where to Stay and Eat
62271 CA-299, Cedarville
Surprise Valley Hot Springs
67254 CA-299, Cedarville
JK Metzker House B and B
520 Main St., Cedarville
Cockrell's High Desert Lodging
811 County Road 31, Cedarville
Fort Bidwell Hotel & Restaurant
55015 Main Street, Fort Bidwell
Bruno's Country Club & Motel
445 Main Street
Modoc National Forest (near Cedarville, CA)
Modoc National Forest (near Eagleville, CA)
BLM (east of Fort Bidwell)
BLM (a couple miles south of the Massacre Rim WSA)
BLM (about 20 minutes south of the Massacre Rim WSA)
For more information, current closures & fire restrictions, and best safety practices for mitigating COVID-19 while traveling please contact:
Bureau of Land Management
602 Cressler St.
Cedarville, CA 96104
Modoc National Forest
225 W. 8th St.
Alturas, CA 96101
551 Main St., Cedarville
*Diner food, fresh-baked bread and pastries
501 Main Street, Cedarville
Sat 9am to 2pm
*Lunch & Espresso
Whalen's Public House
540 Main St., Cedarville
* Pizza & beer & wine
415 Main St., Cedarville
* BBQ & Diner
Newell's Fort Bidwell BBQ & Cafe
55015 Main Street, Fort Bidwell
* BBQ & diner
Bruno's Country Club & Motel
445 Main Steet
Groceries and Supplies
488 Main St.
Corner Store (hardware)
600 Main St.
Floating Island Books (local history & geography)