Photo: Travel Oregon/Joey Hamilton

Spanning 2.5 Million Acres, Oregon Outback Certified as World’s Largest Dark Sky Sanctuary

Oregon Outdoor
by Katie Scott Aiton Mar 14, 2024

On March 11, an area of southeastern Oregon was certified as an International Dark Sky Sanctuary by DarkSky International. Commonly known as the Oregon Outback, the region of Lake County (which is roughly one-half the size of New Jersey) is now officially the world’s largest Dark Sky Sanctuary.

Person and child with star studded night in Oregon Outback

Photo: Travel Oregon/Joey Hamilton

It took several years of collaborative efforts by the Oregon Outback Dark Sky Network (OODSN) to achieve this certification. For a place to qualify, it takes a huge amount of hard work and planning. Strict criteria must be met to reach minimal levels of light pollution for remarkable sky quality and an optimum nocturnal environment. Through responsible lighting practices and extensive work with the community and the visiting public, the Oregon Outback’s night skies offer some of the best stargazing, astrophotography, and other nighttime activities in the US.

What is a Dark Sky Sanctuary?

A Dark Sky Sanctuary, Park, and Reserve are awarded by DarkSky International to places with exceptional night skies. The key difference lies in their accessibility, development, and level of light pollution.

Dark Sky Sanctuary: These places are the most remote with the darkest skies. They are often fragile ecosystems with minimal human development.

Dark Sky Reserve: Reserves have a specific area with exceptionally dark skies, surrounded by a periphery zone with strict lighting regulations. They often have established parks, communities, or observatories within them, and public access to stargazing is encouraged.

Dark Sky Park: Are publicly or privately owned conservation areas with very good nighttime darkness. Dark Sky Parks typically have amenities for visitors like camp grounds and astronomy programs.

What is special about the Oregon Outback?

Oregon Scenic Byway sign by road in Oregon Outback

Photo: Travel Southern Oregon/Jak Wonderly

“As the population of Oregon and the trend of light pollution continue to rise, the unparalleled scale and quality of the Outback’s dark skies will long serve as a starry refuge to people and wildlife alike,” says DarkSky delegate Dawn Nilson, the environmental consultant who managed and authored the application.

For over four years OODSN has been laboring over the application, but the work has not finished. The organization hopes to extend the current 2.5 million acres to create an 11.4-million-acre sanctuary spanning three counties. Ambitious as this might sound, protecting the largest, contiguous, pristine dark sky zone in the US is vital for a healthy environment.

American pronghorn in Oregon Outback

Photo: Travel Southern Oregon/Jak Wonderly

This part of Oregon is sparsely populated. It’s primarily comprised of public lands (90 percent) and is as remote as you can get. The varied topography of mountain chains and flat, arid valleys and basins are home to wildlife such as the American pronghorn (photographed above), bighorn sheep, and migratory birds navigating the Pacific Flyway, among other unique species.

How to go stargazing in the Oregon Outback?

Night sky in Oregon Outback the world's largest dark sky park

Photo: Travel Oregon/BucktheSystem

Experiencing a night sky as dark as this region is an incredible experience. According to the OODSN, sky observers call the conditions “inky or velvety black.” For both amateur and professional astronomers, the quality of the environment is exceptional. The best time to visit is the 10-day window bookending the New Moon. If conditions are favorable, you don’t need much for a simple astronomy exploration. You can see many stars with your naked eyes. However, it can be a lot more comfortable and rewarding with a little planning and some key items of stargazing equipment such as red light torches, binoculars, and star gazing apps. As Oregon’s Outback is so remote, you’ll need a physical map. Cell service here can be unreliable, so you shouldn’t rely on digital navigation. Visit Lake County Chamber of Commerce for accurate and up-to-date maps.

Want to learn more about stargazing? Matador’s guides to stargazing in the United States:

You can also join fellow astronomy enthusiasts for a stargazing party. These events run throughout the year. Check the calendar for annual dates. Or you can join an expert on a moonlit tour and camp overnight. Camping in Lake County allows for more freedom and solitude for stargazing but also comes with a responsibility to adhere to Leave No Trace principles and light pollution regulations.

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