Night Skies

A device with the numbers 21.28 glowing in red is held up against a starry sky.
A sky quality meter reading shows how dark the night skies are at El Calderon.

A Future Dark Sky Park

El Malpais is currently in the process of applying to become an International Dark Sky Park. This certification through the International Dark Sky Association (IDA) will formalize the park's commitment to preserving the night sky as a resource and encourage neighboring communities to help the park protect the night.

The application process requires many steps to establish our commitment to protect the night skies. First, the park had to prove that the skies were dark enough to qualify as a dark sky park. From 2020 through 2022, park staff regularly ventured out at night to measure the sky's darkness using a device called a sky quality meter (SQM). The higher the number—or the more light that can be detected from stars, planets, and Milky Way Galaxy rather than from human sources—the darker the skies. The SQM measurements around El Malpais ranged from 21.27 to 22.49 magnitudes per square arc second, above the IDA required value of 21.2 to achieve dark sky park status.

A maintenance person stands on a lift machine reaching up to work on wiring in a light fixture under a canopy of a building entrance.
Maintenance staff work to replace a light at the El Malpais Visitor Center.

NPS Photo

The park also has to set an example as a night sky protector and engage the local community to educate people about the importance of night skies. El Malpais staff assessed the lighting on buildings around El Malpais to determine whether the lights were night sky friendly. To do this assessment, park staff used the following best practices to determine whether the light needed replaced:

  1. Warranting – Light only where you need it.
  2. Controls – Light only when you need it.
  3. Shielding – Direct light downward.
  4. Spectrum – Select lamps that minimize negative impacts.
  5. Intensity – Use the minimum amount of light necessary.
  6. Efficiency – Select the most energy efficacious lamp and fixture.

Several lights across the park were determined to not meet all of the above best practices, and park maintenance staff is currently working to replace these lights with lights that meet all of the best practices.

Park rangers help promote El Malpais' amazing night skies to park visitors and the local community by offering regular programs and outreach events. You can learn more about these events and find a schedule of upcoming events by visiting our park calendar or by calling the El Malpais Visitor Center at 505-876-2783.

El Malpais hopes to submit our International Dark Sky Park in 2023. Keep an eye out for updates about our progress to become El Malpais International Dark Sky Park!


Protect The Night

El Malpais National Monument has spectacular dark skies. What do your skies look like at your home? If your night sky isn't as dark as you would like, you can help improve night sky quality by taking steps around your home and in your local community.

You can help by:

  • Assess the lighting around your home. Do you need outdoor lights on at night? Turn off any unnecessary outdoor lighting at night, and determine whether any of your outdoor lighting is actually necessary.
  • Install dark sky friendly lighting at your home or business. Look for an IDA-certified Fixture Seal of Approval when purchasing any lighting.
  • Talk to your family, friends, and neighbors and help spread the word about protecting the night skies!
  • Reach out to your local community to find out whether your town has a lighting ordinance. A night sky friendly lighting ordinance can greatly improve the quality of your night skies near your home.
  • Learn more ways to help protect the night with the International Dark-Sky Association!
The silhouette of a person points up at the Milky Way stretching up in the night sky
See the Milky Way stretch above you at El Malpais.


Where to Look Up

The International Dark Sky Association requires areas have a visual-band zenith luminance of 21.2 magnitudes per square arcsecond (0.4 mcd/m2) or darker for official certification. Many places in and around El Malpais already exceed this requirement, and you can visit them any time of year! There’s no need to wait for a certification to explore the night skies.

El Calderon

How to get there: Take exit 81 off of Interstate 40 for New Mexico Highway 53. Drive approximately 20 miles before turning left onto the trailhead.
Average darkness level: 21.49
Park at the trailhead, set up a chair and a telescope, and look up.

La Ventana Natural Arch (BLM)

How to get there: Take exit 89 off of Interstate 40 for New Mexico Highway 117. Drive 18 miles south. The turn-off is on your left.
Data may not be collected from La Ventana Arch, but that doesn’t take away from the views. The sandstone arch frames the Milky Way Galaxy most nights.
Camping is not permitted.

The Narrows Trailhead (BLM)

How to get there: Take exit 89 off of Interstate 40 for New Mexico Highway 117. Drive 20 miles south. The turn-off is on your left.
Average darkness level: 21.49
Sandstone ridges block most of the skyglow from Albuquerque, offering clear views to the west. Camping is not permitted.
Passing traffic on Highway 117 may alter your nighttime vision.

Lava Falls

How to get there: Take exit 89 off of Interstate 40 for New Mexico Highway 117. Drive 36 miles south. The turn-off is on your right. A one-mile gravel road ends at the parking lot.
Average darkness level: 21.44
A large parking lot offers plenty of space for setting up telescopes and is secluded from light from passing traffic. Camping is not permitted.
Safety note: do not hike on the Lava Falls Trail at night due to uneven terrain.

Two hikers point to the night sky, each using an extended arm and their pointer finger.  A silvery-blue band of stars stretches from the horizon up into the sky.
You don't have to travel far to look deep into space!

NPS Photo

Stargazing Tips

There's plenty to see with your naked eye, but binoculars or telescopes offer a deeper look into space. Bring a chair if you plan on spending a few hours outside, sky maps to better undersand what you're looking at, and pack extra layers, especially furing the winter. Local sunset and sunrise times change with the seasons, and weather can vary, so remember to plan ahead if you're looking to get a late or early start.

Year-Round Visible Features

  • The Moon
  • Milky Way Galaxy
  • Satellites
  • Meteor showers

Summer Sky Features

  • Milky Way Galaxy is best visible
  • Constellations: Sagittarius, Scorpius, Ursa major (Big Dipper), Ursa minor (Little Dipper), Corona Borealis, Cygnus
  • Planets: Jupiter and Saturn

Winter Sky Features

  • Clearest skies
  • Constellations: Orion, Cassiopeia, Taurus, Gemini
  • Planets: Venus and Mars
  • Other Stars: Pleiades star cluster, Sirius

Last updated: September 6, 2023

Park footer

Contact Info

Mailing Address:

1900 E. Santa Fe Ave.
Grants, NM 87020


505 876-2783

Contact Us