Night Skies

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A hiker with a headlamp looks up at the star-filled night sky.  The Milky Way Galaxy creates a band of light blue and silver in the sky.

NPS Photo

El Malpais National Monument has dark features both on the ground and far above. Black lava rock covers much of the surface and even darker night skies fill the horizons in all directions. Why not take an evening to look up after a day of looking down at lava?

Park staff are in the early stages of putting together an International Dark Sky Park application. Part of this process involves going out into the park at night to collect data which measures the darkness of the sky. 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.

 

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: February 27, 2022

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Grants , NM 87020

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