Stellar Performance: Stargazing at Jasper National Park

Alberta is home to the best stargazing show out there.

Stellar Performance: Stargazing at Jasper National ParkPhoto: Yuichi Takasaka/Tourism Jasper

It’s midnight on the Icefields Parkway, and my only company is a light breeze. In the clear fall sky overhead, stars, planets and clouds of stellar gas are bright enough to reflect off the snow on the surrounding mountain peaks.

A brilliant geyser, the Milky Way erupts out of the tongue of the Athabasca Glacier. Here, on Alberta’s Highway 93 North, nature is stage-managing the ultimate light show. Like Hawaii and Chile before it, Canada has become a bucket-list destination for astronomy lovers. The country is now home to nearly half the world’s recognized dark-sky preserves-19 designated areas protected against urban light pollution. And Jasper National Park has more goods to lure stargazers than just about any other place on Earth.

In the rugged heart of the Rockies, Jasper and its 11,000 square kilometres of canyons, hot springs and glaciers are presided over by some of the darkest skies in North America. Every October, the serious star worshippers come out, descending upon the Jasper Dark Sky Festival for a celebration of the cosmos. Earlier in the week, I’d boarded a bus with 29 other astronomy buffs to suss out the best spots in the park.

“If you look to the left, you might see some antlers,” said our mischievous tour guide, Alicia. Thirty heads whipped around as we approached Maligne Canyon and a 50-metre drop to the water below. Forget the ground-we should be keeping our eyes on the sky above us. Our bus carried a large, expandable travel telescope, primed for use at key locations.

“The ancient First Peoples saw these stars as a great caribou in the sky,” Alicia said, redirecting our gaze upward to the Inuit constellation Tukturjuit (the Big Dipper) with a laser pointer bright enough for a Jedi.

Curious about the other planets not in the sky that night, I took in a show at the inflatable planetarium set up at the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge-a cool insurance policy against cloudy evenings.

No such contingency plan is needed back at the Athabasca Glacier. Staring up at the Milky Way, I know I am seeing just a fraction of our galaxy, like a bug examining a flower petal from the next one over. The view is so clear I half-wonder if someone gave me laser eye surgery when I wasn’t looking up-but with so much to see, nothing could have made me turn away.

The 2014 Jasper Dark Sky Festival runs from Oct. 17 to 26. Astronaut Chris Hadfield headlines.

Keepers of the Light

Telescopes may be the dream, but budget-minded astronomers can look to stargazing apps for their night sky needs. Android users should check out SkEye; Star Walk remains the top option for Apple fans.

The Rest of the Best

Parc national du Mont-Mégantic, Que.
Bruce Peninsula National Park, Ont.
Grasslands National Park, Sask.
Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park, Alta./Sask.
Wood Buffalo National Park, N.W.T./Alta.

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