Visitors of all ages are inspired by the growing trend toward Astro tourism and traveling in search of starry nights and space exploration. In celebration of International Dark Sky Week, we’re helping you discover a different kind of Rapid City night life by sharing Lakota star knowledge, local astronomy attractions and events, and great tips for unforgettable stargazing.
LEARNING ABOUT LAKOTA STAR KNOWLEDGE
Gain a deeper appreciation for the wonders of the night sky by learning about Native American sky-related traditions. For the Lakota who call themselves the “star people,” careful observation of the changing movements of the sky and stars have guided calendars, rituals, agricultural activities, and an entire way of life.
The importance of the stars in Lakota culture spans throughout life and beyond to the after-death journey. The Lakota believe the stars are the origin of the soul and close observations of the sky provide spiritual instruction. The order of the stars in Lakota constellations mirror what is on earth below and vice versa, connecting their people with places throughout the plains, including familiar landmarks in the Black Hills like Devils Tower (Mato Tipila) and Black Elk Peak (Wiciŋcala Sakowin), as well as the everchanging cosmos.
Star knowledge is passed on through generations of storytelling. One such story might change the way you see the Big Dipper. A spirit called “To Win” or “Blue Woman” abides around the opening of the bowl in the Big Dipper, helping souls pass to and from the star world. During labor, prayers are sent by a midwife to Blue Woman to ease the birthing for both mother and child. Blue Woman will also guide these souls from earth at the end of life to return home among the stars. The Big Dipper is the most easily recognizable star pattern in the night sky and remains visible above the Black Hills.
Travel Tip: You can listen to more stories from the Lakota people as you walk through the twinkling constellations of the Star Room exhibit at the Journey Museum & Learning Center.
STARGAZING IN THE CITY
In Rapid City, we have a stellar reputation for city sky-watching. During the day, enjoy a “Journey into Space” at The Journey Museum & Learning Center, home to a notable sky theater featuring NASA supported satellite imagery refreshed every day. See millions of star clusters, planets, far off galaxies, deep space objects, and much more. Take your time picking out the constellations you’ll see scattered throughout the sky.
When night falls, you can marvel at the season’s star patterns through the telescope at Hidden Valley Observatory. Opened to the public in 1965, this small building is owned and operated by the Black Hills Astronomical Society in an unassuming area. Set off from the road along a dirt path, you'll find a hidden gem loved by locals, but no WiFi access here! When the observatory hosts public events, you can schedule a tour under the dome or sit outside and screen an educational film before spending an evening gazing at the skies. Join a community of stargazers, helpful experts, and other visitors to appreciate how the sky opens up to you and your imagination.
Travel Tip: Be sure to check the observatory’s website when planning your trip – public workshops and sky viewing events at the observatory are only available on select dates.
DARK SKIES BEYOND CITY LIGHTS
See everything illuminated under the stars at Badlands National Park – the land of stone and light. You can make the easy 60-minute drive from downtown Rapid to the Badlands and plan your arrival at sunset, so you can witness the otherworldly terrain of this eroding landscape transform at twilight. During the late summer, it’s possible to find a clear view of the Milky Way – called “the road of spirits” by the Lakota – flowing across the night sky in a hazy path of light and stardust. You can also join public stargazing parties at the Cedar Pass Amphitheater and discover everything the park has to offer after dark. When the sun goes down, telescopes turn up and knowledgeable park rangers are available to answer your questions.
Travel Tips: Visit Badlands National Park in July to attend the Annual Astronomy Festival featuring invited speakers, nighttime photography workshops, and more. You can also pick up a Night Explorer activity book at the Ben Reifel Visitor Center for free, fun activities and earn your own Junior Ranger badge. Don’t miss a stop in Quinn, SD near the Badlands. Here you can visit an abandoned hospital facility transformed into the Badlands Observatory with an incredible stargazing deck. Book a 2-hour Dark Sky Tour to navigate distant galaxies, complex star systems, and planets with the help of an expert guide. Reservations are required as space is limited.
Wind Cave National Park is well-known as one of the world's longest and most complex caves, but above ground you can explore even more. The lack of light pollution here creates the perfect conditions for stargazing. If you’re lucky, you might see a great horned owl soar or hear the howling of coyotes – all signs of nocturnal wildlife waking from their slumber. A night out at this national park provides a unique view not seen by most visitors.
IN SEARCH OF STARRY NIGHTS
Wherever you choose to go, we want to help you make the most of your celestial sightseeing in the Black Hills. Here are a few tips to get you started:
- When to go: The best stargazing happens a couple hours after sunset. It’s also a good idea to gather sky data before you go. Identify the phases of the moon and check the weather to avoid cloudy nights. This will help set expectations for what you can see.
- What to pack: Dress in layers, so you’re prepared for changing weather conditions. Bring something to sit on – a blanket or chair, a pen or pencil, and a journal or sketchbook to make observations. If you want to use a flashlight, bring a redlight or create your own red filter with layers of cellophane to cover the end. Your eyes can better adjust to the dark when you use red light and you're looking for fainter light up above. Lastly, don’t forget to pack drinks and snacks to sustain a fun night of sky watching!
- What to try: Using different tools will give you different views. Telescopes and binoculars can narrow your field of vision and allow you to focus on specific constellations; however, these tools can also make your experience more expensive than necessary. Try turning your naked eye toward the South Dakota sky and take in all the wide-open spaces sprinkled with bright stars.
Stargazing is an inspiring hobby that appeals to people of all ages and skill levels. What you can see in the sky changes with the seasons, so it’s always new and exciting. It’s also one more way to enjoy the great outdoors in Rapid City and to discover the beauty of the Black Hills under the stars.
For more fun nightlife ideas, explore Downtown Rapid City and checkout our events calendar before your trip.