The First Dark Sky Reserve in the U.S. Is a Stargazer's Paradise

The Central Idaho Dark Sky Reserve covers over 1,400 square miles of rugged terrain and remote wilderness. . (Photo: Eddie Yip/Flickr)

Described as a "watershed moment in the history of American conservation," a 1,400-square-mile stretch of rugged and unspoiled wilderness in central Idaho has been designated as the nation’s first International Dark Sky Reserve.

Named the Central Idaho Dark Sky Reserve, the protected area is the culmination of more than two decades of work by local leaders to manage and reduce the impact of light pollution.

"The Central Idaho Dark Sky Reserve was created not just for locals, but for all Idahoans and visitors from across the world who can come here and experience the primeval wonder of the starry night sky," said Steve Botti, the mayor of Stanley, Idaho and longtime advocate of the Reserve, said in a statement.

Photographer Charles Knowles captured this scene of the Milky Way above Imogene Lake in the Sawtooth mountains of central Idaho in October 2016. (Photo: Charles Knowles/Flickr)

The new reserve, one of only 12 worldwide and the third-largest ever created, was granted "Gold Tier" status, the highest possible rating under International Dark-Sky Association guidelines for ranking the quality of the night sky.

For a reserve to achieve this designation, its skies must be the darkest possible, with only a small amount of light pollution tolerated.

The Sawtooth Range in central Idaho encompasses an area of 678 square miles. 57 of its peaks feature an elevation of over 10,000 feet. (Photo: @_Danny_@/Flickr)

Included in the new Central Idaho Dark Sky Reserve is the Sawtooth National Recreation Area. Managed by the U.S. Forest Service, this pristine piece of American wilderness spans nearly 731,000 acres and is popular for hiking, whitewater rafting, fishing and rock climbing.

"We're free to come and go in a national recreation area," Bob Hayes, former founding executive director of the Sawtooth Society, said in an interview. "We don't have a lot of rangers around with ranger hats on telling us to stay on the asphalt paths or stay out of here or stay out of there, and I think that's the way most people like it."

The firelight glow of campers (bottom right) contrasts with the soaring purple and silver of the Milky Way above Stanley Lake in Central Idaho. (Photo: Charles Knowles/Flickr)

Part of the reason that central Idaho has managed to become one of the last vast pools of untainted darkness in the U.S. is due to its challenging topography and lack of infrastructure.

Billing itself as a truly "off-grid" experience, there's neither cell service nor electricity for over a thousand square miles.

"That such truly dark nighttime environments still exist in the United States is remarkable," said J. Scott Feierabend, executive director of the IDA.

The Sawtooth Wilderness is home to nearly 400 lakes created by long-vanished alpine glaciers. (Photo: Charles Knowles/Flickr)

As the most-recent dark sky reserve, central Idaho joins a select club of other stargazing utopias recognized by the IDA in countries such as Namibia, New Zealand, England, Germany and Wales.

With the new designation, tourism officials are hopeful that those eager to experience the raw and powerful beauty of the region will consider adding central Idaho to their bucket list.

"I hope the designation will serve as a reminder for people to look up, rather than down at their iPhone," local resident and dark sky advocate Tory Canfield told Eye on Sun Valley. "If we don’t look at the stars, we don’t know who we are."

The Milky Way over McGown Peak at Stanley Lake as captured by photographer Charles Knowles in July 2017. (Photo: Charles Knowles/Flickr)

Those interested in traveling to the nation's first dark sky reserve should start catching up on their sleep now. As local professional photographer Charles Knowles commented in the above photo on Flickr, the beauty of the area's unspoiled heavens means little time for shuteye.

"Great trip, not much sleep though," he wrote. "When you combine sunrises, sunsets, and night Milky way shots, that leaves exactly 3.5 hrs of sleep a night. It was all worth it."