Are you an astrotourist? While the word might make you think of futuristic travelers jetting off in a spaceship to the stars, astrotourism is actually an experience you can have right here, right now, on Earth.
In fact, you might already be an astrotourist. On a past visit to Central Oregon, have you noticed that the stars shine extra brightly from our dark skies? Have you and your family stepped outside of your cozy lodging and gazed up at the Milky Way or the full moon glinting from the heavens? Or maybe you’ve made a special trip to the Oregon Observatory at the Sunriver Nature Center. If so, you, my friend, are an astrotourist.
Humans have been gazing up at the night sky in awe for millennia. Dark skies and the objects they behold have inspired everything from art to science to innovation. It’s hard not to feel a little magic and wonder at our human experience while staring into the vastness of a night sky speckled with objects billions of miles away. Witnessing an event as unique and astounding as a meteor shower, an eclipse or a comet? All the better.
Astrotourism, or dark sky tourism, is simply tourism that focuses on sky-related tourism activities. These can include stargazing, astrophotography, chasing eclipses and auroras, and visiting facilities related to astronomy, like observatories and planetariums.
Across the globe, dark sky tourism is a growing pursuit—partly because, even though one might think that a night sky is ubiquitous to human experience, not everyone can actually see the stars from their homes. Since the invention of artificial light use at night, including streetlights and the lights we add to illuminate our cities, homes and businesses, the natural darkness of night has become an increasingly scarce resource. Notably, it’s estimated that 80% of Americans and 33% of all humanity can no longer see the Milky Way from home.
Enter the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA), an organization founded to celebrate and protect the night sky around the world as a shared heritage benefitting all living things. IDA’s purpose is to protect the night from light pollution through education and leadership.
In recent years, the IDA has recognized a pair of Central Oregon destinations for their dark night skies—the community of Sunriver and Prineville Reservoir State Park—in a testament to the clarity and vibrance of the region’s nightly displays.
Celebrating, protecting and visiting dark sky areas is a growing worldwide phenomenon. It’s also a wonderful thing to do with your family this summer. We welcome you to Central Oregon where you can become an astrotourist while stargazing in Bend, Oregon, and beyond.
Why the Skies are So Dark Outside of Bend
While enjoying a Central Oregon dark sky experience, visitors can take heart in the knowledge that astrotourism isn’t just enjoyable, it’s also a way to contribute to the health and sustainability of a region and its species.
Central Oregon’s night skies are suited to stargazing for several reasons: The region’s high elevation brings us that much closer to the cosmos, there’s little light pollution to wash out the night sky (more on that soon), our clear skies mean celestial wonders aren’t hidden behind clouds, and it’s easy to get away from city lights—and to where the skies are clearer.
Maintaining that status as a dark-sky destination perfectly suited for stargazing will take work from all of us—and not just so we can see the Milky Way from our campsites or planets from observatories.
Regions like Central Oregon that have embraced and amplified dark-sky status have often also taken measures to improve or eliminate artificial light at night, which in turn helps all of our planet’s species. That’s because poor artificial light at night can disrupt the growth of trees and crops, as well as the cycles of pollinators like bees and moths. Artificial light attracts some organisms (like moths and frogs), resulting in them not being where they should be. Birds and mammals can be redirected from migration paths. Nocturnal animals, those that sleep during the day and are active at night, are especially impacted by light pollution, which radically alters their nighttime environment by turning night into day.
Too much poor light at night isn’t good for humans, either. It can interrupt our sleep patterns and circadian rhythms and even contribute to disease. If you think about it, before the advent of artificial light, all living things evolved in an ecosystem with a set 24-hour clock. Variation happened seasonally, but one thing was always true: Day was light and night was dark. As we’ve become more aware, the work to preserve night skies as a way to contribute to the conservation of all species and their ecosystems is on the rise. Dark sky tourism checks all the boxes of what is known as sustainable travel—travel which aims to sustain or enhance the geographical character of a place, including its environment, culture, aesthetics, heritage and well-being of residents.
Stargazing at Central Oregon’s Observatories
As dark skies become less common around the globe, places with great dark skies are increasingly recognized as destinations. Oregon is blessed with an abundance of dark skies, with some of the best on offer in Central Oregon—a fact verified by the IDA, which designated the first two International Dark Sky places in Oregon right here in the center of the state.
Here are a few more Central Oregon dark sky destinations to prioritize on your next visit to Bend and Central Oregon.
The IDA’s first dark-sky honor in Oregon was the community of Sunriver, designated in 2020 as a Dark Sky Friendly Development of Distinction.
Sunriver’s forested area cut through by the Deschutes River south of Bend is ideal for night sky viewing, as well as home to the Sunriver Nature Center & Observatory, where exhibits and interpretive events support a mission to “inspire present and future generations to cherish and understand our natural world.” The Oregon Observatory at Sunriver includes three-dozen telescopes, and seasonal nighttime interpretive events provide amateur astronomers with expert assistance to obtain a glimpse of planets and galaxies far, far away.
Dee Wright Observatory
The Dee Wright Observatory was built in 1937 by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the middle of a lava flow, constructed from the very rock that surrounds it. Accessed only in summer and early fall via the historic McKenzie Highway, the location in the Cascade Range means almost no artificial light pollution. Note: Dee Wright isn’t an observatory in the classic sense but rather a remote and rugged destination with vault toilets and limited cell service; other services are not available nearby.
Get started by learning more about Dee Wright Observatory.
Pine Mountain Observatory Near Bend
The University of Oregon’s Pine Mountain Observatory is perched at 6,300 feet above sea level east of Bend in the high desert; it is open on weekends throughout spring and summer, though visitors should check the observatory’s schedule before heading out.
Central Oregon’s dry, clear skies, the elevation, and the remote location mean incredible visibility through the observatory’s wide range of telescopes. Take camping gear and make it an overnight trip; the primitive Pine Mountain Campground sits just across the road from the observatory.
Excited to visit? Learn more about the Pine Mountain Observatory.
Photo courtesy Bonnie Moreland/Flickr
Best Natural Spots within an Hour of Bend to Go Stargazing
Of course, you don’t need to visit an observatory to become an astrotourist; anywhere with clear skies and a lack of light pollution will do. Here are a few ideas for stargazing on your own or as part of a tour.
Prineville Reservoir State Park
In 2021, Prineville Reservoir State Park became the second place in Oregon to be honored by IDA, this time in the category of Dark Sky Park. Building on night skies already deemed “exceptional,” the management team of the state park in the high desert east of Bend took efforts a step further and replaced harsh outdoor lights with softer yellow and red lighting that reduced skyglow. Visit this summer for astronomical and wildlife nighttime programming. Also keep in mind that you’ll want to print, fill out, and display a Stargazing Permit on your vehicle’s dashboard when visiting outside of typical day-use hours.
Stargazing Outings with Wanderlust Tours
Choose a nighttime tour with Wanderlust Tours to take in the night skies with a guide in and around Bend, Oregon. See the stars with your family, friends or make some new friends while partaking in the activity of your choice; stargazing tours include guided snowshoeing, hiking, and paddling trips.
More inspiring stories, adventures, and tips & tricks for planning and experiencing the best Central Oregon has to offer.
Best Waterfalls Around Bend That Are Worth Seeing
Arguably Bend’s most popular waterfall hike, Tumalo Falls is only a 30 minute drive from town up Skyliners Road to Forest Road 4603. When the falls are open in the summer, it’s an easy quarter-mile hike on the North Fork Trail. The trail–paved and wheelchair accessible at the observation deck–leads visitors to views of the spectacular 97-foot waterfall.
Central Oregon’s Moonscape
Many who come to Central Oregon say it looks like nowhere else they’ve visited. Sure, there are the mountain vistas and the Ponderosa pines, the picturesque rivers and the deep blue lakes. But to many, the most astonishing aspect is the lunarscape — the lava rocks, cinder cones and lava tubes that dot the region, betraying its geologic history.
Seven Stunning Central Oregon Landmarks—and the Beers Named In Their Honor
Is there a more quintessential Central Oregon experience than spending a day outdoors—and topping it off with a locally brewed beer at one of the region’s many craft breweries?