The Jasper Dark Sky Festival, located in awe-inspiring Alberta, is one of the best astro events in Canada and brings people together to celebrate one of the world’s largest dark sky preserves. It left me with a whole new appreciation for our night sky and spiked so much curiosity. Getting to view the night sky without light pollution is something that I hope everyone can experience in their life.
This post is in collaboration with Travel Alberta, but as always, all thoughts are my own.
Largest Dark Sky Preserve in the World
Jasper National Park is in Alberta, Canada and was designated as a Dark Sky Preserve in 2011 by the Royal Astronomical Society. The park is the second largest Dark Sky Preserve in the world and one out of the 17 preserves in Canada.
So, what is a Dark Sky Preserve? It’s an area where there is limited light pollution (which makes ideal conditions for dark sky viewing), no artificial lighting and active measures are taken to educate and promote the reduction of light pollution to the public and nearby areas.
The park is also the largest accessible Dark Sky Preserve in the world (!!!)—meaning there’s a town within the limits of the preserve and an international airport a few hours away. With this designation, Jasper National Park is committed to protecting and preserving the night sky.
What is the Jasper Dark Sky Festival?
The Jasper Dark Sky Festival has an impressive line-up of the best speakers, biggest telescopes, and memorable events in celebration of one of the world’s largest dark sky preserves. In 2023, it ran from October 13-29 and it was across three weekends.
There are a bunch of events to choose from, some are in town and others are outside of it like at the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge. Some events are free and others are paid. It’s great for everyone—families, couples, friends, and solo adventurers! Whether you’re curious about astrophotography or if you’re already a pro, this is the perfect festival for you. You don’t have to go far from town to find a sky full of stars—which is why Jasper National Park is the world’s most accessible dark sky preserve.
During my time in Jasper, I went to three events: Star Sessions, Symphony Under the Stars and the Animals of the Night Hike. I will outline each below to give you a better idea of what you can expect.
Star Sessions at the Jasper Dark Sky Festival
Star Sessions was the first Jasper Dark Sky Festival event I went to (and it ended up being my favorite one). When we got to the base of the SkyTram, which is only about a 10 minute drive from the town of Jasper, we were greeted with hot chocolate and coffee. We then were placed into small groups and enjoyed a presentation by a representative from the Planetarium. His passion for the night sky was palpable and it was really incredible to watch. Here we learnt about constellations, stars, and all things space! It was a great introduction to the weekend.
Then, we took the SkyTram up to the tram’s upper station around 5pm. If you buy the ‘early dinner’ pass, you’ll be able to watch sunset from the top which is an added bonus in my books. The views were INCREDIBLE. After a three course dinner, we were able to walk around and stop at the many stations that were set up along the upper station’s walkway. There was a huge telescope set up to see Saturn and Jupiter. We even Saturn’s rings—which is something I will never forget! Another station was set up to teach us about the Northern Lights (in a digestible way that actually made sense) where we also touched a piece of the moon and a real meteorite. Then, at another station, we were able to get better at recognizing constellations. The star experts had this nifty laser that beamed into the sky which helped us see exactly which constellations we were learning about. There was also a station where you could get help taking a photo of the night sky (because your phone won’t cut it when it’s dark), tips on astrophotography, light painting and generally just all things photography, which I loved.
In between stations, we drank hot chocolate and stopped at the fire pits to warm up. I won’t forget when I was told that we were looking at 6,000 stars (!!!) in the night sky. It truly was unlike anything I’ve ever seen. The craziest part was that we were above the town of Jasper with some lights on and we could still see too many stars to count.
Five hours up at the SkyTram went by in a flash because I had so much fun. If you could only go to one event at the Jasper Dark Sky Festival, let it be this one! It’s fun, informative, social, and has great views of the surrounding mountains and dark sky.
Symphony Under the Stars at the Jasper Dark Sky Festival
If I had to describe the Symphony Under the Stars in one word it would be… magical. I had never been to a symphony before so I really didn’t know what to expect but I knew it was one of the festivals flagship events so I was excited to be there. We started the night with an amazing dinner (which was part of a VIP package) and then headed down to the grounds. It was right in the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge and steps away from where we were staying for the weekend, which was a bonus.
There was a bar with anything from hot chocolate to whiskey. We got a few drinks, found our seats and got cozy to watch the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra Strings. Between the amazing music, fast-paced tunes to soft melodies, and the entire setting, I was enthralled. Let me try and paint a picture for you.. the stage was right next to Lac Beauvert, the Rocky Mountains were towering all around us and the sky, of course, was filled with stars. They picked a pretty good spot for the symphony if you ask me.
There were about 800 people there but it never felt too crowded. It was quite the opposite actually. It felt so quaint and cozy.
The Animals of the Night Hike at the Jasper Dark Sky Festival
The Animals of the Night Hike is a family-friendly night hike up on Pyramid Bench which was led by Marie-Soleil. The hike is a 4km route and you’re hiking completely in the dark! At first.. I was confused. Why wouldn’t we use headlamps? But wow, after my eyes adjusted to the dark I understand why they put on this event. I felt completely in touch with all my other senses and it was so cool to hike under the starry sky.
The stars were INCREDIBLE! I couldn’t stop looking up, which made me trip up a bit (so be careful!). It was a great experience because I felt safe in the group and with Marie-Soleil and it’s something I wouldn’t of done outside this event.
My tips and takeaways for next time
- Weather changes every year but the temperature can range between 15°C to -5°C. Dressing in warm layers is key and bringing gloves, scarves and a toque will be a good idea as these events are night when the temperature drops.
- Bring a blanket to the Symphony Under the Stars to stay extra cozy. Maybe even two—one to place on the seat (as they were a bit chilly on the bum) and one to snuggle up with.
- Another event from the Jasper Dark Sky Festival that I heard was great from other festival goers was the Indigenous Fire Side Chat. I’ll definitely go to that one next year.
- When shooting astrophotography in Jasper it’s important to be aware of your surroundings. There are bears, moose and a lot of wildlife in the park. Since you’re in the dark for astrophotography, this awareness (and being prepared with bear spray) is really important. If you’re uncomfortable with shooting on your own, Star Sessions is a great place to get some astro shots with people around.
- If you’re lucky you’ll see the Northern Lights in Jasper so download the app ‘Aurora’ to get notifications if the elusive lights are out and keep your eye peeled if the sky is clear (and look North).
The Jasper Dark Sky Festival is something that completely changed the way I think about the night sky. The entire weekend was filled with such wonder, excitement and learning. I’ve already put it in my calendar for 2024 for round two. See you there? Check back on the Jasper Dark Sky Festival’s website in summer 2024 for more information (including their impressive line up and tickets) on next years festivities!