Amazing Places

This Is the Darkest Town in America — When It's Not Hosting Burning Man

There are few truly dark skies left in the United States. But a NASA satellite launched in 2012 began gathering data on light pollution all over the world and found the largest dark patch in northwestern Nevada. Right in the middle of that patch, you'll find the town of Gerlach, Nevada, population 206. It's been called "the darkest town in America."

None More Black

Writer Oliver Roeder went to Gerlach and discovered the locals have mixed feelings towards their carpet of night. It's a former railroad town, and the nearest moderately sized city is Redding, California—five hours away. Traffic rarely passes through Gerlach, making it one of the best places to catch a view of the Milky Way. If you're the kind of person who loves to rough it in the wild, the Black Rock Desert offers a surreal campsite. If you'd prefer a real bed, you can grab a room at Gerlach's only motel, Bruno's.

Gerlach may seem like a ghost town most of the year, but things change drastically every summer. That's when tens of thousands of people head through Gerlach for the Burning Man festival. Burning Man can bring as much as $50 million into the local economy every year, and it's easy to see why the organizers have chosen this location. As isolated as it is, the incredibly dark skies here make it the perfect backdrop to the ceremonial burning at the culmination of every year's festivities. Just remember, even when Burning Man isn't in town, the Milky Way offers a nightly light show all summer long.

Burning man festival in Black Rock Desert.

Chasing Down the Dark

So how do organizations like the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) measure darkness, and what tools do they use to find it? In a word, satellites. Modern-day eyes-in-the-sky can reveal very exact maps of the world's light sources, and seek out those areas that have not yet succumb to extensive light pollution. That's especially important to stargazers since any light radiating from your surroundings is essentially getting in the way of the tiny flecks of light you're trying to spot in space. Take a look at the map — you'll see that northern Nevada isn't the only place protected from bright city lights. If you're a camper craving starry nights and open skies, just check out the nearest black spot on the map, roll up your sleeping bag, pack your flashlight, and go!

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To see what Gerlach looks like when festivalgoers descend, check out "Desert to Dream: A Dozen Years of Burning Man Photography, Revised Edition" by photographer Barbara Traub, with passages by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Les Blank, and Larry Harvey. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Reuben Westmaas June 26, 2017

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