Merritt Reservoir – Valentine, Nebraska - Atlas Obscura

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Merritt Reservoir

Valentine, Nebraska

In addition to fishing and camping, this spot in Nebraska’s Sandhills is one of the world’s darkest places. 

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There is a quiet wonder that happens when you see a dark sky—a really dark sky. Free from the light sources that are a regular part of modern life, the sky reveals itself. Stars seem to be layered, a shining blanket of light. Planets come into view. Galaxies leave a stardust streak across the sky. Moments like these, places like these are worth preserving. International Dark Sky Places, which are in 22 countries on six continents, are areas that have been recognized for protecting the night sky by limiting light pollution. The 729-acre Merritt Reservoir State Recreation Area was the first in Nebraska to be given this honor. And as beautiful as the area is in the daytime, a nighttime stargazing adventure is one you shouldn’t miss. 

Located in the Sandhills, a 19,300-square-mile landscape made of sand dunes and prairies, Merritt has long been a paradise for those who prefer starlight over street lights. “The Milky Way is so bright here it casts shadows on the ground!” Brenda Culbertson, a solar system ambassador with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told Flatwater Free Press in 2023. For decades, fellow star lovers have been gathering at Merritt as part of the Nebraska Star Party, an annual gathering for amateur astronomers of all levels. 

Places like Merrit are quickly becoming dark oases for a rapidly brightening world.  Beyond blocking the beauty of a starlit sky, artificial lights can be harmful to animals, disrupting their natural rhythms. That’s not a problem at Merritt, where there are many campsites without electric hookups, and the nearby Wildlife Management Area has no lights, ensuring an unobstructed view of the stars. In fact, the skies over Merritt are rated “Class 1” on the Bortle scale, a measurement that amateur astronomers use to gauge stargazing ability. This ranking puts Merritt in the same class as Big Bend National Park in Texas and Denali National Park in Alaska. 

For visitors, longtime or first-time stargazers, it’s the beauty that draws them in. “Here the stars are in your face, not up in the sky,” one Nebraska Star Party attendee said. “It feels like you’re on a different planet.”

Know Before You Go

Campsites must be booked in advance via the Nebraska Game and Parks website. . To register for the Nebraska Star Party, visit their website.

This post is sponsored by Nebraska Tourism. Click here to learn more.

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