Remote Sandhills reservoir declared an ‘international dark sky park’

By: - September 17, 2022 4:00 am
night sky

The night sky over Merritt Reservoir State Recreation Area, which was recently declared an “International Dark Sky Park.” (Courtesy of the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission)

LINCOLN — There are benefits to being in the middle of nowhere.

Just recently, Merritt Reservoir State Recreation Area, in the middle of the Sandhills, was certified as an “International Dark Sky Park.”

The reservoir, about 26 miles southwest of Valentine, has hosted an annual “Nebraska Star Party” for the past 29 years during moonless nights in July.

The sky is so bereft of street lights and other light pollution that, after sundown, the Milky Way casts a shadow.

The dark sky draw dozens of professional and amateur astronomers, who set up their telescopes to gaze into the heavens at campgrounds at the state campgrounds.

“We’re thrilled and honored to have Merritt Reservoir be given this prestigious distinction. It’s another great reason to visit this well-known park,” said Tim McCoy, the director of the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

Merritt Reservoir is the first Nebraska site certified by the International Dark-Sky Association. The IDA is a recognized authority on light pollution and is the leading organization combating light pollution worldwide, according to the Game and Parks Commission.

Nebraska’s Sandhills have sometimes been promoted as “the middle of nowhere.” Cherry County, where Merritt Reservoir is located, is prime cattle country, dotted by large ranches. There are more than 20 times as many cows as people in the county.

The 30th annual Nebraska Star Party is scheduled July 16-22 at the 9,000-acre park, known for its great fishing and boating.

The International Dark Sky Places program was founded in 2001 to encourage the preservation and protection of dark sites through responsible lighting policies and public education.

“Dark Sky Parks” are just one of five designations made by the IDA. the others are: International Dark Sky Communities, International Dark Sky Reserves, International Dark Sky Sanctuaries and Urban Night Sky Places.

For more information about the IDA, visit For more information on the Nebraska Star Party visit

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Paul Hammel
Paul Hammel

Senior Reporter Paul Hammel has covered the Nebraska Legislature and Nebraska state government for decades. He started his career reporting for the Omaha Sun and later, editing the Papillion Times group in suburban Omaha. He joined the Lincoln Journal-Star as a sports enterprise reporter, and then a roving reporter covering southeast Nebraska. In 1990, he was hired by the Omaha World-Herald as a legislative reporter. Later, for 15 years, he roamed the state covering all kinds of news and feature stories. In the past decade, he served as chief of the Lincoln Bureau and enterprise reporter. Paul has won awards for reporting from Great Plains Journalism, the Associated Press, Nebraska Newspaper Association and Suburban Newspapers of America. A native of Ralston, Nebraska, he is vice president of the John G. Neihardt Foundation, a member of the Nebraska Hop Growers and a volunteer caretaker of Irvingdale Park in Lincoln.