International Dark Sky Park

In 2018 Middle Fork River Forest Preserve was designated an International Dark Sky Park by the International Dark Sky Association due to its exceptionally high-quality starry nights and a nocturnal environment that is protected for its scientific, natural, educational, and cultural heritage, as well as its public enjoyment. At the time it was one of 72 parks worldwide to hold that designation and the only one in Illinois.

Dark Sky Trail and Amenities

Now, it’s still the only Dark Sky Park in Illinois, and the Champaign County Forest Preserve District (CCFPD) is making improvements that will enhance the dark sky viewing experience in the preserve. CCFPD received an Open Space Land Acquisition and Development (OSLAD) from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) in September 2022 to support the construction of a dark sky trail and supporting amenities at Middle Fork River Forest Preserve.

The trail will improve accessibility at Middle Fork River Forest Preserve by providing new, ADA-compliant campsites, paved trails, and accessible seating. The existing Harry L. Swartz campground has been a popular destination for many years. Nearly every weekend, all sites are fully booked.

The project will not only appeal to dark sky viewers, but will be popular among regular patrons of the Middle Fork River Forest Preserve. The trail will loop through the tall grass prairie at the preserve offering new educational and recreational opportunities. The nature playground will be a draw for campers and families visiting the preserve and the expanded campground will alleviate our peak demand issues and prevent the District from turning away campers.

What You Need to Know

What areas are used for viewing?

Three areas for Dark Sky Viewing:

  • Campground - Level 1: There is dark sky approved lighting throughout the campground
  • Sugar Creek - Level 2: No lighting, restroom, open air shelter
  • North Waterfowl Area - Level 3: Very dark, no restrooms or amenities

Download the Middle Fork River Forest Preserve Map

Are public restrooms available?

Restroom (Outface) facilities are available 24/7.

Campground Showerhouse is open April-October.

There is a restroom at Sugar Creek.

Where do the Dark Sky Programs take place?

The public Dark Sky Park programs typically take place in a combination of the Activity Center for a presentation and informational segment with the star viewing taking place at the North Waterfowl area.

Is camping allowed?

Camping is allowed only in designated camping areas.

Are pets allowed at the park?

Dogs ARE allowed as long as they are on a leash. And, please remember to pick up after your pet so everyone can enjoy the park experience.

Can I use a regular flashlight?

The Dark Sky Park is indeed very dark. We recommend visitors bring red-filtered flashlights only, so as to not disturb the vision of other park users. White light can ruin the viewing opportunities presented at Middle Fork, for yourself and others. You can make your own red-filtered flashlight by taking red plastic wrap (or coloring clear plastic wrap red) and covering the tip of the flashlight. (Check for the special red wrap around the winter holidays in particular and stock up!) Here’s one way to get started making a night-vision flashlight.

What is a Dark Sky park?

Middle Fork River Forest Preserve received designation in November 2018. The designation is awarded by the International Dark Sky Association in Tucson, Arizona, the oldest organization dedicated to protecting and stewarding natural darkness in the world. The preserve is part of a very dynamic, international movement to protect natural darkness worldwide. The International Dark Sky Association now recognizes over 70 international dark sky parks worldwide.

First Dark Sky Park in Illinois

Come along to Illinois' first and only Dark Sky Park, Middle Fork River Forest Preserve. Lisa Sprinkle and Matt Kuntz, of Champaign Country Forest Preserve District, and David Leake, of the Champaign-Urbana Astronomical Society, join Jarrod Scheunemann to discuss the importance of Dark Sky Parks and how they went about receiving the designation in Central Illinois.