Pfälzerwald Star Park: Protecting the darkness


Our Earth is shining brighter and brighter in space thanks to increasing levels of lighting in towns and cities. By contrast, we can often barely see the stars in the sky because it simply does not get dark enough. There are now a number of initiatives to combat this light pollution, including the Pfälzerwald Star Park, a dark sky park that offers guided tours and workshops in autumn and winter too.

Mighty trees tower up into the night sky and the forest is filled with the scents of beech, oak and sycamore, as well as pine and other conifers. Streams meander and splash along the forest floor, while wide open meadows in the valleys provide a habitat for rare plant species. The Palatinate Forest is home to a wide array of animal species, ranging from lynxes through wild bees to cormorants and great egrets, which pass through in winter. Because of this biodiversity and its real exemplary character, Germany’s largest contiguous forest area has long been recognised as a biosphere reserve by UNESCO and, together with the Northern Vosges Natural Park, forms the largest cross-border biosphere reserve in Germany.

Beautiful canopy of stars above the Palatinate Forest, Palatinate

Beautiful canopy of stars above the Palatinate Forest, Palatinate

Viewed from space, the Palatinate Forest is a large dark space amongst the brightly lit cities and hubs of Rhineland‑Palatinate. If you look up between the trees in a clearing, you can enjoy an impressive canopy of stars or discover the Milky Way, much as our ancestors did many hundreds of years ago when they used the celestial bodies to guide their way. Today, an unhampered view of the stars is an exception. An overcast sky above our cities is up to 1,500 times brighter than the natural night sky, and often only a few stars can be seen. These days, the majority of the population of the planet lives with light pollution of this kind. The Palatinate Forest is still largely free of it, and the plan is for it to stay that way.

German–French Castle Trail in the Palatinate Forest, Palatinate

German–French Castle Trail in the Palatinate Forest, Palatinate

In addition to wide expanses of forest, the Palatinate Forest biosphere reserve is shaped by streams, piles of boulders and open, largely unforested landscapes of meadows, hedgerows, copses and areas dotted with fruit trees. The core parts of the larger conservation area already provide a habitat for numerous elusive animals and very rare plant and fungus species. With a bit of luck, you could spot a fire salamander, a brook lamprey, rare dragonflies or one of various bat species.

You can also take a more active approach to enjoying the Palatinate Forest. A network of well-maintained footpaths connects all the old castles and powerful sandstone cliffs. Between the ruined Guttenberg Castle on the French border in the south and the Donnersberg in the north, there are 13 hiking areas where you can set up camp for the night. They can also be joined up in a hike over several days. The Palatinate Forest mountain bike park has more than 900 kilometres of trails to enjoy. Or you can test out your climbing skills on massive red sandstone outcrops and disused stone quarries.

Berwartstein Castle near Dahn in the Palatinate Forest biosphere reserve, Palatinate

Berwartstein Castle near Dahn in the Palatinate Forest biosphere reserve, Palatinate

Hikers in front of the rocky backdrop of the Trifels mountain on the Pfälzer Weinsteig trail, Palatinate

Hikers in front of the rocky backdrop of the Trifels mountain on the Pfälzer Weinsteig trail, Palatinate

An area whose nightscape is still virtually intact and that offers excellent views of the stars is known as a dark sky park, a term coined by the International Dark Sky Association (IDA), which has been active in combating light pollution since its inception in 1988. Measurements of sky brightness by TU Kaiserslautern prove that areas of the Palatinate Forest meet these conditions perfectly. The Pfälzerwald Star Park project aims to raise awareness of protecting the night sky in the districts of Bad Dürkheim, Südwestpfalz, Südliche Weinstrasse and Kaiserslautern, and demonstrate how reducing light pollution can be linked to saving energy and how the wonderful views of the canopy of stars can be preserved.

Canopy of stars above the Palatinate Forest, Palatinate

Canopy of stars above the Palatinate Forest, Palatinate

The cause is supported by a range of measures including project leaflets and websites. One important aspect is the ‘Community under the stars’ certificate, which is awarded based on star-friendly, environmentally friendly lighting in districts within the project area using criteria defined by the IDA. A catalogue of measures, including retrofitting and sponsorship options and example calculations for star-friendly, environmentally friendly lighting, has been drawn up for interested communities. The hope is to retain the cultural heritage of stargazing for future generations.

But that is not all. ‘Hospitality under the stars’ is the name given to a certificate for star-friendly accommodation and hospitality companies in order to promote ‘star tourism’. The aim is to provide suitable accommodation options for visitors seeking to enjoy the stars and also to make the hospitality sector more aware of the issue of light pollution. Measures can include giving out red-light torches, providing star maps or binoculars, or even adapting check-out times or letting visitors know about astronomical events in the dark sky park region.

There is a special map showing the best spots for star-gazing in the Palatinate Forest. Criteria include very low levels of light pollution, good visibility unrestricted by trees or buildings, and good accessibility by car or easy footpaths, all of which make the spots more attractive for astronomers. The availability of simple facilities such as snacks or toilets was also factored in. There are notice boards providing information on the project and the stars for visitors.

The tour guides for the biosphere reserve have been involved in the project to raise awareness of the issue. There are competitions in schools to interest the next generation in preserving nature and dark skies in the Palatinate Forest. The Star Park project has been given increased impetus by supporters such as Astronomische Vereinigung Vorderpfalz, the Studentische Arbeitsgemeinschaft Astronomie der Universität Kaiserslautern e.V., the Naturwissenschaftliche Verein zu Zweibrücken, the Sternwarte Zweibrücken and the Pälzer Schdernegugger. The hope is that our grandchildren will also be able to recognise the Milky Way with the naked eye.

More travel highlights for nature lovers in the Palatinate:


Palatinate hikers’ menu

If you hike in the Palatinate, you can expect a hearty feast at the end of the day. Discover short, relatively flat routes for relaxed or more demanding days out.

Cycle trails in the Palatinate

Discover the Palatinate by bicycle, on the gentle Alsenz or Glan-Blies cycle trails, the delightful German Wine Route or the more energetic Palatinate Forest mountain bike park.

House of Sustainability

Trippstadt The House of Sustainability sees itself as a central forum in the Palatinate Forest North Vosges Biosphere Reserve, which aims to help people…