Backyard Observatory

You Can Easily Go on a Great Stargazing Road Trip From These U.S. Cities

No matter where you are in the US, you're not far from an amazing stargazing experience.

best stargazing road trips
MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP via Getty Images

Traveling in the summer of 2020 has involved a lot of time in the car. However, that could mean this is your long-awaited opportunity for the road trip you always said you were going to take before every part of life made that trip a negotiation between family, work, vacation days, and your need for more than five hours of sleep a night.

A road trip can mean a lot of things -- from blasting down Route 66 on a motorcycle to camping with family in an RV, a coast-to-coast excursion to a day trip an hour away. One thing it less often means is exploring the night, but you should consider life beyond the reign of the sun. After all, half of your trip -- metaphorically, if not literally -- will take place at night. There are galaxies and worlds unexplored available for your enjoyment. In fact, from any major US city, you can get somewhere that's perfect for stargazing if you know where to head. (Hint: It's often state and national parks, most of which are open.)

That's why we've pulled together stargazing hotspots within a day trip (or a touch more) of more than a dozen cities. These aren't the only places you can stargaze in your area, but they're good options because stargazing is more than just stepping outside. To see the wonders hiding in plain sight above you, you need dark skies and light pollution has made truly dark skies shockingly rare. "In 2017, roughly 80% of people in North America cannot see the Milky Way due to electric lights at night," the National Park Service states on its site. Fortunately, there are places like our national parks that protect the night sky as a communal space we share. For centuries, humans have used the night sky to tell stories, discover nature, and find their way through the darkness. It's a space worth protecting. 

"In places like Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve in Colorado, dark night skies bring constellations to life -- even the Milky Way -- and they inspire curiosity and creativity," National Park Foundation President and CEO Will Shafroth told Thrillist. "Because some national parks provide among the darkest and clearest night skies, the National Park Foundation has connected visitors with night sky viewing at places like Mammoth Cave National Park. As we like to say, half the park is after dark!"

Here are some of the best stargazing spots close to some of the biggest cities in the country. 

Stephen Collins Foster State Park

Close to: Atlanta, Georgia (296 miles); Jacksonville, Florida (90 miles)

OK, I'm starting this list with the park that's furthest from the associated city. Still, it's a park the International Dark Sky Association (IDA) has given the honor of being a Gold-tier International Dark Sky Park, the only one in Georgia. Due to the distance of getting into the Okefenokee Swamp, this is probably more of an overnight road trip than a "day trip" in search of night skies. Additionally, the gates of the park itself close at 10pm, so you'll want to check out the many nearby camping opportunities

Enchanted Rock State Natural Area

Close to: Austin, Texas (96 miles); Dallas, Texas (235 miles); San Antonio, Texas (87 miles)

This International Dark Sky Park is awfully close to Austin, making it a pretty decent day trip option. You can also hit up the park's Rock Star Parties for guided stargazing. Though, like most star parties in the US, those aren't taking place right now due to the pandemic. Nonetheless, with the dark sky views available at Enchanted Rock, you should be able to guide yourself with an app or book. Before you go, you can visit this page to get a read on the relative darkness with the park's dark sky monitor. It updates every 15 minutes throughout the night, which might come in handy if you're camping

Enchanted Rock ranks a 3 on the Bortles Dark-Sky Scale (where 1 is the darkest), according to Texas Parks & Wildlife. You'll have a tough time finding anything much darker while staying this close to Austin. Though, a little further out is Devil's Sinkhole State Natural Area and Kickapoo Cavern State Park, which both rank a 2. 

Peppermint Park

Close to: Boston, Massachusetts (126 miles)

This campground is the home to many star parties, including ones hosted by the Rockland Astronomy Club. This isn't an International Dark Sky Park, but you aren't going to find any in Massachussetts. Though, that doesn't mean you aren't able to find beautiful dark skies in western Massachusetts in the Berkshire Mountains. You can, and this is a favorite spot for many stargazers. 

Sky & Telescope, which has sponsored star parties at the park, wrote of the campground, "I didn't know it got this dark anywhere in Massachusetts."

stargazing chicago
Indiana Dunes National Park | NPS / Victoria Stauffenberg

Indiana Dunes State Park

Close to: Chicago, Illinois (47 miles); Detroit, Michigan (238 miles); Indianapolis, Indiana (163 miles); Milwaukee, Wisconsin (148 miles)

When you exit Chicago heading east, things are pretty flat. It's hard to remember that there's more to northern Indiana than, well, flatness. In an hour or less, you could be at Indiana Dunes State Park and Indiana Dunes National Park with an incredible view of Lake Michigan. 

The park boasts more than 15 miles of shoreline that's both great for sunbathing and stargazing. It's near enough to a handful of big cities that you could make a day trip of it or take advantage of nearby hotels. You can spend time stargazing, swimming, or enjoying the ample hiking available. The beach might not be such a great place to post-up with a telescope, but the Kemil Beach parking lot has hosted star parties in the past. We've been at solar minimum for a while, but you might even catch the northern lights if you go on a night when the Space Weather Prediction Center has a G2 alert or higher for geomagnetic activity. 

Rocky Mountain National Park

Close to: Denver, Colorado (67 miles); Colorado Springs, Colorado (135 miles)

Great Sand Dunes National Park and Reserve or Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park are designated International Dark Sky Parks and aren't too far from Denver. However, Rocky Mountain is quite a bit closer and still provides outstanding views of the universe beyond our atmosphere. There are plenty of places to search for constellations and meteors, but a couple of favorites from local stargazers include the Trail Ridge Road, which gets above the treeline and lakes like Poudre Lake or Bear Lake. 

The park's stargazing programs are canceled for summer 2020, but they host events at other times. 

Brazos Bend State Park

Close to: Houston, Texas (46 miles)

You're not quite getting out to west Texas at Brazos Bend. It's not the darkest part of the state, but it's awfully close to Houston. You can stargaze or, when it's open, stop by the George Observatory in the park with its three domed telescopes. The Observatory's main campus is closed for renovations, but Observatory Director Kavita Self told Thrillist that they hope to resume operations by "early fall."

The site is a little too close to the city to see everything out there with the naked eye, but it's an easy spot to get a view of major astronomical events. Though, when events aren't taking place, the park closes at 10pm. You can get around that early deadline by camping or reserving a cabin

stargazing zion national park
NPS Photo / Jonathan Fortner

Zion National Park

Close to: Las Vegas, Nevada (160 miles)

It's hard to imagine you're not far from seeing deep-space objects near the Las Vegas Strip with its intense array of lights. There's a reason that Paul Bogard started his great book The End of Night on the disappearance of dark skies with his feet near the Luxor Sky Beam.

From Vegas, you can hit Zion National Park in three hours or less. It's one of the nation's most-loved outdoor spaces, but the camping area off the south entrance doesn't have the best sightlines. If you're stargazing from there, it'll be beautiful, but you're going to miss anything happening along the horizon. An alternative spot to try is the Pa’rus Trail. You'll want to have a headlamp or flashlight along for the hike, but the path is paved and has a great view.

Plus, now you're in Zion. Things are going pretty well.

Malibu Creek State Park

Close to: Fresno, California (223 miles); Los Angeles, California (34 miles)

Lots of people enjoy stargazing at Malibu Creek, but it's most worth seeking out if you're camping as well. As LA Mag notes, the park gates close at 10pm. It's not the best spot for a "day trip" to stargaze. If your intention is to see stars and then head back home, Griffith Observatory is a popular spot under other circumstances. Though, it's currently closed due to COVID-19.

You've got beautiful places around LA where you can stargaze even if you're not hitting very dark skies unless you get out to Joshua Tree National Park. Still, you can find a nice slice of sky with a good view. 

Big Cypress National Preserve

Close to: Miami, Florida (80 miles), Tampa, Florida (203 miles)

This site got IDA status in 2016, and there are definitely parts of the park closer than an hour and a half from Miami. But the Big Cypress Swamp Welcome Center is that far, and that's where the park service has previously teamed up with the South Florida Amateur Astronomers Association and other organizations to host star parties. The last of those parties for the winter was canceled due to COVID-19, so it's not clear when they'll be hosting events again. Nonetheless, the park is open currently, and you're getting some beautiful views. 

Mammoth Cave National Park

Close to: Louisville, Kentucky (93 miles); Nashville, Tennessee (89 miles)

If you're in Nashville, you probably already know how great Mammoth Cave is. It's close enough that you could do a day trip down into the biggest continuous cave system in the world. That's certainly impressive, but the park has a ton more to offer between bike trails and kayaking on the beautiful Green River. 

But Mammoth Cave National Park works hard to preserve its dark sky views. It's not as dark as many spots further west, but for the eastern part of the country and for being just over an hour from Nashville and a half-hour from Bowling Green, it's impressive. The rangers host night-sky programs, and there are tons of areas where you can see the wonders of the sky. That includes the parking lot in front of the visitor center within walking distance of the park cabins

Cherry Springs State Park

Close to: New York City, New York (261 miles); Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (249 miles); Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (182 miles)

It might not seem like the upper East Coast has as many options for great stargazing as the western part of the country, but Cherry Springs is a hidden gem. It's not far from a few major metropolitan areas, and the Susquehannock State Forest is a great place for some stargazing.

There are star parties hosted a couple of times a year. Though, if you're going for one and want to spend the night, you'll need to put in your reservation early.

Palomar Mountain State Park & Cleveland National Forest

Close to: San Diego, California (62 miles away)

This spot comes recommended by amateur stargazing enthusiasts and has the advantage of having the Palomar Observatory nearby. You can tour the Hale telescope, but not use it at night. However, like most observatories, it's temporarily closed due to the pandemic.

This area is still a great place to stargaze, as is the nearby Cleveland National Forest. Many campgrounds in the area are currently open in a limited capacity. The obvious choice for a trip like this is the Observatory Campground. It's geared toward the sky-curious, located just two miles from the observatory. Many campsites have concrete pads for you to set up a telescope. You'll need to book ahead, though, because it's only taking advance reservations. 

Though, if you want a really dark sky, you should probably just take the extra time to drive to Joshua Tree. 

Point Reyes National Seashore

Close to: San Francisco, California (37 miles); Sacramento, California (97 miles); San Jose, California (82 miles)

If you live in San Francisco, you already know that Golden Gate National Recreation Area is beautiful, and there are much-loved stargazing spots there. (And there are many camping options near San Francisco.) If you're up for a little bit more of a trip, however, Point Reyes offers gorgeous views of the stars over the Pacific Ocean. Here, you're getting a little further from any developed areas and avoiding lots of the light pollution that can come from the big cities in the area. The Space Tourism Guide notes that because of the distance from developed areas, "it’s almost 360° views of the stars."

Campgrounds are available on-site and nearby but require advance reservations, and the park asks that you adhere to its COVID-19 guidelines. If you're not camping, the park is open until midnight daily unless COVID-19 restrictions or wildfires alter park rules.

stargazing road trips Washington DC
2017 Night Sky Festival. Saturday stargazing night event at Rapidan Road in Shenandoah National Park. | Mary O'Neill

Shenandoah National Park

Close to: Baltimore, Maryland (108 miles); Washington, DC (71 miles)

The nearby 7.3-acre Rappahannock County Park was named an International Dark Sky Park in early 2019. However, Shenandoah National Park is easily accessible, has nearby camping, and, under better circumstances, hosts stargazing activities as well as a late-summer Night Sky Festival that was canceled in 2020. The park recommends the Big Meadows area as a hub for great stargazing. Camping is available.

Ready to go stargazing?

Here are all the best stargazing events that you can get out and see this month or you could stay in a stream the northern lights from home. If you're just getting started, check out our guide to astronomy for beginners

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Dustin Nelson is a Senior Staff Writer at Thrillist. Follow him @dlukenelson.