Road in the desert at night with the Milky Way
Las Vegas lights > Mother Nature's light | Anton Petrus/Getty Images
Las Vegas lights > Mother Nature's light | Anton Petrus/Getty Images

How to Pull Off the Ultimate Nevada Stargazing Road Trip

Journey to some of the darkest places in the US, with scenic stops and roadside attractions in between.

Outside of the blinding neon lights of Las Vegas and Reno, Nevada is a vast, mostly rural state of open desert landscapes and pitch-black skies. For stargazers, it’s paradise.

The state is home to three official “Dark Sky Places,” designated pockets of land where light pollution is at a minimum and the stars shine their brightest. Reaching these remote locales isn’t always easy, but Nevada rewards ambitious road trippers with unforgettable things to see along the way: a host of bizarre roadside attractions, Old West ghost towns, stunning state parks, alien-themed kitsch, and phenomenal natural sites.

To help plan your own killer stargazing road trip through Nevada, we’ve charted out three loose itineraries, with plenty of opportunities to zip and zag: a 130-mile drive from Las Vegas to Death Valley National Park; a 300-mile journey from Vegas up to Great Basin National Park; and a 150-mile stretch from Reno to the ultra-remote Massacre Rim. Happy star tripping.

Milky way and the moon over flat, rocky salt flats
The night sky over the Badwater Basin salt flats in DV. | Westend61/Getty Images

Route 1: Las Vegas to Death Valley National Park

Yes, Death Valley is technically in California. But this national park—the largest in the lower 48—sprawls 3.4 million acres and is partially located in Nevada, too. It also happens to be a Gold Tier Dark Sky Park, the highest level awarded by the International Dark-Sky Association. Translation: It’s dark as shit out here, and the stars are absolutely bonkers.

Death Valley is all about extreme, Star Wars-esque landscapes. Some particularly cool places to watch the stars come out are Zabriskie Point—a hilltop lookout striped with shades of yellow, red, and brown that’s particularly trippy at sunset—and the expansive peaks and valleys of the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, which look downright lunar as the sun goes down. (Just make sure to bring tons of water and a flashlight to find your way back to the parking lot.) The park also hosts its own Dark Sky Festival every year in late February or early March, a great time to visit for guided night hikes with rangers, astrophotography meet-ups, and a star party.

You know what’s not a great time to visit? The height of summer, when temperatures regularly top 120 degrees. This intensely dry, barren park requires some extra planning to visit: luckily, we have an entire guide for that.

Abandoned shop in desert ghost town
See the ruins of the Rhyolite ghost town near Beatty. | Laurens Hoddenbagh/Shutterstock

Driving from Las Vegas to Death Valley

For this star-trip, drive north on US-95 out of Vegas towards Tonopah. The journey will take you past some of the best roadside attractions in Nevada, if not the States, so prepare to pull over. It’s a very weird highway, so obviously we wrote an article about it.

In the Amargosa Valley, there’s the Area 51 Alien Travel Center, which is just a standard travel center with a gas station and a 1950s-style diner, but the gift shop is loaded with lots of alien-themed kitsch. Oh, and there’s a brothel here, too. An alien-themed one. That offers free tours. From there you can take a slight detour to Devils Hole, a 60,000-year-old fissure that opens up into a sprawling system of geothermal water-filled caves, the full size and depth of which has never been recorded. It is also the exclusive home of the ancient, endangered Pupfish.

Stop in Beatty for a chili dog and the coldest draft beer of your life at the Harry Burro before a drive through the historic ghost town of Rhyolite and a can’t-be-missed photo opp at the Goldwell Open Air Museum. Beatty is a gateway into Death Valley, with the closest lodging and gas station within the park at Stovepipe Wells.

Keep the trip going: Continuing up US-95 will bring you to Tonopah, once named the #1 Stargazing Destination in America by USA Today. Along the way, you’ll pass the haunted ghost town of Goldfield and the truly WTF International Car Forest of the Last Church. In Tonopah, there’s the Clair Blackburn Memorial Stargazing Park, with cement pads for telescopes and monthly star parties throughout the summer. Download their “Star Trails” map of paved and unpaved trails in the area for some unforgettable night hikes. Tonopah is also home to the creepy Clown Motel where you can stay the night…I guess.

Information Sign On Road By Silhouette Mountains Against Star Field
A ton of stargazing events, including a Star Train, run out of Great Basin. | James Ronan/EyeEm/Getty Images

Route 2: Las Vegas to Great Basin National Park

On the eastern edge of Central Nevada, right next to Utah, is yet another Gold Tier Dark Sky Park: Great Basin. It’s also one of the least-visited, underrated national parks in the country with only 90,000 annual visitors. There are plenty of campgrounds in the area, some that can be reserved in advance and some that are first-come, first-serve. Fair warning: There is NO cell service in this 77,000-acre park. None.

The newly opened Astronomy Amphitheater hosts an Astronomy Festival every September, with guest speakers, photography workshops, and tours of the Great Basin Observatory. Great Basin’s Dark Sky Rangers offer guided full moon hikes in the summer months, as well as an astronomy program every Thursday and Saturday where visitors get 90 minutes of telescope viewing time.

If you’re a stargazer who still likes a warm bed with a spot of Wi-Fi, check into the Stargazer Inn in Baker, the closest town. The on-site bar and restaurant Kerouac’s is an unexpected delight—I mean, this is not a part of the country where you’d expect to find a robust craft cocktail list and a charcuterie board with duck mousse and Humboldt Fog on it.

Landscape with rock formations in desert, Cathedral Gorge, Utah, USA
Stop for a hike through the slot canyons of Cathedral George State Park. | Backcountry Explorers/500px/Getty Images

Driving from Las Vegas to Great Basin

From Vegas, follow US 93 north/northeast all the way until it ends; you’ll pass several worthwhile places to stop on the way to Great Basin. If you want to add some birding or fishing to your trip, camp out by the lake at Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge, one of the few wetland habitats in Nevada.

 You’ll pass by the historic city of Caliente, known for its natural hot springs (stop for a soak!) and the highly photographable, Spanish Mission-style train depot dating back to 1905. Up the road is Pioche, once the rowdiest town in the West (there’s a “Murderers’ Row” in the local cemetery). For ghosties, check into the Overland Hotel & Saloon, one of Nevada’s notoriously haunted hotels.

Between Caliente and Pioche sits the gorgeous Cathedral Gorge State Park, Nevada’s vastly less crowded answer to the Badlands and Bryce Canyon, full of slot canyons and cathedral-like spires formed tens of millions of years ago. It sucks and you should definitely not go there, especially if you’re an influencer.

Keep the trip going: After your adventure in Great Basin, drive an hour north along US-50 (dubbed the “Loneliest Road in America,”) to the tiny mountain town of Ely. The former boom town is full of murals and sculptures paying homage to the area’s copper mining history. Stay at the Prospector Hotel & Gambling Hall, whose lobby doubles as a local history museum-meets-Wild West Pop Art gallery. The Mexican restaurant on the property is legit good. 

The real reason you’re here: Ely’s Northern Nevada Railway Museum runs the Great Basin Star Train, a 2.5-hour stargazing excursion on a vintage diesel locomotive, led by Dark Sky Rangers from Great Basin. These special rides are only offered on select dates in the summer and they sell out FAST, so plan ahead. Back at the museum, you can stay the night in a bunkhouse or even a historic caboose. 

Take the long way back to Vegas on the Extraterrestrial Highway, down US-6 all the way to SR-375. The lonely stretch takes you past the highly classified military aircraft testing facility known as… drumroll… Area 51. Check out our full guide to the area right here. Highlights include the Little A'Le'Inn, the Alien Research Center, the Extraterrestrial Highway sign, and the Black Mailbox. Don’t miss E.T. Fresh Jerky for alien-themed snacks and the massive UFO-themed mural.

Dirt road in the desert
Gravel roads leading to the Black Rock Desert. | Thomas Winz/Getty Images

Route 3: Reno to Massacre Rim 

Wedged in the far northwest corner of the state, Massacre Rim is considered to be one of the darkest places on Earth. The 102,000-acre Wilderness Study Area is one of only seven Dark Sky Sanctuaries in the United States—a designation reserved for extremely remote locations, places so dark you can see shadows cast by the light of the Milky Way. 

This long, rugged journey is not for the faint of heart. Rough gravel roads are as good as it gets out here, so come with a high clearance 4x4 with a spare tire or two, or don’t come at all. November through May are off-limits when the roads are often impassable due to snow or mud. The stargazing is best in July and August during the Perseids, but you must come prepared for extra-hot summer weather. There is no food, water, gas, or cell phone service anywhere near the Sanctuary; the closest community is about 40 miles west in Cedarville, California.

The payoff, of course, is the most spectacular night sky you'll ever see in your whole silly life. Dispersed camping is permitted throughout the Sanctuary, and there are campgrounds in “nearby” public lands like the Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge and Modoc National Forest, which are also super dark. There are also first-come, first-serve public cabins available; call the BLM Winnemucca District at 775-625-1500 for more info.

a giant, colorful, active geyser in the desert
Arrange a tour to see the bizarre Fly Geyser up close. | Bernie Friel/Getty Images

Driving from Reno to Massacre Rim

It’s pretty isolated out here. But there are some sights to see along the way, because Nevada. From Reno, head east on I-80 until you hit SR-447—otherwise known as the “Burner Byway.” Make a detour to Pyramid Lake, the ancient remnants of the prehistoric Lake Lahontan, an inland sea that once covered most of the massive state of Nevada. It’s a world-renowned fishing destination and the only known habitat for the ancient Cui-ui fish. This is all Paiute tribal land, so take note that permits are required for fishing, boating, and camping. 

Further north lies Gerlach, the gateway to Burning Man due to its proximity to the Black Rock Desert (aka “The Playa). At Bruno’s Country Club & Motel, grab some food and a Picon Punch (an artifact of Basque influence in Northern Nevada). Maybe rest here for the night and see for yourself why FiveThirtyEight named Gerlach the “Darkest Town in America.”

Gas up in Gerlach, then head north on SR-34 to follow the mile-long “Guru Road,” yet another weird but inspirational outdoor art installation project in the middle of the desert. Not far ahead is Fly Geyser, a six-foot-tall, rainbow-colored mound of mineral deposits that spews hot water five feet into the air. It’s located on private property, but if you want to see it up close, guided tours and nature walks are offered by the Friends of Black Rock High Rock.

Once you step foot in the Black Rock Desert, you will be walking on one of the largest, flattest surfaces in the world—that prehistoric Lake Lahontan, mentioned above? This is its dry lakebed. There is perhaps no greater wide-open sky to stargaze than what you’ll experience right here. Stay the night in the Soldier Meadows Campground, and spend some time star-soaking in the bathing pools formed by dammed pockets along a natural hot springs river.

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Nicole Rupersburg is a freelance writer covering food, travel, arts, culture, and what-have-you. She winters in Las Vegas and summers in Detroit, as does anybody who's anybody. Her favorite activities include drinking beer and quoting Fight Club.