8 Places for Incredible Stargazing (and Star Partying) in the U.S.
Planning a camping trip? Consider these big-sky destinations.
The first step in finding somewhere incredible to stargaze is to get as far away from other humans as you can, which is always an excellent start regardless of what you’re doing. If you live in a city, it’s easy to forget that the stars above you even exist, let alone how brilliant the night sky can be. When you finally escape all that light pollution you’ve grown used to, you’d be surprised how much of the Milky Way you can see with the naked eye.
There are more than 120 certified International Dark Sky places -- urban settings, parks, nature reserves -- across the globe, many of them in the US. Most of North America’s designated Dark Sky sites are in the southwestern US, but there’s a healthy number sprinkled all around the country. The nonprofit International Dark Sky Association (the folks who do the certifying) evaluates candidates not just on the basis of how dark their respective skies are, but often by how much community support the sites have. Here, we’ve curated a mix of our favorite shiny dark places where you’re likely to find friendly amateur astronomers, helpful park rangers, star parties -- where amateur and sometimes professional astronomers load up their telescopes and gather together under the night sky -- or maybe just no one at all.
Cherry Springs State Park
The East Coast looks hot garbage on a light-pollution map, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t excellent options if you know where to look. Cherry Springs State Park is a designated Gold Level Dark Sky Park with its own astronomy field, and it even offers private tours. It’s open year-round, and you can check when the skies overhead are expected to be clearest. There are star parties, but they do fill up in advance so make sure to register well ahead of time if you have your heart set on one. You might even see the northern lights.
Grand Canyon National Park
Is it the best national park in America? Debatable! But is it the best place to stargaze in the continental US? Also debatable -- there’s a lot of good stuff out there and taste is subjective -- but it is certainly one of the best. A couple of years ago, the Grand Canyon Village began retrofitting all its lighting to be more dark sky-friendly, and in 2016 was rewarded with Provisional Dark Sky status. In June 2019, it finally earned the coveted title of International Dark Sky Park. This year’s (free!) Grand Canyon Star Party will run June 13 - 20. You’ll find activities on both the North and South rims, including constellation tours and talks by astronomers and photographers.
Rainbow Bridge National Monument
Rainbow Bridge is one of only a handful of designated Dark Sky Sanctuaries anywhere in the world -- a wholly separate designation than Dark Sky parks or reserves, meaning it’s very remote and very dark and very good for stargazing. It became the National Park Service’s first such sanctuary in 2018. To get there, you’ll need to either backpack in from Navajo Mountain or travel by boat (or jet ski) over Lake Powell, which is how most people do it. (It honestly sounds super fun, whether or not you’re there to gaze into the cosmos.)
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Death Valley National Park
California and Nevada
Death Valley is the largest Dark Sky National Park in the country. Head to the Oasis, another Gold Tier-designated Dark Sky Park. You can stargaze year-round, but come spring and winter you’ll find a robust program of ranger-led astronomy activities. Death Valley National Park also throws a big ol’ star party each year around March -- the Death Valley Dark Sky Festival, a collaboration between the park and NASA. This year’s festival runs February 21 - 23.
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Cosmic Campground sits within Gila National Forest, and was the first Dark Sky Sanctuary not just within the National Forest System but anywhere in North America. It’s so dark you won’t find any artificial light sources for 40 miles. There’s a star party each spring, but don't stress if you miss -- this is a particularly great place to go to be alone. The forest is free to enter and open year-round; you can check out the campground’s stargazing tips here. The camping amenities are bare-bones, but isn’t that what you’re looking for? Drive southeast to White Sands National Monument, and you’ll find more excellent stargazing sites complete with star parties, too.
In late March 2019, the Massacre Rim Wilderness Study Area was designated a Dark Sky Sanctuary. It’s so dark you can see shadows cast by the light of the Milky Way. This is because the public lands here are remote and not clogged with tourists. Massacre Rim is popular with backcountry hikers -- while it might not be your pick if you’re looking for more of a park ranger-led star party scene, if you’re looking to truly get away then you should add it to your list.
Nebraska, if you weren’t aware, is one of the best under-the-radar summer getaways around. In the western part of the state, July 19 - 24 this year marks the return of the Nebraska Star Party, one of the most beloved in the country. You can camp or stay in the small town of Valentine a short drive away. This particular star party is a great one for those who maybe don’t know the difference between astronomy and astrology. There are even “Beginner’s Field School” classes you can take to find your stargazing, er, sea legs. Bring binoculars if you’ve got ’em, but you’ll find plenty of friendly folks willing to share their telescopes as well as their expertise.
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Sierra la Rana
The Dark Skies Community of Sierra la Rana is where you’ll head for the Texas Star Party, held in the Davis Mountains each year since 1979. TSP, which this year will run May 17 - 24, is one of the highest-profile and best-attended star parties in the country (they mean business here -- registration starts at $80 and climbs steeply as the party approaches, so register before April 15 if you can). It attracts a lot of professional astronomers in addition to amateurs, so this is a great one to hit if you’re really looking to learn. You can check Sierra la Rana’s Clear Sky Chart here.