The Best Places to Stargaze in the U.S. Right Now
Planning a camping trip? Consider these big-sky destinations.
The first step in finding a great stargazing spot means getting as far away from other humans as you can. And honestly, that makes now the absolute best time to re-embrace a pastime that has captivated humankind since well before we had wheels.
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 dark places where you’re likely to find friendly amateur astronomers and ample opportunities to gaze uninterrupted into the heavens just like our ancestors. Only now, you have wheels to get you there.
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.
Goblin Valley State Park
Utah punches well above its weight in terms of stargazing — between Arches, Zion, Bryce, Capitol Reef, and Canyonlands, the state might as well just be one big-ass national park. Each of those places deserves a place on this list. But don’t overlook the state parks, either. They give the big boys a run for their money, and none is more surreal under a blanket of stars than the hoodoos and otherworldly formations at Goblin Valley, which happens to also be a certified International Dark Sky Park. Here, the aural glows are very likely to trick your eyes into thinking that there are truly creatures lurking around the spires. Or maybe it’s just David Bowie. Either way, you can check Goblin Valley’s dark sky forecast here.
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. Between that effort and the accessibility, Grand Canyon's allure for the astronomically inclined is not up for debate.
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 -- and probably find a quiet spot during the hellish summer heat pretty easily -- 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. The dates for 2021's event are yet to be announced.
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.
Natural Bridges National Monument
Like its state parks, Utah’s national monuments often hide in the shadows of the big five national parks. As such, only about 100,000 people visit Natural Bridges each year, and most of those folks don’t stick around once the sun goes down. Sucks for them: Natural Bridges became the first international Dark Sky Park back in 2007, owing to it having some of the absolute darkest skies in the country. We’ll, that dark is relative: At night, the sky positively explodes with stars and celestial bodies, with the pitch-black canyon walls and namesake arches providing shadowy backdrops that resemble gargantuan natural through which you can gaze upward uninterrupted.
Great Sand Dunes National Park
A recent inductee into the International Dark Sky Park club, Great Sand Dunes is a reprieve from the canyons and arches one typically thinks of in the Southwest. Here, though, things look decidedly different. You know those iconic movie scenes where our hero marches up a giant sand dune under a brilliant scene of stars? This is basically that, but you don’t have to be Keanu Reeves on a mission to avenge a dog to see it. Also, let’s be real: The prospect of sand boarding beneath a galactic glow is pretty damn surreal. And doable.