The Best Stargazing This Winter Is in Utah

It's the darky-sky capital of the US.

Five of the 62 national parks in America are in Utah: Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, Zion, and Bryce Canyon, which kind of makes a solid case for the entire state to be deemed a national park. And last year, Bryce —the dusty red-rock amphitheaters full of all those fantastical towering hoodoos that make you feel like you’re on Mars—was designated an International Dark Sky Park. Why, you may ask? Well... because it looks like this at night:

bryce canyon
Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah. | Carlos Fernandez/ Moment /Getty Images

With the addition of Bryce's designation, four of the five national parks are now certified Dark Sky destinations in some capacity, marking the only time you'll find Zion left off a list of Utah's national park attractions. There are currently 16 designated Dark Sky sites across the state, with plans to reach 20 in the very near future. Between national parks, state parks, national monuments, and county parks, that means more than any other state in the country. 

International Dark Sky Sites are only certified after a rigorous evaluation process that takes into consideration the darkness of the site in question’s night sky, of course, but also the steps park custodians have taken to install “night-sky friendly” lighting that’s environmentally sustainable and also cuts down on glare.

Summer, of course, is the most popular time of year for visiting national parks. And many of our national parks do look their best in the fall. But the best time of year for stargazing in Utah’s national parks is the winter. In the months ahead, the dry desert air above Utah’s Dark Sky parks will hold even less moisture than it does the rest of the year, which makes stars easier to see with the naked eye, and also easier to photograph.

Arches National Park, Utah. | Adventure_Photo/E+/Getty Images

There’s a long history of dark sky conservation in Utah. Half a century ago, Bryce Canyon became one of the first national parks to offer astronomy programs—today, the park offers around 100 of these ranger-led programs every year. You can look up ranger-led stargazing programs in Arches, Canyonlands, and other NPS sites in southeastern Utah here. Try Sunrise Point and Sunset Point if you’re in Bryce Canyon, and Balanced Rock and The Windows if you’re in Arches.

Quick tip: You can pick up a flashlight (or a headlamp) that uses red light, or you can just take whatever white light you already have and cover it with red-tinted cellophane. Get out there under those dark, dark skies. And bring a nice, warm coat.

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Kastalia Medrano is a New York-based journalist and avid traveler. Follow her @kastaliamedrano.