18 Mind-Blowing Spots for Stargazing in Utah

The entire state is practically one giant planetarium.

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Out of the 62 national parks in America, Utah claims the Big Five: Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, Zion, and Bryce Canyon. And considering the state features the highest concentration of International Dark Sky Association-certified locations in the world, you won’t have to drive far to find a national park prime for stargazing.

In Utah, there are currently 18 Dark Sky sites across the state—and that number should hit 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.) Bryce, known for its characteristic, red rock pillar-filled amphitheaters, was also recently designated an International Dark Sky Park, so now four of the five national parks are certified Dark Sky destinations in some capacity—one of the few times Zion is left off a list of Utah's national park attractions.

To earn the International Dark Sky Sites stamp, there’s a rigorous evaluation process that evaluates the level of darkness of the site’s night sky, as well as the steps park custodians have taken to install “night-sky friendly” lighting that’s environmentally sustainable and cuts down on glare. Considering 80% of Americans live in places where they can’t even see the Milky Way due to light pollution, it’s a pretty big deal that Utah guarantees some of the country’s—and world’s—best stargazing year-round.

Photo by Austen Diamond Photography, courtesy of Visit Utah

Summer, of course, is the most popular time of year for visiting national parks, and in Utah, you’ll see more of the Milky Way during this season—as well as the highest concentration of stars. If you’re visiting Bryce Canyon in June or early July, there’s even the annual Astronomy Festival, which celebrates the new moon through ranger-led programs and constellation tours.

Many of our national parks do look their best in the fall, and the central park of the Milky Way (called the galactic core) is shining bright in the early evenings from September to November. But if you want to take advantage of longer nights, time your stargazing trip around 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 the skies clearer and stars easier to see with the naked eye, so they’re easier to photograph.

As for when to go, the best time of the month is during a new moon, or three days before or after. The lack of light from the moon means everything shines brighter and clearer, so you’ll see even the tiniest details in the dust lines of the galaxy.

Photo by Ryan Andreasen, courtesy of Visit Utah

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 stargazing programs a year (the majority of which are from spring through fall) in Arches, Canyonlands, and other NPS sites in southeastern Utah. 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. It can get chilly come nightfall, so don’t forget to bring a nice, warm coat.

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Kastalia Medrano is a New York-based journalist and avid traveler. Follow her on Twitter.