Incredible Dark Sky Parks in the U.S. for Stargazing
Infinitely vast and mysterious, the night skies have sparked wonder since the dawn of the human species. As populations and cities increase, however, unpolluted views of the universe are more important than ever. To that end, the International Dark-Sky Association began the International Dark Sky Places (IDSP) Program in 2001 “to preserve and protect the nighttime environment and our heritage of dark skies.”
Today, there are more than 60 International Dark Sky Places in the United States alone — many of them in national and state parks — that offer “astro tourists” an opportunity to marvel at pristine and unpolluted night skies. A few tips: For the darkest skies, plan to visit near the new moon. Bring binoculars and a red flashlight, which has minimal effect as our eyes adapt to darkness. Pack layers for chilly nights along with insect repellent to ward off mosquitoes. Then, enjoy the stargazing at our seven favorite dark sky parks in the U.S.
Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah
The first destination in the world to earn International Dark Sky Park status, the Natural Bridges National Monument also boasts Sipapu, the second-largest natural stone bridge in the U.S. For one of the most dramatic views, sit on the mesa at nearby Owachomo Bridge and watch the Milky Way rise over the bridge. Summer is best for stargazing here, when you’ll also have a chance to catch the Perseids meteor shower, celebrate with other stargazers at a “star party,” or participate in a stargazing seminar led by the park’s rangers. When the sun comes up, don’t miss the Horse Collar Ruin — an Ancestral Puebloan site that dates back more than 700 years and features a rare intact rectangular kiva.
Great Basin National Park, Nevada
With high elevation, low humidity, and minimal light pollution, Great Basin National Park in eastern Nevada (near the Utah border) offers some of the darkest skies in the world. Satellites, the Milky Way, and even the Andromeda Galaxy are visible to the naked eye. The summer months bring ranger-led stargazing sessions, astronomy programs, and full moon hikes. The Nevada Northern Railroad also operates a Star Train, where passengers can observe planets and other deep space marvels through high-powered telescopes. Admission to the park is free, and campsites go quickly, but dispersed camping is permitted on the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Land that surrounds Great Basin National Park.
Headlands International Dark Sky Park, Michigan
This county park in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula is located two miles west of downtown Mackinaw City yet remains remarkably protected from light pollution. Open year-round, the park juts into Lake Michigan, allowing visitors to marvel at meteors and the Milky Way reflecting off the lake’s clear waters. The luckiest stargazers may find themselves wrapped up in the swirling magic of the aurora borealis, aka the northern lights. Admission to the park is usually free, but there may be entrance fees on days with special activities. Overnight camping is prohibited, but a guest house is available for rent.
Big Bend National Park, Texas
Some of the nation’s best stargazing can be found at Big Bend, located deep in the heart of western Texas, splendidly isolated and remote from light-emitting towns and cities. In fact, according to the National Park Service, Big Bend has the least light pollution of any national park in the lower 48 states. Together with neighboring Big Bend Ranch State Park, the protected dark skies here span an immense 1.1 million acres. Rangers and volunteers offer night sky interpretive programs throughout the year. There are several campgrounds throughout the park, and comfortable rooms are available at the Chisos Mountain Lodge.
Cherry Springs State Park, Pennsylvania
Population density makes avoiding light pollution more difficult on the East Coast, but dark skies can still be found. One such site is at Cherry Springs State Park, located 180 miles northeast of Pittsburgh, in Coudersport, and surrounded by the 262,000-acre Susquehannock State Forest. Admission is free, and for a nominal fee astronomers can pitch a tent on the Overnight Astronomy Observation Field, which has concrete telescope pads. “Astro cabins” with private stargazing fields are also available for rent near the park. When skies are clear, visitors can see the Milky Way, Venus, the Omega Nebula, and up to 30,000 stars — and occasionally even the northern lights.
Dinosaur National Monument, Colorado and Utah
Straddling the border of Utah and Colorado, Dinosaur National Monument would be a marvel even without one single star. Around 150,000 million years ago, thousands of prehistoric creatures met their ends in these mountains, and more than 1,500 of their fossilized remains are on display along just one wall of an excavated quarry. But there are indeed stars, and the Milky Way emerges with amazing clarity here. Night sky programs are held near the Split Mountain Campground (one of six in the park), but the entirety of the park’s 200,000-plus acres offers inky black skies punctuated by stars, planets and great views of the International Space Station when it’s overhead.
Chaco Culture National Historical Park, New Mexico
The Ancestral Puebloans, who lived a thousand years ago in this remote region of northern New Mexico, were keen students of the night skies. Spring and fall are the best times to visit this national historical park in Chaco Canyon, where ceremonial kivas were built to align with the heavens during sunrise on key astronomical dates: the summer and winter solstices and the vernal and autumnal equinoxes. Don’t miss the presentations at Casa Rinconada on archeoastronomy, the science of how ancient peoples studied the patterns of the sun, moon, and stars. Reservations for sites at Gallo Campground (the park’s only lodging) are also available.