The best places for stargazing in the US

It can be easy to ignore the nightly phenomenon of starry skies, especially if you live in a city that never sleeps where neon lights and air pollution steal the thunder of the Milky Way. But for this next one we’re lifting our eyes to the skies to discover the best places for stargazing across the US, where there’s nothing manmade to ruin our view of Mercury in retrograde. From Nevada to Alaska, here’s our rundown of the top 10.

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Currently, there are 170 of these certified ‘dark places’ across 21 countries around the world, with the US leading the lightless way

Darkest places in the U.S. for incredible Stargazing

Seeing the full glory of the solar system depends on a lot of factors, not least the daily cloud cover in your area. But there is a lot you can do to boost your chances of seeing full starscapes, first being to head towards more rural parts and await the dead of night.

The International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) based in Arizona goes one leap further by making it their mission to protect the world’s night skies for present and future generations, naming International Dark Sky Parks, Communities, Reserves, Sanctuaries and Urban Night Sky Places where light and air pollution are reduced through policy and retrofits. This can also help local wildlife maintain their migration patterns, as well as nocturnal animals and night pollinators to do their thing in peace and darkness. Currently, there are 170 of these certified ‘dark places’ across 21 countries around the world, with the US leading the lightless way. As a result of these spaces, not only are stargazers able to see vast constellations by the naked eye but they also get a chance to better regulate their circadian rhythms, marvelling at views no longer seen from our beloved towns and cities.

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1. Death Valley National Park, California & Nevada

A big player in the stargazing world is Death Valley National Park which by day comes brutally hot and barren and, by night, lights up with phenomenal star vistas. The largest Dark Sky National Park in the US, Death Valley almost guarantees nightly wonders across its designated campgrounds and the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. Be aware that the heat barely goes away at night, with temperatures hovering around 30°C in summer. Spring and winter are therefore more popular times for camping trips, with a full schedule of ranger-led astronomy programs starting in March with the Death Valley Dark Sky Festival, in association with NASA. The best place to see stars in Death Valley is considered to be Ubehebe Crater with its overwhelmingly dark skies, though the skies at Harmony Borax Works (close to Furnace Creek Visitor Centre) are equally stunning in our humble opinion. Though the sand dunes offer vast sky views and salt flat foregrounds, to avoid the lights from the highway, head some 20 kilometres south on Badwater Road to Badwater Basin.

When visiting Death Valley for its stars, plan your trip around the new moon when the sky is at its darkest and avoid developed areas with light pollution. Read up on your astronomy before visiting, having a night sky almanac handy to check what you should be seeing if in doubt! It will take a while for your eyes to adjust to the distance and darkness, so take a good thirty minutes away from any artificial light (putting a red light over your flashlight if needed) before giving up on the pursuit entirely.

Photo: Farhan Nsrdn

Death Valley National Park | Photo: Jeremy Bishop

2. Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

Arguably the most iconic attraction in the US, Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona has plenty to offer after dark when most visitors head home. Awarded with Provisional Dark Sky status back in 2016 after making its lighting more dark-sky-friendly, the Grand Canyon is a veritable stargazing destination. Come in June for the annual Grand Canyon Star Party, getting the best astrophotography opportunities over at Desert View Watchtower. Prior to the pandemic – and hopefully, afterwards – visitors could join ranger-led night hikes along the canyon’s rim as well as constellation tours for astronomy newbies. To go it alone, head along the South Rim, turning off Desert View Drive to stop at Moran Point and Lipan Point.

Though lesser-visited (seeing only 10% of all Grand Canyon tourists) and more effort to reach, the canyon’s north rim is also an exceptional choice for solitude and zero light pollution along the trail to Bright Angel Point.

Grand Canyon National Park | Photo: Parsa Mahmoudi

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Cherry Springs State Park in Pennsylvania earns International Dark Sky status, coming with its own astronomy field and running private tours year-round

3. Cherry Springs State Park, Pennsylvania

The East Coast may not be known for its Dark Sky options, there are a few notable exceptions to the rule. In particular, Cherry Springs State Park in Pennsylvania earns International Dark Sky status, coming with its own astronomy field and running private tours year-round. Register for one of the park’s regular star parties to mingle with fellow meteor lovers, sometimes even getting lucky with a sighting of the Northern Lights. Not the largest state park by any stretch, Cherry Springs’ astronomy field remains a fine choice for nightly visitations, thanks to its 2,300-foot elevation, 360-degree views and undeveloped valley communities keeping light pollution to a minimum.

Come to the Night Sky Public Viewing Area for fleeting visits or stay at the Rustic Campground for an immersive experience with campfires and socialising, though the lack of lighting restrictions might keep more serious stargazers away. Lastly then is the Overnight Astronomy Observation Field, one for the most serious gazers who have their own equipment and where white light is prohibited.

Cherry Springs State Park | Photo: Cameron Venti

Photo: Rick Hatch

4. Joshua Tree National Park, California

Stretching across 3,100 square kilometres of desert, the Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California is an area defined by stark, inhospitable landscapes. Come nightfall, however, look up into the sky to see a wholly different world, pitch-black yet glittering with more stars, planets and meteors than you ever thought possible. Joshua Tree stargazing is known among the best in the world thanks to the park’s location in the high desert some 5000 feet above sea level, far from any major cities (the closest, Phoenix, just under 500 kilometres away).

While stargazing Joshua Tree – and as a general rule – you’ll want to visit when the moon is at its smallest (during the new moon) and lighting minimal. As well as following red light rules, you’ll also want to watch your step while hanging in Joshua, as cacti, nocturnal critters and uneven ground could surprise you. Bringing a lightweight chair and packing warm layers is also advisable to make the desert as comfortable as possible on chilly nights outside.

Joshua Tree National Park | Photo: Ken Cheung

5. Sedona, Arizona

Not a million miles away lies Sedona, Arizona, another of Earth’s most extraordinary landscapes made even more special at night. Unlike the other mentions, Sedona is a desert town, built up with boutiques, art galleries and spas, seemingly like any other modern development. The difference however is that Sedona is an esteemed Dark Sky Community where big lights are a no-no. Outside of monsoon season (between July and August), stargazing in Sedona is one of the most popular activities for residents and travellers alike, particularly in the undeveloped desert surrounding. Among the best Sedona stargazing hotspots are the far-off Dry Creek Road with its many trailheads and parking lot viewpoints, the looping Aerie Trailhead, the field at Jordan Trailhead Observation Area and the Two Trees Observation Area where serious gazers love to educate amateurs. Merry Go Round Rock is also a popular spot for romantic stargazing, though if you’re looking for solitude, try the Beaverhead Flat Scenic Overlook or the Baldwin Trail.

6. Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

Often overlooked by day tourists in favour of the neighbouring Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon comes into its own after dark, thanks to pristine air and high elevation making it one of the best stargazing spots in the US. Year-round astronomy programs led by ‘dark rangers’ make Bryce Canyon a great place to swot up on Milky Way trivia, also getting the chance to peer through the park’s high-powered telescope. As well as revelling in the rangers’ knowledge (or sometimes even guest astronomers from the Salt Lake Astronomical Society), visitors to the park can go hiking through the hoodoo rock formations, stargazing alone at any of the pull-offs or overlooks dotting the land.

Notable spots include the Natural Bridge Overlook, Inspiration Point with iconic views over the Bryce Amphitheatre, Farview Point with its equally awesome daytime views over Arizona and Mossy Cave Trail, perfect for those seeking unique scenery and fewer people.

Bryce Canyon National Park | Photo: Ken Cheung

7. Big Bend National Park, Texas

Everything’s bigger in Texas, so they say, and at Big Bend National Park that’s certainly true. Far from major urban areas in southwest Texas, Big Bend National Park is well placed for night views as well as desert canyons flanked by the Chisos Mountains and cut through by the Rio Grande. As well as 1.1 million acres of land to explore by day, Big Bend has much more in store after dark with low humidity and air pollution to create the ultimate stargazing environment. Gold-certified among International Dark Sky Parks, having retrofitted its lighting in recent years, Big Bend is popular among both serious and amateur gazers, offering interpretive programs, star parties and moonlight walks throughout the year.

8. Glacier National Park, Montana

Named after its glacial lakes and surrounded by the Rocky Mountains, Glacier National Park is considered one of the nation’s most beautiful across one million acres of land. The park in daylight is certainly a sight to behold, yet nightfall brings with it a darker beauty, with glorious night skies enhanced thanks to high elevation and crisp air. Though in winter the park is a bit of a struggle to reach, summer is almost as good, with the added bonus of more bearable night-time temperatures.

The best place to see stars in the park is St. Mary and the St. Mary Observatory, which boasts a 20-inch telescope, the largest in Montana, through which you can view high-res planets, distant galaxies and nebulas, also shown on the observatory monitors. Attend an event with the ‘Half the Park Happens After Dark’ program for guided viewing and star parties through June to September, with prime time beginning from 11th July.

Glacier National Park, Montana | Photo: Andrew S

Photo: Stefan Stefancik

9. Mauna Kea, Hawaii

Those of you that know your geography will know that Mauna Kea is a dormant volcano on Hawaii’s Big Island, famed for both hiking and postcard sales. At nearly 14,000 feet tall, Mauna Kea has some of the best views over all of Hawaii and nighttime is no different. If fact, stargazing on Mauna Kea is so good that 11 separate nations have built observatories here, benefitting from the island’s lack of air pollutants and ever-clear skies. Day trips allow for hiking through volcanic craters around lava rocks and steam cracks, while after dark the molten lava attraction at Kīlauea draws many. From there, it’s Mauna Kea where you’ll find the best stargazing, though the main observatory (the largest in the world) will close around 7 pm. Instead of queueing for the few telescopes around the visitor centre, simply adjust your eyes to the darkness and look up to picture the Milky Way and hundreds of constellations without aid.

Mauna Kea, Hawaii | Photo: Paxton Tomko

10. Denali National Park and Preserve, Alaska

Though not officially acknowledged by the IDA (Alaska doesn’t count apparently!) those in the know can attest that Denali National Park and Preserve is one of five best stargazing sites in America. Indeed, Denali is one of the few places you can glimpse the aurora borealis (aka the Northern Lights) from the canopy of forest deep within the Alaskan wilderness, most likely in mid-August. With long hours of polar darkness in spring, fall and winter, Alaska is a prime location to view the stars, as the state moves further and further from the sun until January: peak darkness. While darkness will take up a majority of your time, Denali is also home to grand granite spires and snow-encrusted peaks across 250 kilometres of Alaska Range.

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