The pollution and smoke from a city often obscure the darkness of the night sky and hide the heavens above. However, across the country, you can still find destinations where the stars look truly majestic. In honor of National Parks Week, we’ve compiled ten of the best places across the country for enjoying the night skies.
At Joshua Tree National Park, the Mojave and Colorado Desert ecosystems come together in a land that has been sculpted and formed by winds and the occasional rain. Surreal geological formations and clear, evening skies make this park a wonder in the barren wilderness of southern California.
Visitor tip: During the quieter summer months, nearly all of the campsites are open and available on a first-come, first-serve basis. Come during the off-season (June –September) to improve your chances of getting a prime spot.
Death Valley National Park
Few places offer a better vantage point of meteor showers and the night sky than Death Valley National Park. Continual drought and record temperatures make it a below-sea-level land of extremes. This location offers a combination of dry climate, clean air, and a wide horizon which is great for viewing from any angle.
Visitor tip: Plan your trip between November and April when temperatures are in the 70s and there are night sky programs led by Park Rangers.
Chaco Culture National Historical Park
Location: New Mexico
Sitting in the San Juan Basin northwestern New Mexico, Chaco Culture National Historical Park has been used for centuries for gazing at the night sky. The buildings created by early Pueblo peoples testify of the engineering abilities not seen anywhere else in the American Southwest. Chaco can be explored through guided tours, hiking trails, evening campfire talks and night sky programs. In August of 2013, Chaco Culture became an International Dark Sky Park and is one of only a few parks to receive this distinction.
Visitor tip: The only access to this remote park is through dirt roads so some passenger cars may struggle through the local roads. It’s best to use the directions on the park’s website.
Valued as one of the world’s most inspiring scenic landscapes, the Grand Canyon offers a truly unique experience to visitors. The Colorado River and other weathering factors have shaped this area and over time transformed it into a beautiful sequence of rock layers. The vastness of this canyon and clear evening skies overhead make it a magnificent place for viewing constellations above.
Visitor Tip: The South Rim is open all year while the North Rim closes for the winter. There are occasional construction projects going on so plan for detours and delays, especially within the Grand Canyon Village.
Denali National Park and Reserve
No discussion about stargazing would be complete with mentioning the northern lights. Imagine six million acres of raw, untamed, landscape with just one road under the evening sky and you’re picturing Denali National Park. One unique way this park hosts visitors is with a single road going in and out of the most scenic areas of the park.
Visitor tip: There tends to be a lot of natural sunlight in Alaska, so plan on going in the fall or winter when long hours of darkness make for great evening sky viewing. It’s also recommended that you take two days to get a taste of what Denali has to offer.
Bryce Canyon National Park
The skies at Bryce Canyon are easily some of the very best for stargazing and picking out constellations due to their clean air, high elevation, and lack of city light pollution. It is one of the very few places where natural darkness still has a sanctuary. Along with the Milky Way, Venus and Jupiter are able to be seen throughout the year.
Visitor tip: The skies at Bryce are best during the week of a new moon or the week before a new moon. These times are when the Milky Way appears like a giant silver rainbow across the sky and over 7,500 stars are visible to the naked eye! Come take in one of over a hundred astronomy programs offered each year.
Big Bend National Park
Big Bend National Park boasts skies “black as coal.” A remote location, with rare cloud cover, it’s worth the trip for those wanting a clear view of the night sky. It has the least amount of pollution for any National Park in the lower 48 states.
Visitor tip: Winter will be the best time for stargazing due to the longer nights and cleaner skies due to less debris from the summer winds.
Glacier National Park
A true backpacker’s dream, Glacier National Park stretches across more than one million acres of pristine wilderness. Established in 1910, this park contains 25 “active” glaciers that move due to thawing. Northern Montana has very little light pollution and being next to the Canadian National Park of Waterton there’s virtually no development nearby.
Visitor tip: The best way to experience Montana’s Big Sky, take a multi-day backpacking excursion and sleep under the stars. Glacier sits along the Continental Divide is subject to unpredictable weather. Take extra clothing and rain gear for the highly variable temperatures.
Explore a wilderness of endless canyons and uncommonly formed buttes carved by the Colorado River at Canyonlands National Park. Rivers have divided this area into four distinct sections: Island in the Sky, The Needles, The Maze and the rivers themselves. Night Skies at Canyonlands are so pristine that is it joins three other national parks in southern Utah as an International Dark Sky Park.
Visitor Tip: Because of the remote location of Canyonlands, many opt to stay in nearby Moab which provides visitor information, accommodations, and dining options. Check the park’s website for scheduled nighttime programs, or just throw down a blanket and get lost in the stars overhead.
Yet another National Park located in Utah, Capitol Reef is a hidden treasure of landscapes filled with cliffs, canyons, and bridges. Its rich cultural history dates back to early archaic hunter-gatherers of the Fremont Culture and early homesteaders. Capitol Reef National Park was recently designated a Gold Tier “International Dark Sky Park” joining a select group of places across the world ideal for stargazing.
Visitor Tip: With nearly 200 miles of trails, Capitol Reef is best explored on foot. There are opportunities for rock climbing, horseback riding, and biking. Wear appropriate footwear and include water, sunscreen, extra food, multi-purpose tool, and first aid kit in your backpack.
Many of the above-mentioned parks have astronomy programs where people can learn more about the constellations and the night sky. Step outside this week and visit your nearest National Park where you can enjoy the night skies overhead.
And don’t forget to document your adventures at the National Parks in a journal from our special Zodiac Collection!