The majority of Americans (and much of the rest of the world’s population) now live under impoverished night skies. Artificial light pollution has degraded the after-hours celestial show, such that more than two-thirds of U.S. residents can’t see the Milky Way from where they live.
Enjoying the ancient celestial spectacle—thousands of winking stars, blazing planets, the mysterious glow of zodiacal light, the fiery streaks of meteor showers, and other heavenly phenomena—at its pristine (or nearly so) finest is one of the many appeals of getting out into rural countryside or all-out wilderness.
And there’s increasing attention paid to the preciousness of such deeply dark night skies. The Arizona-based International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) has designated nearly 200 Dark Sky Places around the world, including numerous International Dark Sky Parks, Reserves, and Sanctuaries in the U.S. Featuring not only naturally brilliant night skies but also opportunities for astronomical interpretation and concerted efforts to keep light pollution at bay, these sites definitely rank among the best places for stargazing anywhere.
The following examples—most of which have some kind of formal IDA designation—all feature superb clear night skies, glorious enough that you can appreciate them with nothing more than naked eyes. (Not to say a set of binoculars or a telescope wouldn’t be a valuable accessory to have along.)
And not only that, but the earthbound scenery below those star-filled heavens happens to be pretty darn amazing as well. Studying constellations, eyeballing shooting stars, and drinking in the pearly glories of the Milky Way are that much more awesome when you’re situated amid wild mountains, contorted canyonlands, or vast, silent forests.
We’ll run through these astronomically awesome destinations in no particular order aside from a rough geographic tour starting in the American Southwest and proceeding northwest, east, and then south.
Chihuahuan Desert wilderness stretching from arid grasslands and huge Rio Grande canyons up to the craggy tops of the Chisos Mountains makes Big Bend and its surroundings one of the most extraordinary (if lightly visited) national parks in the U.S. This is also one of the best stargazing spots in the country, given the distance from major cities and the dry, clear air. Studies suggest Big Bend National Park has the darkest night skies of any national park in the Lower 48. The area includes not only the roughly 800,000-acre national park itself and the adjoining Big Bend Ranch State Park (311,000 acres)—both International Dark Sky Parks—but also the large Black Gap Wildlife Management Area (an International Dark Sky Sanctuary) and extensive acreage of primitive rangeland.
Known for being one of Earth’s hottest and driest realms, Death Valley in the Mojave Desert offers deep, dark, and star-strung skies not all that far away from the big metropolises of Southern California. The big empty of much of the park and its sparsely settled surrounds—and the only minimal effect of Las Vegas’s distant, 24-hour glow—gives Death Valley International Dark Sky Park classification and the IDA’s highest, “Gold Tier” night-sky designation. Good stargazing vantages in Death Valley National Park—at 3.4 million acres, the biggest national park in the conterminous U.S.—include Ubehebe Crater, the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, and Badwater Basin, which also happens to be the lowest spot in North America.
Set on the Colorado Plateau amid the wild, glorious rock-scapes of southeastern Utah, Natural Bridges National Monument has the distinction of being the first International Dark-Sky Park designated by the IDA (in 2007). Home to some of the darkest skies of any Lower 48 National Park Service unit, Natural Bridges combines the dazzlement of star multitudes and the gleaming Milky Way with some pretty awesome terra firme foreground in the form of three huge natural bridges: Sipapu, Owachomo, and Kachina.
Among the least-visited national parks in the country, Great Basin National Park protects a signature showcase of basin-and-range terrain, Nevada’s loftiest mountain (13,063-foot Wheeler Peak) and only glacier, and fine groves of the world’s longest-lived tree, the Great Basin bristlecone pine. It also offers first-class stargazing, given it lies within some of the most sparsely populated countryside in America and boasts dry air, minimal skyglow, and high elevation. An International Dark Sky Park with Gold Tier cred and an annual Astronomy Festival, Great Basin gives you the opportunity to see ancient, wizened bristlecones against blazing night-skyscapes.
The first International Dark Sky Reserve established in the U.S. occupies nearly 1,500 square miles of Central Idaho: a Rocky Mountain wildland with some of the biggest and most rugged backcountry in the nation—and definitely another of the best places to stargaze in the U.S. The gnarled horns, rock walls, and alpine lakes of the Sawtooth, Boulder, White Cloud, Smoky, and Pioneer ranges form a gloriously scenic horizon line below magnificently dark, Gold Tier-level starscapes in the Central Idaho Dark Sky Reserve, much of it within the famous Sawtooth National Recreation Area and encompassing three federal wilderness areas.
The enormous chasm of the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River isn’t only one of the planet’s most impressive landforms: It’s also a reservoir of deep wilderness and superb night skies. This titanic cleft and its tributary gulches don’t exactly encourage development and are stubbornly remote, and the high, arid setting on the edge of the Colorado Plateau makes for dry, clear conditions ideal for (unbelievably scenic) skywatching.
A project undertaken by the National Park Service and the Grand Canyon Association to modify artificial lighting within Grand Canyon National Park—one of the country’s most-visited—to IDA standards led to full International Dark Sky Park status in 2019. And the adjoining expanse of the Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument, completely devoid of paved roads, forms another International Dark Sky Park jointly managed by the Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management.
The huge and lightly settled spaces of Alaska have some of the lowest levels of human light pollution anywhere. One of the best places to go stargazing in the Last Frontier is Denali National Park & Preserve, though you’ll want to avoid the “midnight Sun” of summer. From fall through early spring, Denali offers exceptional looks at stars, planets, and other celestial features—and also excellent chances to see the dancing, pulsating, multicolored glow of the Northern Lights (aka aurora borealis) when the requisite solar activity is cranking away.
Tallest of the overlapping shield volcanoes composing the island of Hawaii—and, measured from its below-sea-level base to the summit, the world’s loftiest mountain—13,803-foot Mauna Kea is auspiciously set up for exceptional astronomical viewing: a huge mountain rising high out of the middle of the Pacific, far from major cities, subject to very low turbulence and humidity. The Big Island’s strict light ordinances cut down all the more on interfering skyglow. The Mauna Kea Observatories at the summit include more than a dozen of some of the biggest and most powerful telescopes in the world. But these are controversial features, given the sacred significance of the mountaintop to Native Hawaiians. Visitors demonstrating respect for the cultural importance of the area might consider stargazing tours on the flanks of Mauna Kea offered by reputable local companies.
In 2020, the IDA recognized the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness of far northeastern Minnesota as the newest—and, at more than a million acres largest—of the world’s International Dark Sky Sanctuaries. This spectacular and much-loved embodiment of the great “North Woods” includes a Canadian Shield mosaic of rugged rocky forests and innumerable lakes and waterways. Combining a week or two’s worth of paddling in the loon- and wolf-soundtracked Boundary Waters backcountry with superlative stargazing sounds pretty “heavenly,” if you’ll pardon the pun.
Situated east of Baxter State Park—home to the mighty Katahdin, one of the grandest peaks in the Northeast and the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail—Katahdin Woods & Waters National Monument covers nearly 90,000 acres free of electric lights. Like the Boundary Waters, this lake-strung landscape, drained by the East Branch of the Penobscot River, was classified as an International Dark Sky Sanctuary in 2020. Watching the wheel of stars and planets over the majestic hump of Katahdin to the west makes for some magical skywatching, to say the least.
Few places in the eastern U.S. offer the kind of prime stargazing conditions and well-established public-astronomy tradition as Cherry Springs State Park, a farflung parcel on the Allegheny Plateau. Situated above 2,000 feet in elevation and ensconced in the mostly unimproved Susquehannock State Forest, this was the first International Dark Sky Park to be declared in the northeastern U.S. Cherry Springs State Park’s Overnight Astronomy Observation Field and Night Sky Public Viewing Area offer outstanding vantages little affected by light pollution, and draw hundreds for public star parties.
At 402,000 acres, the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge protects the majority of one of North America’s biggest blackwater ecosystems: the legendary Okefenokee Swamp, a complex of bald-cypress, tupelo, and other forested swampland as well as wet prairies, marshes, lakes, and other freshwater zones in the Georgia-Florida borderlands. The wild backwaters of the Okefenokee shimmer under some very dark skies indeed. Set within the national wildlife refuge, Georgia’s Stephen C. Foster State Park is an International Dark Sky Park boasting IDA Gold Tier night skies—some of the darkest in the Southeast—with opportunities for both independent and guided stargazing.
A remote holding in the historical headwaters country of the Everglades, 54,000-acre Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park not only showcases the largest remaining expanses of dry prairie in the Sunshine State, but also some of its darkest skies. This International Dark Sky Park maintains a dedicated astronomy camping area (cheekily called the “red-light district”), and its wide-open spaces and flat terrain provide an ideal stargazing stage. In winter, you’ve got the opportunity—absent in much of the U.S.—of getting a good view of Canopus, the second-brightest star in the sky, which forms a spectacular straight-line twosome with the very brightest, Sirius, well above.
You’ll get the most out of the above stargazing hotspots by camping there. And you’ll get the most out of your skyward-focused camping trip by bringing along mouthwatering Mountain House packages for mealtimes! Explore our full selection.