The Best Dark Sky Parks for Stargazing
Looking forward to getting out into nature this summer? Check out these parks that not only have beautiful landscapes, but also incredible nighttime sky views!
Part of the beauty of the great outdoors and trips to the unknown is escaping the light pollution of the cities to look up into the darkness of the sky and awe at its natural beauty. The International Dark-Sky Association is a wonderful organization with the primary goal of protecting night skies for future generations. They note that although artificial light has revolutionized our lifestyles, it does come with a price—blocking our view of the universe. The IDA has done a wonderful job of creating reserves, parks, and sanctuaries that are protected under laws to keep light pollution away. They have programs in 50+ countries and are looking to expand even more.
If you are itching to go stargazing (like I am), here are my favorite places to go and some fun facts along the way. Keep your eye out on the moon calendar, reports of meteor showers, and bring along any gear you may have.
In the United States, Utah has by far the most governmentally protected dark skies (about 18). Here are three that are a must-see.
Capitol Reef National Park is by far the most interesting park I have ever been to in terms of its history and current use. It is located in South-Central Utah in the heart of red-rock country and has numerous canyons, domes, arches, trails, and a geologic monocline (aka a wrinkle on earth). It also has a fully operational fruit orchard that you can enjoy! It was designated an International Dark Sky in 2015, and the best place to stargaze within the grounds is the western hemisphere of the national park. Danish Hill on the scenic drive, Cedar Mesa Primitive Campground, and Panorama Point are some fan-favorites for stargazing.
This national monument also extends into Colorado, but the majority of it lies in Northwest Utah. Petroglyphs, known dinosaur lands, river rafting, and six beautiful campgrounds are by themselves great reasons to visit this monument. In 2019, it was also released as a certified International Dark-Sky Park. Split Mountain Campground and Echo Park Campground offer views of the river, the mountains, and of course, the epic dark sky.
Goblin Valley State Park was certified as an International Dark Sky in 2015, and it’s been stated that this state park has one of the darkest skies on Earth—this is a must-see for stargazers. It is completely free from any light pollution and populated areas and offers many ranger-led programs, including night hikes and talks of the Milky Way. Make sure to reserve a campground as there are only 25 sites and two yurts available for those looking to glamp this season.
Located in Western Colorado, this national park surrounds a deep gorge through Precambrian rock by the Gunnison River. The hike in and out of the gorge is steep, long, and intense, but for those up to the task, the inner canyon offers unbelievable sights. Like many other parks in Colorado and Utah, Black Canyon of the Gunnison was certified as an International Dark Sky in 2015 and has since worked hard with neighboring areas to stop light pollution from destroying the night sky. There are multiple astronomy programs that happen at the park and an annual astronomy festival.
Not only is Great Sand Dunes National Park the most dog-friendly national park in the country, but it is also a 2019 certified International Dark Sky. Run amongst the towering sand dunes, slide down them, play in the Medano Creek and climb to alpine lakes while you are at it. After you make it back to camp, look up! During late summer and fall, the Milky Way is at its highest and clearest in the sky, but avoid going during a full moon.
Bring a headlamp or flashlight because there is no illumination in this park. The Junior Ranger Night Program is a great educational tool for children wanting to explore the night sky in this beautiful place. There are many campgrounds, primitive campgrounds, backpacking trails, and campgrounds only accessible by 4WD, so plan your trip accordingly.
Joshua Tree National Park is a popular park for climbers, backpackers, and hikers living in Southern California. Epic sunrises and sunsets, hundreds of boulder problems and trad climbs, and thousands of acres to explore make this park a must-see. The park is located 5,000 feet above sea level which makes the sky darker than most parts of California. The east side of the park is the best part to stargaze, but you will not be disappointed wherever you choose to look up from!
Another beautiful desert in California is Death Valley National Park on the border of Nevada. It’s a harsh and beautiful environment with a range of activities, from hiking on salt flats to exploring crevices and canyons to (of course) stargazing. Close to Furnace Creek Visitor Center is Harmony Borax Works which has little obstruction from mountains, so more of the sky will be open to you. Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes is my top pick for stargazing at night. Hike up to the top of a dune, lay down, and look up! The views will be entirely unobstructed.
Big Bend Ranch State Park—not to be confused with Big Bend National Park—was certified as an International Dark Sky in 2018. Within the park, the most accessible and best places for stargazing include Big Hill, the Hoodoo, along River Road, and the West Contrabando Trailhead. If you are from out of town, you can even fly and land in the park which has a 5,500-foot paved landing strip!
Craters of the Moon National Monument was certified as an International Dark-Sky Park in 2017. Lava Flow Campground is a unique spot to set up your base camp while exploring the park. Campsites are actually surrounded by a young lava flow, but be mindful of any lanterns or headlamp usage at the camp that will create light pollution for other campers.
Big Cypress National Preserve has been marked as one of the darkest skies on the East Coast and has ranger-led programs every winter to make it accessible to the public. Constellation tours and telescope viewings are free to all visitors. Backcountry camping is the best way to stargaze at this park with a hefty 729,000 acres to choose from—permit needed. Enjoy hiking, biking, bird-watching, canoeing, and more when you visit.
This humble 82-acre state park in Potter County, Pennsylvania is highly prized on the East Coast for its night sky. There is a strict no light, no fire rule to avoid light pollution with an astronomy observation field in place for those able to bring their own equipment. This park is on top of a 2,300-foot mountain with undeveloped surrounding areas and nearby communities are down in the valley with the forest shielding those on top of the mountain from light pollution. Stay the night or head to the public viewing area instead.
The natural landscape of this universe is something many of us don’t get to see too often, if ever. Help protect these International Dark Skies to the best of your ability for future generations to come. Did your favorite place to stargaze make this list? Have any other can't - miss dark sky campgrounds that you want to chat about? Or just need some advice on what gear to bring along on your next camping trip? Hit up a Hiking and Camping Expert on Curated with all your questions and adventures—let’s chat!