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When living in a densely populated city, you forget about the wonders of stargazing. The distracting sound of the L train starts to veil the impulse to look up, or smog clouds the skies rendering Orion’s Belt fairly missable and pushing the Little Dipper out of sight entirely. That’s when an escape to one of the best stargazing destinations in the U.S. starts to sound incredibly appealing. Traveling to a dark sky reserve or fantastical campground, even in driving distance of your home, can expand your world and satiate your desire for exploration. Here, the best places for stargazing in the U.S.:
Joshua Tree National Park, California
In the high desert, approximately 5,000 feet above sea level, Joshua Tree National Park brings aspiring astronomers that much closer to the awe-inspiring night sky. Well removed from major cities, Joshua Tree has clear skies devoid of the light pollution that impacts San Diego and Los Angeles. Designated as a Dark Sky Park, Joshua Tree is one of the best places to see the translucent white Milky Way stretched across the sky. Astronomically inclined travelers recommend heading to Joshua Tree as close to the new moon as possible for the best stargazing experience.
Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah
Bryce Canyon National Park exposes stargazers to thousands of stars, including possible glimpses of Venus and Jupiter. Only adding to the celestial experience, seeing the starlit sky frame hundreds of Bryce Canyon hoodoos is almost hauntingly beautiful. Also a great place to see the Milky Way, Bryce Canyon was designated a Dark Sky Park as of August 2019. The best Bryce stargazing happens on a moonless night, when only the Milky Way illuminates the vast array of stars. There are a myriad of stargazing programs put on by volunteer Astronomy Rangers each year at Bryce, including an Annual Astronomy Festival.
Central Idaho Dark Sky Reserve
America’s prized dark sky reserve, the first U.S. destination to be recognized as a “gold-tier International Dark Sky Reserve,” is sprawled over 906,000 acres. The Central Idaho Dark Sky Reserve encompasses most of the Sawtooth National Forest and extends to parts of Sun Valley, Ketchum, and even Boise, among other cities and towns. Not only can you see the Milky Way and multiple planets here, but it’s a perfect destination to venture to when trying to catch a meteor shower or spot a specific celestial event. The central Idaho community fiercely protects and preserves the dark sky experience, which is how the area was designated the 12th International Dark Sky Reserve in the world.
Cherry Springs State Park, Pennsylvania
A point of pride for Pennsylvania tourism, Cherry Springs State Park is 82 acres surrounded by the much larger (262,000-acre) Susquehannock State Forest. Cherry Springs was actually declared the first Dark Sky Park in 2000 by the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. Because of its reputation as a perfect dark sky for seeing stars, planets, nebulae, the Milky Way, and other galaxies, Cherry Springs has designated stargazing areas; the Night Sky Public Viewing Area and the Overnight Astronomy Observation Field. Seeking out either area can help the novice astronomer find some of the best views of the Pennsylvania night sky.
Cosmic Campground, New Mexico
Just three-and-a-half acres within Gila National Forest, New Mexico’s Cosmic Campground is designated an International Dark Sky Sanctuary, of which there are only 12 in the world. And a sanctuary it is—the nearest source of artificial light is 40 miles away and across the state border in Arizona. Nestled between the Gila Wilderness and the Blue Range Primitive Area, the coveted campground is managed by the U.S. Forest Service. The New Mexican plain offers an entirely unobstructed 360-degree view of the night sky.
Glacier National Park, Montana
Montana offers an arguably unfair amount of natural beauty between Glacier National Park, the Rockies, and Big Sky. And yet, the dark skies here are—unsurprisingly—just one more draw. Not only is Glacier an International Dark Sky Park, but its sister park in Canada, Waterton Lakes National Park, is also, making it the “first IDA designation in the world to cross an international border.” The dark sky views over Logans Pass are particularly iconic here—from the Milky Way stretching overhead to the nearly unbelievable number of stars contrasted against the plant life and mountains of Glacier.
Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, Maine
Way up in northern Maine, near Mount Katahdin, the terminus of the Appalachian Trail, Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument offers 87,564 acres without electric or commercial sources of light. Some of the National Park Service’s recommended stargazing spots in the area are Sandbank Stream (campsites available), Katahdin Loop Road Overlook, Haskell Hut, and Big Spring Brook Hut. Protected by volunteer astronomers, this area is monitored intently for dark sky quality—and the same volunteers host events like Stars Over Katahdin to revel in the celestial wonder of the Katahdin region.
Big Bend National Park, Texas
Big Bend, an International Dark Sky Park, boasts the “least light pollution of any national park in the lower 48 states.” While Night Sky Rangers offer astronomy programs like moonlight walks and dark sky educational sessions, stargazing on your own here is just as rewarding. Come for a specific meteor shower or armed with your constellation-finding app to spend hours finding stars under the Milky Way’s blanket. The adjacent Big Bend Ranch State Park also has an International Dark Sky Park designation, and the two parks together amount to 1,112,000 acres of “protected dark skies.”
Cedar Key State Reserve, Florida
On the western edge of Florida sits Cedar Key, a coastal preserve jutting out into the Gulf of Mexico. It’s the dark sky hidden gem of the southeast, really—a remarkable opportunity for dark sky photographers looking to capture a largely under-discovered scene. With more than 5,000 acres making up this reserve, the climate is so different from other stargazing destinations in the U.S. Instead of desert plains, these dark skies hover over salty Gulf marshes. The contrast of the marshes and coastal plantlife against the backdrop of a star-filled sky is a sight to see.