The beauty of natural spaces morphs as the sun rises and sets, illuminating the landscape in a different way each hour. And when the skies darken, magic ensues. While nights in many cities and suburbs are too riddled with light pollution to reveal stars and planets, the International Dark Sky Association has designated areas in the U.S. National Parks where stars can really shine. So this is your cue—grab a sleeping bag, a hot drink, and your constellation app, and head to one of these national parks to experience the most epic stargazing session of your life!
Want to enjoy an entire night under the stars? Check out our list of the 10 best places to sleep under the stars! Want to try astrophotography? Check out our piece on landscape and astrophotography in Utah’s national parks!
Big Bend National Park, Texas
Located in Southern Texas, Big Bend National Park’s dark skies have been legitimized by the International Dark Sky Association, claiming that the park’s skies are darker than any other national parks’ night skies in the continental U.S. Neighboring state park, Big Bend Ranch State Park, has also earned a similar designation. Together, these parks help preserve 1,112,000 acres of dark sky in the region. If you’re interested in an educational experience while at the park, rangers and volunteers offer programs like star parties and moonlight walks. Make sure you stop by one of the park’s visitor centers at the start of your trip to find out what events they will be hosting while you’re there.
Denali National Park, Alaska
An article on stargazing would not be complete without mentioning the aurora borealis. They may not be a part of outer space, but they are an incredible sight to see when the sun goes down. Though this phenomenon occurs year-round, it is not always visible. Plan a visit to Denali National Park in the winter to ensure a dark enough sky, as days from April to August are too long for aurora-borealis visibility. When sunlight is limited in the winter, the stargazing is a truly awe-inspiring experience. Before heading out for your Denali northern lights adventure, check an aurora forecast to determine when you’ll be able to see it.
Great Basin National Park, Nevada
Great Basin National Park in Nevada hosts some of the darkest skies in the western continental U.S. Low humidity levels, dark skies, and high elevation make optimal stargazing conditions. In addition to these pristine conditions, the park offers a selection of free programs including ranger-led telescope viewings. Tickets to ride the “star train” are also available from the Nevada Northern Railway. On the ride, rangers will host visitors in trivia, prizes, and Q&A’s. Mid-ride, visitors look through high-powered telescopes outside of town. And if you can’t make it to the park during the darker months, ranger-led full moon hikes are offered during the summer. Reserve your free tickets at the Lehman Caves Visitor Center. Interested in the sun? Great Basin also offers solar telescope viewings over the summer where you can see sunspots, prominences, filaments, and magnetic storms all behind a safe solar telescope lens! And if you’d rather go on a solo-stargazing adventure, checkout Great Basin’s stargazing page for the best stargazing locations and tips.
Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota
If seeing the northern lights is on your bucket list, but a trip to Alaska is not, then head to Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota where the aurora borealis is visible in certain conditions. To increase your chances of seeing the northern lights, plan your trip for winter and check both the aurora forecast and weather forecast to be sure you will have clear skies. Go to the park’s northern lights page for more information and a scientific explanation on nature’s colorful spectacle. Voyaguers is full of open areas that lend to wide visibility of the night sky. For more tips on stargazing in the park and on what to look for in the night sky, check out their stargazing page.
Lassen Volcanic National Park, California
Lassen Volcanic National Park is another excellent national park to visit at night. While many areas are forested, opt for a lakeshore, parking lot, or meadow for a more expansive view. In addition to ranger programs, Lassen hosts an annual Dark Sky Festival where people come together to learn about Lassen’s dark skies from day to night. This year, Lassen hosted a virtual festival due to COVID restrictions. Learn all about the Dark Sky Festival here, and check out all the cool programs offered online in 2020!
Don’t forget to visit the IDSA’s page to find more dark places near you and share your favorite stargazing spots with us in the comments below!