Look Up in Wonder: These Are the Most Beautiful Places to Go Stargazing in the Country
Sometimes, we forget that we are part of a much larger universe. We get so busy with our lives that we may rarely, if ever, stop to look up and see a glimpse of the cosmos. The lights from our artificial sources—street lamps, cars, buildings—scatter light waves into the sky and mask the natural light from the stars. But light pollution does more than blur our view of the cosmos—a full day of screen time and artificial lights can also mess with our own circadian rhythms. So, when it never gets dark, we're compelled to stay up for hours and hours, missing out on much-needed sleep.
Light pollution has become such a problem that an organization called the International Dark Sky Association (IDA) formed in 1988 to combat light pollution and preserve the night sky. Today, places that meet their high standards can become certified "dark sky places," which make them perfect for stargazing. These destinations are designated by their lack of artificial light or by having a lighting management plan that lessens the amount of light pollution in the area. A dark sky is ideal if you want to see the stars and planets without a telescope.
Depending on where you go, you can see different parts of the galaxy. Some places, like Alaska, are great for viewing the Northern Lights. You can get good views of constellations like Orion or Ursa Minor. The most beautiful places to stargaze in the country also offer a stunning view of nature. Embark out into the darkness, and you will feel as if you have been transported to another world as you embrace dark skies and clear nights.
Leading by example, Flagstaff was the world's first International Dark Sky Place, receiving its designation in 2001. You can stay within the city limits and still get a glorious view of the stars as long as you get far enough away from the areas with streetlights. The annual Flagstaff Star Party, which takes place in September, is one of the biggest stargazing parties in the United States—if you own a portable telescope, you can volunteer it as part of the viewings for the evening.
Death Valley National Park, California
The light from our universe's stars can take millions of years to reach Earth, but you can gaze up at the glittering past from the deserts of Death Valley in eastern California. One of the best nights to go stargazing in this arid expanse is during a new moon when the sky is at its darkest. Set up your perch at Harmony Borax Works or Ubehebe Crater for a view that is unobstructed from the towering mountains.
Denali National Park and Preserve, Alaska
Immerse yourself in an otherworldly experience on this six million acres of wild land. In the Denali National Park and Preserve, you'll see a low-elevation taiga forest, the alpine tundra, and snowy mountains. And on a cold winter's night, embrace the darkest of skies to watch the stars from a snowy peak. (Be sure to dress for warmth.)
Headlands International Dark Sky Park, Michigan
Catch a different group of stars on display every season thanks to the Earth's rotation on its axis. The Headlands International Dark Sky Park on the Straits of Mackinac in Michigan provides a new view of the night sky for every change of the season. Take in a view of the Northern Lights near one of the designated dark sky viewing areas along the shore, or at the Waterfront Event Center and Observatory. And, if you're so inclined, pay a visit to the "Out of This World" gift shop for a keepsake of your excursion.
Frosty Drew Observatory & Sky Theatre, Rhode Island
You can view the stars from outside in the open air, but inside, the Frosty Drew Observatory and Sky Theatre allows you to see the night sky like never before. At this facility in Charlestown, Rhode Island, they house powerful telescopes—open every Friday night year round and summertime Wednesday night to the public free of charge—that will make you feel as if you could reach out and touch the constellations.
Cherry Springs State Park, Pennsylvania
Witness the spectacular view of over 30,000 stars from your vantage point in Cherry Springs State Park. Popular sights at this state park include Aurora Borealis (the Northern Lights) and the planet Venus. Zodiacal light—which contains 12 constellations—is also a beautiful phenomenon that you might be able to see from within this remote region of Penn's Woods.
Kissimmee Prairie State Park, Florida
About 100 miles south of light-polluted Orlando is Kissimmee Prairie State Park, which was recognized as the state of Florida's first Dark Sky Park. To be allowed entry after dark, you can reserve an astronomy viewing pad where the planets Jupiter and Saturn are both clearly visible in the night sky—you may even be able to witness the International Space Station as it makes its orbit around Earth.
Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico
You don't need to go into the deep woods or climb a mountain to get a great view of the stars. The Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico is a certified IDA Urban Night Sky Place where you can stargaze within seven miles of the city of Albuquerque. Join one of their star parties co-hosted by the Albuquerque Astronomical Society for free access to telescope equipment with constellation interpreters on site, and even hot cocoa.
Rainbow Bridge National Monument, Utah
Only the darkest, most remote places can become a designated IDA Dark Sky Sanctuary. You have to catch a two-hour boat ride to even reach Rainbow Bridge National Monument around Lake Powell, Utah. But once you're there, you can expect to have your breath taken away seeing up to 15,000 stars throughout the night.
Glacier National Park, Montana
Known as the Crown of the Continent, Glacier National Park is an expanse where you can explore 700 miles of hiking trails through pristine forests, rugged mountains, and alpine meadows. And at night, the park service organizes viewing events to provide visitors with an opportunity to see the night sky in all its glory using sophisticated telescopes.
Big Bend National Park, Texas
Ready to experience the most profound stargazing you have ever witnessed? What's known as Big Bend National Park in Texas is considered, in fact, to have the least light pollution of any other national park in the lower 48 states of the country. On a clear night, you can expect to see some 2,000 stars (compare that to the average few hundred seen in a medium-sized city) and the Milky Way galaxy in its full glory. And if you camp overnight, you can view the stars overhead before you fall asleep.
Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
People visit the Grand Canyon for its sweeping natural vistas, but stargazing offers a different—equally epic—point of view. Feel the embrace of the universe from your vantage point in this 277-mile-long geological marvel. Most stargazers will spend their evening above the canyon rim—with viewpoints near Desert View, Walhalla Plateau, Cape Royal, and Bright Angel Point. This makes getting a horizon-to-zenith view of the sky simple.