There's nothing quite like a summer night under the stars. And while you may be able to see a constellation or two from your front yard, nothing compares to the glittering blanket of twinkling lights visible from an International Dark Sky Park.
Officially designated by the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA), these parks offer starry skies of exceptional quality and a protected nocturnal environment. With more than 50 Dark Sky Parks in the United States, you don't have to travel around the world to spot the Little Dipper or wonder at the star-filled arc of the Milky Way. Read on for the 10 best places to go stargazing in America.
Joshua Tree National Park in California
If vast, expansive spaces are calling your name, there's no better place to explore (and stargaze) than Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California. This iconic high desert destination sprawls across more than 1,200 square miles and constitutes the last bit of remaining natural darkness in the region.
Because there are so many major residential areas surrounding Joshua Tree, experts at IDA suggest venturing out to the park's eastern wilderness for the best starry night views. Just be sure to pack plenty of water. Joshua Tree can be hot, particularly in the summer, and you may not find water readily available.
Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah
Nestled in the heart of the West, Bryce Canyon National Park is known for its hoodoos—distinctive, sunset-colored rock formations—and its ultra-dark night sky.
According to the Garfield County Office of Tourism, a moonless night in Bryce Canyon can reveal up to 7,500 stars. With the scenic drama this park provides, it's no wonder that there's even an annual four-day astronomy festival in late June or early July to celebrate the wonders of the night sky.
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Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska
While this park is not on the official IDA list (in fact, there are no Dark Sky Parks in Alaska), its views of the aurora borealis, the unpredictable phenomenon also known as the Northern Lights, make it a true bucket-list destination.
Part of the National Park Service, this forested preserve sits deep in Alaska's wilderness and provides long hours of incredible night sky viewing in the fall, winter, and early spring. Because the park receives so little light pollution, the stars put on a much brighter show than in other places in the world.
Cherry Springs State Park in Pennsylvania
If you live in the eastern United States, you don't have to travel far for some prime star viewing. Cherry Springs State Park, located in north central Pennsylvania, is one of the country's hidden stargazing gems.
According to IDA, the largely untouched Susquehannock State Forest offers about 60 to 85 nights of high-quality dark-sky stargazing each year. The park is such a draw that it hosts not one but two huge "star parties" every year.
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Central Idaho Dark Sky Reserve
This is one of just 16 Dark Sky Reserves in the world, and the only one in the United States. Like a Dark Sky Park, a Reserve must offer starry nights of exceptional quality and a protected nocturnal environment. But it must also be surrounded by a peripheral area that promotes dark sky preservation.
The Central Idaho Dark Sky Reserve comprises more than 1,400 square miles of rugged, underdeveloped wilderness and features the challenging Sawtooth Range and the dense Sawtooth National Forest. While the starry views are truly one of a kind, the reserve is extremely remote, with neither electricity nor cell service across a majority of its area. If you plan on venturing out to this perfect embodiment of the great outdoors, be sure to plan accordingly.
Big Pine Key in Florida
The South has a regrettable dearth of areas remote enough for IDA-level stargazing. But even though Big Pine Key isn't on the IDA's official list, Florida State Parks promotes this island in the Florida Keys, as well as nearby Bahia Honda State Park, as magical places for taking in the night sky. If you do decide to venture out, be prepared for a dose of hot weather and mosquitoes along with the incredible views.
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Death Valley National Park in California
Another California desert, Death Valley is far enough away from major cities to be largely undisturbed by light pollution. In fact, thanks to its vast size, typically clear skies, and lack of view-blocking peaks, you can spot astronomical objects and events at Death Valley National Park that are visible in only a few other places around the world. For this reason, it's classified by IDA as a "Gold Tier" dark sky.
Even though you may be venturing into Death Valley only at night, you should beware of its extreme temperatures. Check with the local weather advisory before you make the journey, and take any recommended precautions.
Massacre Rim in Nevada
More exclusive than a Dark Sky Park or a Dark Sky Reserve, the public lands at Massacre Rim are one of only a dozen IDA-designated International Dark Sky Sanctuaries. These locations are extremely isolated, with few, if any, threats to the quality of their night skies. They also tend to be inaccessible.
Situated in the wilderness of northern Nevada, Massacre Rim is one of the few places in the world where you can clearly see our neighboring Andromeda Galaxy with the naked eye. With more than 100,000 acres at your disposal, there's a very good chance you'll be able to find a secluded stargazing spot for you and your family.
One of the lesser-known stargazing spots in America, this small town is home to the Nebraska Star Party, an annual summer festival that draws in astronomy lovers from all over the country.
Even if you don't make it out for the big celebration, Merritt Reservoir, just south of town, is known as one of the best places in the state to explore the night sky, according to the Cherry County Office of Tourism. Plus, it gets bonus points for being a little bit off the radar, and as a result incredibly quiet and tranquil.
Sierra la Rana in Texas
While it hasn't yet achieved any major IDA status, this piece of land in Alpine, Texas, has been dubbed a Dark Sky Development of Distinction, a title that locals proudly hold dear.
With a carpet of stars visible from horizon to horizon, this wide-open space caters to more serious astronomers with public telescope pads available for use. But even the most casual stargazer will enjoy spreading out a blanket and staring up at the wonders of the night sky.
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