Where to Find the Darkest Skies in the USA | The Top 9 Sites for Stargazing

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Lone tree in a moonlit canyon in Utah.

EXPLORE OUR GUIDE ON 9 OF THE BEST PLACES IN THE USA FOR STARGAZING - PLUS LEARN MORE ABOUT LIGHT POLLUTION AND WHAT WE CAN ALL DO TO HELP KEEP OUR DARK SKIES DARK.

 


Have you ever wanted to escape the bright city lights and head out into the middle of nowhere, just to know what it would actually be like to see our solar system's thousands of stars? Don't worry you are not alone.


We in fact, have had that urge dozens of times, especially when we found ourselves living in the San Francisco Bay Area - an urban metropolis that very easily blocks out any view of the starry night sky. And that urge to seek out really dark skies became even more pronounced after listening to the audiobook The End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light” by Paul Bogard.


Seriously, if you want a book that will alter your view on cities, modernization, wilderness and darkness, then read "The End of Night." We promise it will totally change your life.


That book, plus the city's suffocating brightness, actually led us to make an agreement with each other that we would head out to Death Valley National Park to go stargazing on the first new moon that landed on a weekend. And that is exactly what we did (actually we didn’t get all the way to Death Valley, but instead we stopped off in Mammoth Lakes). And let us tell you, the stars were absolutely incredible.


It turns out that we were not alone in our slight feeling of melancholy due to a lack of visible stars. Research has actually shown that there is a correlation between excessive artificial light and mental health (including mood swings and anxiety). And that is just the tip of the iceberg. Light pollution can actually lead to numerous other problems, including ones dealing with human health and the environment.




Starry sky over a striped desert landscape.




WHAT IS LIGHT POLLUTION?


Light pollution is any negative effect caused by the excessive or inappropriate use of outdoor artificial light (unnatural light). The most common negative effects due to light pollution are on overall human health, wildlife behavior, and of course, the ability to observe stars and other celestial objects at night.


While it might be something most people can relate to on a very personal level, light pollution is in fact a global issue. You can actually see this for yourself in this World Atlas of Night Sky Brightness map, which is a computer-generated map based on thousands of satellite photos that was published in 2016. The map shows how and where our globe is lit up at night - and spoiler alert, it's almost everywhere. In fact, for the most part, vast areas of North America, Europe, the Middle East, and Asia glow a bright yellow at night and it is only the most remote regions on Earth - including Siberia, the Sahara, and the Amazon - that are in total darkness (and even this is slowly changing).


❔ GOOD TO KNOW: some of the most light-polluted countries in the world are Singapore, Qatar, and Kuwait. While the least light polluted countries are Chad, the Central African Republic, and Madagascar. Similarly, the Roque de los Muchachos Observatory, which is located in the Canary Islands, was officially named the darkest place on Earth in 2016.



➳ You can explore the World Atlas of Night Sky Brightness Map here.



While light pollution is an important thing to know about, it is also important to understand that just because you might not live in a major city like New York City, LA, London or Tokyo, you are still likely affected by bad lighting practices. This is known as sky glow - or the brightening of the night sky due to the electric lights of cars, street lamps, offices, factories, outdoor advertising, and buildings. It is very likely that if you have spent any time outside after dark you have noticed sky glow (even when out in nature). While it sounds pretty, sky glow caused by anthropogenic activities (i.e. modern industrial practices) is one of the most pervasive forms of light pollution.


And scientific studies have shown that light pollution is not just impacting humans and their health, but also animal behaviors such as migration patterns, wake and sleep habits, and even habitat formation. One very clear example of this is that due to light pollution, sea turtles and birds - who were once guided by moonlight during their migration - now get confused and sometimes lose their way due to too much human-created light. This confusion leads many to eventually die.



LIGHT POLLUTION BY THE NUMBERS

1/3 of people cannot see the Milky Way


80% of the entire planet is affected by light pollution


99% of people are affected by sky glow in the USA and Europe



Light pollution is a global problem and one that needs to be addressed soon, otherwise it might be too late. Below are a few key ways each of us can individually take action and make a positive impact on keeping our dark skies dark.




HOW TO SAVE OUR DARK SKIES


It seems many people don’t stop and take the time to think about all the negative impacts artificial light has. If they did we, probably wouldn’t have metropolises like Las Vegas. And while light pollution and the loss of our dark skies might seem like one huge unsolvable problem, in truth, everyone can do their own part to help keep the world's skies dark.


A few simple ways to make a positive impact are to turn off your outdoor (and indoor) lights when you are not using them, especially at night; switch to dark sky friendly lighting at your house and place of business (find the right lighting here); spread the word about protecting and preserving the dark skies to your friends and family and online; advocate for better lighting practices in your town; support IDA through volunteering or donations and finally, visit your local Dark Sky Parks.


If you want to learn more about protecting and preserving the world's dark skies, then make sure to check out the International Dark Sky website and also consider reading The End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light”. We promise it is totally worth it!







While it is true that almost all of the USA is affected by sky glow and light pollution, luckily, there are still pockets where you can find some truly dark skies.


In fact, the United States is home to 60 International Dark Sky Association-designated places. This list includes communities, national parks and reserves. Each of these 60 places, as well as the other 135 IDS-designated places around the world, had to go through a rigorous application process, which actually requires applicants to demonstrate robust community support for dark sky protection and document programs created specifically to promote dark skies.


While there are 60 Dark Sky Places in the USA to choose from, we believe these 9 spots below are some of the best for finding dark skies, stargazing and of course, overall adventure.





1 | Big Bend National Park, Texas


Per the national park's website: “There is a place in Far West Texas where night skies are dark as coal and rivers carve temple-like canyons in ancient limestone.” If there was ever a way to describe Big Bend National Park that would be it.


Due to its incredibly remote location in the far southwest corner of the large state of Texas, Big Bend National Park has some of the darkest skies in the whole USA. In fact, it has the lowest levels of light pollution of any other national park unit in the lower 48 states (there are over 400 of them). If you are planning to visit the national park - which you definitely should, not only for its stargazing possibilities, but also for its beautiful desert landscape (the park makes up the largest protected area of the Chihuahuan Desert topography in the whole USA) then make sure to put aside a couple of nights to specifically spend stargazing - we promise it will be a sight to behold.



THE BEST THINGS TO DO IN BIG BEND NATIONAL PARK

Visit the natural hot spring. Located down a rough and narrow dirt road, is one of the park's best attractions: a natural hot spring next to the Rio Grande. The spring is actually part of a historic district that once included a legitimate bathhouse (where the present hot spring pool sits) and a post office (as well as a couple of ancient pieces of rock art). We recommend soaking in the pool - which is always at a steamy 105° F / 40.5° C - during sunset, where you can get a gorgeous view of the dusk colors against a backdrop of the Rio Grande and the nearby rock cliffs.


Take a boat over to Mexico. You will find that it is very easy to hop the border and simply take a small rowboat over to the nearby town of Boquillas, Mexico, where you can then have a delicious authentic Mexican meal (including margaritas), purchase some souvenirs or even head out to another natural hot spring. While you do need to go through a border checkpoint afterward (on the USA side), when we did it, it took all of ten minutes to complete. Also, when you do cross the river and head over to Boquillas, we recommend walking to town instead of catching a ride on the local donkeys (much more pleasant and animal-friendly).


Explore the Chisos Mountains. During the summer months (May - August) the lower elevations of Big Bend National Park can become absolutely unbearable to hike in due to the heat. Luckily, the park is home to the large Chisos Mountains which stay a bit cooler even during the heat of the day. We recommend going on at least one hike in this area, especially during the early morning when you are more likely to spot wildlife like fox, deer, birds and, if you are lucky, even a bear or a mountain lion.


💬 INSIDER TIP: if you are planning to explore Big Bend National Park also consider taking a trip to its next door neighbor Big Bend Ranch State Park. Not only is this park another Dark Sky Park, but it is also home to many more adventures - including miles upon miles of mountain biking trails. We also (highly) recommend driving Highway 170 between the state park and the nearby town of Presidio



➳ You can learn more about Big Bend National Park here.




Sunset light in the Chisos Mountains in Texas.




2 | Capitol Reef National Park, Utah


Quite possibly the least visited national park in all of Utah - a state with a total of 5 national parks, Capitol Reef National Park is truly a hidden gem just waiting to be explored. Designated an International Dark Sky Park in 2015, this stunning park offers many opportunities to experience near-pristine night skies, including, camping in the parks two incredibly remote and rugged campsites, hiking out into the Navajo sandstone canyons or taking a dusk drive out into the mythical Cathedral Valley.



THE BEST THINGS TO DO IN CAPITOL REEF NATIONAL PARK

Hike up to Cassidy Arch. By far one of the best hikes in the national park is up to this massive natural arch. The trail - which is only 1.7 miles (2.8 kilometers) one-way - is a great place to start your adventures in Capitol Reef. To reach the trailhead, head out on the Scenic Drive Road (the main road in front of the visitor center) until you see a turn for the Cassidy Arch Trailhead (it will be on the left). Drive down this dirt road for another mile or so until you reach the parking lot. In total, it is a 4.7-mile drive from the visitor center to the trailhead.


Drive to Cathedral Valley. The northern part of the park is rough and rugged - and downright beautiful. Home to two iconic rock structures - The Temple to the Moon and the Temple to the Sun - the best way to explore this area of Capitol Reef is in a 4-wheel drive vehicle (or if you are feeling really adventurous, a bike). If you want to spend more time in this part of the park there is a small campground nearby (water is not available so bring plenty with you). You can learn more about visiting the temples here.


Explore Fruita. Located in the heart of Capitol Reef National Park is the scenic historical district of Fruita, which was founded by Mormon settlers back in the late 1800s. Today this part of the national park is famed for its numerous orchards (which produce many different fruits that can be picked during the right season), historic buildings - including an old schoolhouse and barn - and surrounding red rock canyon walls.


❔ GOOD TO KNOW: the historic Fruita district is also where the main campground in the park is located. It costs $25 /night to camp in the campground. This fee does include access to flushable bathrooms, potable water, individual tables and firepits and a dump station for RVs. Reservations are needed for the campground during the busy season (March - October).



Want to learn more about Capitol Reef National Park? Then check out our in-depth adventure guide here.





3 | Death Valley National Park, California


Possibly one of the best places to see dark skies in the whole USA, and maybe even the world, Death Valley National in southeastern California is so pristine that in many places, it offers nighttime views close to what could have been seen before the rise of mega-cities. Because of its incredibly remote location (the closest big source of light is Las Vegas, over 126 miles away), the park is classified as a Gold Tier park by the International Dark Sky Association. Some of the best places to stargaze within the park are the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Badwater Basin and the incredibly remote Racetrack.



THE BEST THINGS TO DO IN DEATH VALLEY NATIONAL PARK

Hike out to the Ubehebe Crater. This short hiking trail (1.5 miles total, it's a loop) takes you out to the Ubehebe Crater, which is a large volcanic crater roughly 600 feet deep and half a mile across. The crater is actually the result of a Maar Volcano - which is created by steam and gas explosions when hot magma rises up from the depths and reaches groundwater. While Ubehebe is one of the largest craters, there are actually a few other craters nearby. You can learn more about the park's craters here.


Go canyoneering. While southern Utah is likely the most well-known canyoneering spot in the USA, Death Valley National Park might just have the most intense canyons in the country. If you are a canyoneerer looking to take on a big canyon - both in length and in rappel height - then this is the spot for you. Some of our favorite Death Valley canyons are Rainbow Canyon (one of the few short canyons in the park), Abysmal Canyon, Coffin Canyon and Hades Canyon.


Explore Badwater Basin. This iconic site should be on everyone's travel itinerary for the desert national park. Badwater Basin, which is famous for being the lowest point in all of North America (it sits at 282 feet or 86 meters below sea level), is truly one crazy place. For starters, the basin is actually one massive salt flat (it covers 200 square miles), which - during some parts of the year - can fill up with water and become one huge mirror. For the best views of the basin, we recommend doing the 2-mile round-trip hike out into the middle of the salt flats.


❔ GOOD TO KNOW: this national park should really only be explored during the winter or late fall/early spring season. During the hotter months (May - September) the park can become dangerously hot (it is often one of the hottest places on the planet). If you are planning to visit during the hot months, make sure to only head out early in the day or late at night.



➳ You can learn more about stargazing in Death Valley National Park here.




Sunrise colors on snowy mountains in Death Valley National Park.




4 | Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, Colorado


Even though it contains the tallest sand dune in North America - the Star Dune, which sits at 750 feet or 228 meters tall - Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is actually one of the least visited parks in the whole country. Because of that, plus the fact that it is relatively difficult to reach, makes the park one of the perfect spots to view some incredible night skies. In fact, just like Death Valley National Park, Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is also a Gold Tier Dark Sky Park.



THE BEST THINGS TO DO IN GREAT SAND DUNES NATIONAL PARK AND PRESERVE

Go sandboarding. By far one of the best adventures within this national park is to grab a sandboard and head out into the dunes. While you can sandboard and sled anywhere within the park, you will need to bring your own gear (the park does not rent boards). Another important thing to remember is that during the summer months the sand can become incredibly hot (130°+ F) so it is best to head out in the early morning or at dusk (maybe consider sandboarding under the stars?).


Camp in the dunes. For some of the best stargazing and astrophotography opportunities, consider heading out and spending the night in the sand dunes. While backcountry camping in the park is available year-round, it is best done in the warmer months (the sand dunes can become absolutely frigid in the winter). The backcountry camping "sites" are anywhere west of the high ridge and beyond the day-use area (so at a minimum distance of 1.5 miles west of the Medano Creek). You can learn more about camping within the national park here.



Want to learn more about this park, as well as Colorado's 3 other national parks? Then check out this guide.





5 | Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Colorado


Another awesome Dark Sky Park in Colorado is Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, which is located in the southwest corner of the state. This park is a great spot to head to if you want to completely get away from people and get back to nature. In fact, this national park is one of the darkest places in the whole USA, only rated behind such spots as Big Bend National Park and Natural Bridges National Monument. We suggest spending a weekend in the park, hiking around the canyon during the day and looking up at the glowing Milky Way at night.



THE BEST THINGS TO DO IN BLACK CANYON OF THE GUNNISON NATIONAL PARK

Hike to the bottom of the canyon. While this national park is not super popular for hiking - it just doesn't have that many trails available - what it lacks in distance it makes up in intensity. If you are looking to explore the canyon by foot, consider hiking down to the bottom. While there are a couple of route options down to the bottom, in our opinion, one of the best is the SOB Draw, which you can pick up near the North Rim Ranger Station.


❔ GOOD TO KNOW: if you are planning to hike down to the bottom of the canyon via the SOB Draw, then consider bringing camping gear and spending the night in one of the few backcountry campsites. Also, you will need to get a backcountry permit for any activity within the canyon bottom. These can be picked up at the ranger stations.


Stargaze along the canyon rim. Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park focuses heavily on preserving a dark sky that has been largely unaltered by modernity; because of this, the park has become one of the most popular spots for stargazing in the region. Some of the best places to head to for stargazing are the North Rim area (including the North Rim Campground) and Chasm View on the South Rim. The park also offers ranger-led stargazing talks and walks during the summer months.


Go rock climbing. If you are an advanced climber, then it is quite likely that you have already heard of Black Canyon of the Gunnison. Because of the canyon's insane deepness - at its deepest the canyon is 2,722 feet deep and even at the North and South Chasm Walls (where the majority of the climbing activity takes place) the canyon is still 1,820 feet deep - this area is a haven for experienced rock climbers. Presently, there are roughly 145 climbing routes within the park (maybe more, data is sketchy). But the majority of those routes are rated above a 5.10 (like we said, advanced climbing). You can learn more about climbing within the park here.



► Curious to learn more about this stunning national park? Then consider checking out our in-depth adventure guide here.




Sunny day in Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park




6 | Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah


As mentioned above, Natural Bridges National Monument is one of the darkest places in the whole USA and therefore one of the best places for stargazing. Designated an International Dark Sky Park in 2007 (the first in the world!), this monument is located on the high Colorado Plateau and in a very sparsely populated area of southeastern Utah. While the park was created to protect the natural landscape, including the second-largest natural bridge in the world, today it has also become a top place for astrophotographers and astronomers.


GOOD TO KNOW: the monument stays open all night long, meaning you can go pretty much anywhere within its boundaries and stargaze. Some of the best places are from the various viewpoints or even just from the campground (which is located near the visitor center).



THE BEST THINGS TO DO IN NATURAL BRIDGES NATIONAL MONUMENT

Check out the natural bridges. As you would expect, one of the best adventures within the monument is to hike around the three natural bridges: Kachina, Owachomo and Sipapu (the largest in the monument and the second largest in the world). While you can do many shorter hikes to the bridge overlooks, we instead suggest getting down into the canyon itself and getting a more up-close view. One of the best ways to do this is by hiking this 12-mile loop trail, which passes by all three bridges.


Explore ancestral ruins. While the three natural bridges get most of the attention, within the park you can also head out to see one of the best preserved ancestral Puebloan sites in this corner of Utah. Known as the Horse Collar Ruin, this unique archeological site is located at the base of a canyon and can only be viewed from a viewpoint above (this lack of access is one of the key reasons the ruin was left in such good shape over the 700 years since it was abandoned). The viewpoint trail takes about 40 minutes to complete.





7 | Craters of the Moon National Monument, Idaho


We actually hadn’t heard much about this monument until we started digging into areas in the USA with the darkest skies. Turns out this unique and wild landscape is pretty gorgeous, day and night. Located in southeastern Idaho, Craters of the Moon National Monument was designated an International Dark Sky Park in 2017 and today sits at the edge of one of the largest remaining ‘pools’ of natural nighttime darkness in the lower 48 U.S. states. This means that even though it is surrounded by a lot of light pollution, it has been luckily able to retain its stunning dark skies.



THE BEST THINGS TO DO IN CRATERS OF THE MOON NATIONAL MONUMENT

Hike up the Inferno Cone. This steep 0.4 mi (0.8 km) trail climbs up to the top of the Inferno Cone, which is an ancient cinder cone. From the top you will find stunning views of the nearby Snake River and the Pioneer Mountains, and, if you are lucky, even the distant Teton Mountains.


Explore the monument's four caves. While they are called "caves," these natural wonders are actually large lava tubes that were formed by rivers of hot molten rock flowing underneath the surface thousands of years ago. Today, you can hike around four of them along the aptly named Caves Trail (1.6 miles round-trip).





8 | Dead Horse Point State Park, Utah


Yes, it might not be a national park or monument, but Dead Horse Point State Park is still an incredibly beautiful destination and one of the best places to see dark skies. Located right next to Canyonlands National Park (another International Dark Sky Park), Dead Horse Point State Park is the perfect spot to explore the famous canyon country by day and stare up at the glowing stars by night. As the Dark Sky Organization website puts it, “its position above the canyon walls makes for spectacular, virtually unobstructed, viewing of the night sky with sweeping, 360-degree panoramas.” Sounds good to us!



THE BEST THINGS TO DO IN DEAD HORSE POINT START PARK

Go mountain biking. One of the best ways to explore the state park is by bike. Presently, there are roughly 7 miles of trails within the park, including many that take you right up to some of the best viewpoints in the whole Moab, Utah area.

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