How to Find the Darkest Skies in the USA

If you are looking for a book to make you think about your place in the Universe (and how small we really are) and at the same time make you want to travel, then we HIGHLY recommend checking out the book, “The End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light” by Paul Bogard.

This book completely changed our way of thinking, about not just darkness but the outdoors as a whole and the importance of keeping the wilderness wild. We listened to it as we road tripped in eastern California, where the lack of people and artificial light make you stop and stare out at the night sky for hours on end.

In fact, while living in the Bay Area, we made an agreement with each other that we would head out to Death Valley on the first new moon to land on a weekend. And we did (actually we didn’t get all the way to Death Valley but instead stopped off in Mammoth Lakes). That is because when living in the city you start to miss your stars, your dark skies. And as two Coloradoans who would spend almost every summer night staring up at the Milky Way, the suffocating amount of artificial light was making us depressed. So we tried to get out of the city as much as possible and go find some darkness.

Luckily, the United States is home to 60 Dark Sky Parks, including communities, National Parks and reserves. Each spot is designated an “International Dark Sky Place (IDSP)” by the International Dark Sky Association, an organization focused on “protecting the night sky from light pollution.” In total, the IDA has designated 130 IDSP’s around the world (see where here).

Each of those 130 places had to go through a rigorous application process, which requires applicants to demonstrate robust community support for dark sky protection and document programs created specifically to promote dark skies.

As mentioned previously, the USA is home to 60 IDSPs, which is almost half of the total number in the world (way to go USA!). And with so many, it can be tough to choose the best ones to go see. Here are nine places we believe to be some of the best:

| Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah

Designated an IDSP in 2007, this Monument located on the Colorado Plateau in the sparsely populated southeastern corner of Utah, is famous for having the second-largest natural bridge in the world (worth a visit on its own). It is also notable for its almost perfect lack of light pollution - thanks to its incredible remoteness. This advantage makes it one of the darkest National Park Service units, and IDSPs in the lower 48 U.S. states

| Big Bend National Park, Texas

As the parks webpage states, “There is a place in Far West Texas where night skies are dark as coal and rivers carve temple-like canyons in ancient limestone.” And that is 100% true. Take a trip down to the very southern part of Texas and you will quickly realize that there is almost nothing out there - just open, dry, shrubland with maybe a ranch or two. In fact, Big Bend NP has the least light pollution of any other national park unit in the lower 48 states.

Starry sky behind desert landscape in Texas
Some of the darkest skies in the USA. PC David Morris.

Learn more about Big Bend National Park here.

| Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

Quite possibly the least visited national park in Utah, Capitol Reef is a true hidden gem. Designated an IDSP in 2015, the park offers many opportunities to experience near-pristine night skies, including camping in the parks two incredibly remote and rugged campsites or taking a dusk drive in Cathedral Valley (bring lots of supplies just in case because it is incredibly remote).

| Craters of the Moon National Monument, Idaho

We hadn’t really heard about this park 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, this Monument was designated an IDSP 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 - defined by the rugged wilderness of interior Idaho.

| 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 NP in eastern California is so pristine that in many places, it offers views close to what could be seen before the rise of cities, and especially metropolises. 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.

Blue tent in front of bright starry sky
Not a bad campsite view. PC Wilson Ye on Unsplash.

| Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, Colorado

Containing the tallest sand dune in the States, this national park is actually one of the least visited parks in the whole country (here are 15 other relatively quiet NPs). Because of that, and the fact that is is relatively difficult to reach, makes it the perfect spot to view some incredible night skies.

| Dead Horse Point State Park, Utah

Yes, it might not be a national park or monument, but it is incredibly beautiful and home to some of the best skies on Earth. Located right next to Canyonlands National Park (another IDSP), Dead Horse Point SP 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.”

| Big Cypress National Preserve, Florida

Looking at a map of the state of Florida, you would be surprised to think anywhere within its borders would be a designated Dark Sky Park. Luckily, Big Cypress National Preserve, located just west of Miami, is today still a beacon of hope and a representation of finding a middle ground between nature and urban growth. The preserve is a center of biodiversity, hosting a variety of species including orchids, cypresses, mangroves, venomous snakes, birds, the Florida black bear, and the elusive Florida panther. Together with nearby Everglades National Park, this area represents some of the last dark territory in the region.

Curious to know more about this preserve? Then check out this in-depth guide.

Glowing red tent in front of starry sky and forest
Stars glowing above another great campsite. PC International Dark Sky.

| Black Canyon of the Gunnison

Another Dark Sky Park in Colorado, Black Canyon of the Gunnison is a great spot to head out to if you want to completely get away from people and get back to nature. Spend a weekend in the park, hiking around the canyon itself during the day and looking up at the glowing Milky Way at night. A great spot to look at stars is at the North Rim Campground, or if you want to go stargazing with others, consider heading out on one of the ranger-led stargazing trips (which occur weekly in the summer).

Read our full in-depth guide on Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park here.

This is only a short list of some of the prettiest Dark Sky Parks in the whole USA, if you want to see the extended list then check out this list. And if you are curious about other IDSPs around the world then here is a list of all 130.

Dark skies aren’t just important for viewing stars (though that is pretty darn cool) they are also incredibly necessary for animals, including birds, amphibians, and mammals. Not to mention plants and insects. One great example are baby sea turtles, which hatch at night along the beach and then find the sea or ocean by detecting the bright horizon created by the moon over the water. When you introduce artificial light to the area, you can confuse the babies and draw them away from the ocean. In Florida alone, millions of hatchlings die this way every year.

"Plants and animals depend on Earth’s daily cycle of light and dark rhythm to govern life-sustaining behaviors such as reproduction, nourishment, sleep, and protection from predators." - International Dark Sky Association

Rock on coast at night time.
Let's keep dark skies dark. PC Jordan Heinrichs on Unsplash.

Many people don’t stop and take the time to think about the negative impact artificial light has - if they did we probably wouldn’t have metropolises like Las Vegas. And while it might seem like a huge problem and one that a single person can’t make an impact on, in truth everyone can do their part to help keep dark skies dark. It is as simple as turning off your outdoor lights at night or at least changing your lights to make them more efficient and better for the environment. Or better yet, visit a Dark Sky Park and show your support for what they are doing.

If you want to learn more, check out the International Dark Sky website and read The End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light” we promise it is totally worth it!