Adventure Travel

10 Best Dark Sky Parks in the U.S. For The Outdoor Enthusiast

March 18, 2019
two people looking at the stars with a telescope

We all love looking up at the night sky and wondering what’s out there, but in many cities, the light pollution is so intense that you can only see a few of the brightest stars. Dark sky parks, scattered across the country, make up for much of this by offering some of the darkest nights you will ever experience. They’re a perfect place to appreciate the sprawling expanse of the universe. Here are our picks for the best dark sky parks in the United States.

1. Death Valley National Park, Calif.

Don’t let the name scare you off. Death Valley National Park in California might be a desert, but it is also devoid of artificial light sources, making it one of the darkest spots in the U.S. Park officials work tirelessly to reduce the amount of artificial light in the park, and it has earned the designation of largest International Dark Sky Park from the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA). Head to Badwater Basin or the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes for the best view.

2. Cherry Springs State Park, Penn.

There might not be a lot of dark sky parks on the East Coast, but Pennsylvania is home to one of the best. Cherry Springs State Park is a designated stargazing field surrounded by campsites, so you don’t have to worry about driving home in the dark. Only between 60 and 85 nights out of the year are good for stargazing, but if you’re lucky, you might even spot the aurora borealis during your stay.

3. Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah

While Death Valley might be the most massive dark sky park in the world, Natural Bridges National Monument in Utah has the honor of being the first such park on the planet. Its remoteness is perfect for spotting more than 15,000 stars with the naked eye, and watching the Milky Way as it travels across the night sky. Summer is the best time to visit this dark sky park because the nights are mild and you’ll want to stay up late to watch the stars move.

4. Brockway Mountain, Mich.

This mountaintop might not be in a national park, but it is one of the best places in the United States to watch the northern lights. This dark sky park is about as far north as you can go before you end up in Lake Superior and have to swim to Canada. Make sure you pack warm clothes, though — winter is the best time to see the aurora borealis, and it gets cold in Michigan!

5. The Cosmic Campground, N.M.

The Cosmic Campground is one of only four designated International Dark Sky Sanctuaries in the world, and the only one in the United States. It’s open year-round and offers an unobstructed view of the night sky in every direction. There’s no entry fee, but there are also very few amenities and no water available on the campsite, so make sure you come prepared!

6. Craters of the Moon National Monument, Idaho

Idaho might not seem like a place where you would find ancient lava flows, but that’s precisely what you can expect to see at the Craters of the Moon National Monument. In 2017, it also became a silver-tier International Dark Sky Park. It is one of the best places to see more stars than you’ve ever seen in your life once the sun goes down. During the day, you can explore ancient volcanic landscapes.

7. Big Bend National Park, Texas

They say everything is bigger in Texas, and that includes the sky. Big Bend National Park became an International Dark Sky Park in 2012, and has been called the best place in the country to fall asleep under the stars. It’s one of only 13 parks to receive a gold-tier rating, and you won’t have trouble finding a fantastic stargazing campsite on its 800,000 acres.

8. Denali National Park and Preserve, Alaska

If you’re worried about headlights ruining your night vision, head to Denali National Park and Preserve. There’s only one road bisecting the entire park, and in the winter, sled dogs are the only ones who can reach the most remote corners of the park. During the fall and winter months, Denali is a favorite spot for watching the Northern Lights, but during the offseason, it is the perfect place for stargazing with little to no light pollution.

9. Kissimmee Prairie Preserve, Fla.

It’s fewer than 100 miles from Orlando, but the Kissimmee Prairie Preserve is one of the darkest places in the Sunshine State. IDA recognized this preserve as Florida’s first Dark Sky Park in 2016. The park itself is home to no fewer than nine concrete telescope platforms, which you can reserve in advance, and plenty of park rangers who are happy to give stargazing advice to beginners and experienced astronomers alike.

10. Canyonlands National Park, Utah

We might as well change Utah’s nickname to the Dark Sky State, since it’s home to nine different dark sky parks. Canyonlands National Park is home to the Mesa Arch and some of the darkest skies in the country. If you don’t have a telescope, check with the park rangers. They’ll sometimes set up telescopes for visitors to use at the Grand View Point and the Needles Visitor Center.

Explore Dark Parks Across the Country

You don’t have to leave the country to find somewhere dark enough to enjoy all the beauty and majesty the night sky has to offer. Visit one of these fantastic dark sky parks right here at home.

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