Here are the 19 best U.S. parks to see the stars

Night Sky Mount Washington
Great Basin National Park- A bristlecone pine on Mount Washington. Credit: NPS Photo.

According to research in 2016, The Milky Way is hidden from more than one-third of humanity, including 60% of Europeans and nearly 80% of North Americans.

For the majority of us, light pollution is so intense; we don’t even realize that we only see a fraction of the stars.

As a result, The International Dark Sky Association (IDA) was formed in 1988. The group focuses on protecting the night skies.  They do this by promoting places that work to have breathtaking star lit skies, and they issue a Dark Sky certification for parks that have an exceptional star nights quality.

What are the best spots for looking at the stars?

Since its creation, just 19 parks have been bestowed with the IDA’s “Gold Tier” Dark Sky Designation. The application process is extensive, and many parks fail to qualify for the “Gold Tier” status.

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Some parks fall into the IDA’s Silver or Bronze category, which is still a significant honor. Other parks, like the famous Grand Canyon, have been given provisional status and are required to make improvements before receiving a more permanent designation.

The Breakdown – Gold/Silver/Bronze Tier Status


Gold Tier Parks- (In random order)

1.  Big Bend National Park -Texas

One of the most remote National Parks in the United States, Big Bend includes massive canyons, vast desert expanses, forested mountains, and an ever-changing river. The parks busy season is November- April.

Big Bend
Night Sky at Big Bend. Credit: NPS

Big Bend has the least light pollution of any other National Park unit in the lower 48 states. Visitors can see approximately 2000 stars on a clear night compared to perhaps a few hundred in a medium sized city.

The park installed LED shielded lighting to preserve its dark skies.

Big Bend is extremely isolated, and services are limited on your way. San Antonio is 406 miles away, and Midland is 242 miles.


2.  Canyonlands National Park- Utah

Utah’s largest national park with over 300,000 acres to explore. The Green and Colorado Rivers split the park into three major regions. And there are no roads within the park that cross the rivers and link the dividers. So while they may appear close on a map, traveling between districts requires two to six hours by car.

Best places to look at stars
Mesa Arch at Night, Canyonlands National Park.

Canyonlands’ isolation from the artificial light makes it a perfect place for stargazing. Park staff have also worked to reduce ambient light from within the park by replacing lighting with “night-sky friendly” lights and fixtures. The park received its IDA designation in 2015.

Canyonlands is open year round and 24 hours a day.


3. Death Valley National Park-Nevada 

While it’s the hottest, driest and lowest national park in the United States, it also boasts some of the darkest skies in the United States.

The park recently improved external lighting at facilities in the Furnace Creek and Stovepipe Wells areas.

Death Valley Gold Tier Dark Sky
Death Valley-A 360-degree panorama of Racetrack Playa at night. The Milky Way is visible as an arc in the center. Credit Wilkipedia

“At Death Valley, the sky literally begins at your feet,” said Tyler Nordgren, Associate Professor of Physics at the University of Redlands (Calif.) and International Dark-Sky Association board member. “When my students and I look up at night from our southern California campus, we can usually count 12 stars in the sky. However, less than a five-hour drive from Los Angeles there’s a place where anyone can look up and see the universe the way everyone could 100 years ago.”


4. Hovenweep National Monument -Utah

It’s written on their website, “Do not use GPS to find your way. The Hovenweep Visitor Center is located 40-45 miles from Cortez, Colorado, and Blanding and Bluff, Utah. Follow driving directions on our web page.”

Best places to look at stars
Hovenweep Castle with the Milky way overhead. Credit: NPS

One of the stories about Hovenweep claims that the structures and artwork appear to mark significant celestial events.

Hovenweep trails are open sunrise to sunset daily. Stargazing and exploring the night sky is allowed from the visitor center parking lot and campground only. No ruins or structures will be visible from the campground or parking lots.

Hovenweep received its Gold Tier designation July 1, 2014


5. Stephen C. Foster State Park-Georgia

One of several state parks on our list, Stephen Foster Park is the main entrance to Okefenokee Swamp. In the day visitors will enjoy breathtaking scenery and great wildlife. Including alligators, black bear and wood storks.

Stephen_C_Foster
Night Shot. Credit: Stephen Foster State Park

At night, visitors can see exceptional views of the moon, stars, planets, and comets.

Stephen Foster State Park received its “Gold Tier” designation in late 2016. Park staff spent several months preparing to apply for the nomination, removing 13 streetlights and switching many bulbs to light-emitting diodes (LED). They worked with the local power company to install state-of-the-art lighting which casts downward rather than outward. The staff even retrofitted outdoor lighting on park cabins to be motion-activated. Their efforts have paid off with the park being among the few “Dark Sky” location in the southeastern United States.

The park also offers astronomy programs throughout the year with its 8-inch and 10-inch Orion SkyQuest Dobsonian telescopes. The park is 18 miles from the closest town of Fargo, Ga., so many visitors stay overnight in the park’s cabins or campground.


6.  Natural Bridges National Monument-Utah

Located in the southeast corner of Utah, 6,500 above sea level, Natural Bridges has been IDA designated since 2006.

Natural Bridges
Natural Bridges National Monument-Owachomo Bridge at night with the Milky Way. Credit: NPS

IDA’s International Dark Sky Park program challenged Natural Bridges to minimize its nocturnal impact and share its magnificent starry sky with the park’s 95,000 annual visitors. The park has retrofitted over 80% of their light fixtures, shielding them, so all the light points downward.

During the summer, the park provides astronomy ranger programs under spectacular starry skies.


7.Cherry Springs State Park- Pennsylvania

Named after large black cherry trees once found in the area, the 82-acre state park is surrounded by the 262,000-acre Susquehannock State Forest. Making it naturally remote and favorite for stargazers.

Best night skys
Star Party at Cherry Springs. Credit: Terence Dickinson

While the park is open every day of the year, it closes everyday at dusk. However, there is an astronomy field that’s open all night, and stargazers need to contact the Lyman Run State Park office for facility seasons and hours.If you live in the northeast, Cherry Springs may be your best bet for dark skies.


8. Clayton Lake State Park- New Mexico 

Located in the northeast corner of New Mexico, Clayton Lake Park sits at 5,186 feet and is a frequent gathering place for kayaking, fishing, hiking, and camping.

Best night skies
Clayton Lake State Park. Credit: New Mexico Tourism Dept.

Remarkably, the Clayton Lake website does not advertise much about its dark sky designation, despite being bestowed the honor back in 2010.

In a press release issued at the time of its gold tier designation, the IDA said that Clayton Lake hosts approximately 65,000 visitors per year, many of whom attend star parties at the park’s observatory facility. Park staff and volunteers worked closely with the Town of Clayton and the New Mexico State Parks system to ensure quality lighting guidelines both within the park and in the surrounding community.

In 2010 the park completed lighting retrofits to meet 100% with the shielding and spectral considerations for low-light areas.


9. Chaco Culture National Historical Park- New Mexico

Allows visitors to connect with the ancient people and beautiful celestial environment. The park house ruins of a Pueblo civilization that thrived over a thousand years ago. The park has been protecting its archaeological riches since it was established in 1907

Pics of best night skies
Chaco Culture National Historical Park. Chaco great house at night. Credit: NPS

Chaco Culture Park received its gold tier designation in 2013.

The 34,000-acre park adopted a set of strict lighting guidelines that include the use of dark-sky friendly lighting now and in the future, ensuring that it will do its part to keep the nighttime environment natural and unspoiled for generations to come.

10. Parashant National Monument- Arizona

Located on the edge of the Grand Canyon, Parashant is often used for science and research. Scientist conduct acoustical monitoring,  bat research, cave research and of course, dark sky surveillance.

Best National parks for star viewing
Parashant Night Sky. Credit: NPS

Parashant received its gold tier dark sky designation in 2013. It’s the first park unit to custom design software and instruments for measuring starlight, Parashant has erected three remote, solar-powered stations that use photometric tools to gauge the illumination for stars in lux units.

The monument is located in the northwest corner of Arizona, bordering Nevada to the west and near the southern border of Utah. There are no paved roads or visitor services within the monuments million-plus acres. Visitors should be prepared for travel on rugged dirt roads. Going with an appropriate high clearance vehicle equipped with 8-ply or 10-ply tires or with two full-sized spare tires is recommended.


11. Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park (Canada/U.S.)

Waterton Lakes National Park in Alberta, Canada, and Glacier National Park in Montana, U.S., are collectively the first IDA International Dark Sky Parks spanning both sides of an international border.

Glacier Night Sky stargazing
Milky Way over Logan Pass. Credit: NPS

The park offers educational programs like “Half the Park Happens After Dark” and “Here Comes the Sun” to provide participants with an opportunity to see the night sky in all its glory using sophisticated telescopes.

Check the Ranger-led Activity Schedule for dates and times. Programs take place throughout the summer at St. Mary and Apgar. Special Logan Pass Star Parties will be announced too.


Goblin Silhouettes, Utah
Goblin Valley State Park at Dusk. Credit: Goblin Valley State Park

12. Goblin Valley State Park – Utah

Goblin Valley is known for its unique sandstone formations that are often compared to Mars.

The park received its gold tier dark sky designation in 2016. To highlight, the state park offers a variety of ranger-led events, including moonlit hikes and telescope tours.

Goblin Valley is near Bryce Canyon National Park and can offer smaller crowds with similar landscapes.

 

 


13. Capitol Reef National Park-Utah

Located in south-central Utah, Capitol Reef is known for its geologic monocline (a wrinkle on the earth) extending almost 100 miles. Its domes of white Navajo Sandstone define the park’s landscape and reminded early visitors of the dome of the United States Capitol building.

what's the best park for stargazing
Dark Sky over Capitol Reed National Park. Credit: NPS

The park received its gold tier dark sky designation in 2015, but that did not come with ease.  Dark skies have been a priority to the national park, and it has been working for more than 15 years to prevent light pollution and educate visitors

Astronomy-themed visitor programs began in 2000 and expanded considerably during the International Year of Astronomy in 2009. Since 2010 Capitol Reef has partnered with the National Park Service Night Sky Team to host specialized astronomy volunteers called Astro VIPs (Volunteers in Parks) who organize nighttime public programs at the Park.


14. Copper Breaks State Park-Texas

Located near the panhandle of Texas, Copper Breaks was historically held by the Comanche and Kiowa Native American tribes.The park received it gold tier dark sky designation in 2014. In recent years, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department started recognizing the impact of urban sprawl and resulting light pollution on many of its 95 state parks. Consequently, the parks have developed policies and lighting management plans to address the issue.

Copper Breaks Night Sky
The Milky Way rises over Copper Breaks State Park. Credit: Amitabh Mukherjee

15. Enchanted Rock State Natural Area-Texas

Relatively close to Austin and San Antonio, Enchanted Rock is a massive granite dome that attracts thousands each year.Enchanted Rock has hosted star parties for park visitors since 2011 and received its dark sky designation in 2014, the same time as its sister park Copper Breaks.

Best place to see stars
Credit: Enchanted Rock State Park.

One exciting thing about Enchanted Rock is that they installed a dark sky monitor to measure the relative darkness of the sky above the park. The monitoring station posts readings to this page every 15 minutes during the night. The meter is not active during daylight. You can see real-time sky darkness measurements on their website. 


16. South Llano River State Park-Texas

Just a stone’s throw from Enchanted Rock, South Llano River Park is famous for camping, canoeing, tubing, and fishing.The park is located at the edge of a vast pool of darkness ranging southwest to the Big Bend of the Rio Grande River. The park is new to the ranks of gold tier dark sky designations. It announced its certification in February of 2017.

Best places to see Milky Way
Under the Stars at South Llano State Park. Credit: Amitabh Mukherjee

Located five miles from the nearest town, the South Llano River State Park ranks as a “3” on the Bortle Scale which ranks skies from 1 to 9, with one being the darkest skies and nine being the least dark. The darkness at the park provides visitors with a spectacular view of the stars.

South Llano also has a real-time dark sky monitoring from the parks permanently installed Sky Quality Meter.


17. Great Basin National Park-Nevada

Located in Nevada, near the Utah border, Great Basin National Park boasts of 13,000-foot peaks, caves and sage covered foothills.

Night Sky Mount Washington
Great Basin National Park- A bristlecone pine on Mount Washington. Credit: NPS Photo.

In 2016 the park received its dark sky designation, and it wears like a badge of honor. On a clear, moonless night in Great Basin National Park, thousands of stars, five planets, star clusters, meteors, human-made satellites, the Andromeda Galaxy, and the Milky Way can be seen with the naked eye.Low humidity and minimal light pollution, combined with high elevation, create a unique window to the universe.

On summer nights when the moon is too bright for our regular astronomy programs, join a “dark ranger” for a full moon hike! These highly popular hikes start just after sunset and traverse Great Basin under a moonlit sky. The program is free, but tickets are required. You can make reservations in person at the Lehman Caves Visitor Center.


18. Capulin Volcano National Monument-New Mexico

The cone of Capulin Volcano rises steeply from the surrounding grassland to an elevation of 2,494 m above sea level. Its irregular rim is about a 2 km in circumference, and the bottom is about 120 m below the rim.

Amazing Night Skies
The summer Milky Way shines over Capulin Volcano National Monument, New Mexico. Credit NPS

The Park, which received its Dark Sky Designation in 2016 is situated in one of the darker locations in, the lower 48 U.S. states, and as a result, it presents night skies that are nearly pristine under typical conditions.


19. Dead Horse Point State Park – Utah

Adjacent to Canyonlands National Park, Dead Horse is best known for its use in the iconic final ‘Grand Canyon’ scene of the 1991 film Thelma & Louise.

Dead Horse Yurts and Night Sky
Dead Horse Point State Park- Photo of the night sky from the yurts. Credit: Bret Edge

The park opened in 1959 and has an elevation of 5,900 feet. The park’s situation on the relatively undeveloped Colorado Plateau, and over 48 km (30 mi.) from Moab – the nearest populated place of any consequence – renders it almost as dark as Canyonlands International Dark Sky Park. Furthermore, its position above the canyon walls makes for spectacular, virtually unobstructed, viewing of the night sky with sweeping, 360-degree panoramas.


IDA Designated Silver Tier Parks


IDA Designated Bronze Tier Parks


Provisional Status

The Grand Canyon received its provisional status in the Summer of 2016. The temporary status means the park has three years to retrofit two-thirds of its lights to comply with the IDA’s guidelines to reduce light pollution. The IDA defines dark sky parks as “a land possessing an exceptional or distinguished quality of starry nights and a nocturnal environment that is specifically protected for its scientific, natural, educational, cultural heritage, and/or public enjoyment”.

The Grand Canyon has over 5,000 light fixtures in the Park; the NPS and the Grand Canyon Association have embarked on a multi-year effort to bring all of those fixtures into compliance with IDA requirements. They hope to complete this project by the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the National Park in 2019.

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