Destinations

10 best dark sky parks and places for the ultimate stargazing

Dark parks and places are the best way to see the Milky Way with the naked eye — Photo courtesy of bjdlzx / E+ Via Getty Images

There is something special about gazing up at the cosmos in wonderment. It connects all of us through time and space, whether in San Francisco or New York City. It’s the same sky our ancestors looked upon, sometimes seeking answers and guidance through astronomy. Early explorers such as Christopher Columbus and the Polynesians used astral navigation to plot the course of their voyages.

Since 1988, the nonprofit DarkSky International, formerly known as the International Dark-Sky Association, has worked to preserve darkness in our skies for the benefit of humans and wildlife. Reducing light pollution can help improve sleep and mental health, along with reducing gas emissions that impact the environment.

Visiting designated dark sky parks and places encourages us to take a break from our devices and allows us to connect with nature.

What is a dark sky park?

There are 87 dark sky parks around the United States for excellent stargazingThere are 87 dark sky parks around the United States for excellent stargazing — Photo courtesy of 4kodiak / Getty Images

A dark sky park is a parcel of land or area that restricts artificial light to preserve natural darkness in the sky. Free of light pollution, visitors can see stars, constellations, and planets with the naked eye. In addition to dark sky parks, there are designations for dark sky sanctuaries, reserves, and communities, some of which are listed below.

Working to get recognized as an International Dark Sky Place (IDSP) is no small feat. It typically takes several years because of the strict criteria, some of which include demonstrating minimal light pollution and offering ongoing educational programs and events.

Today there are 87 dark sky parks and over 120 combined dark sky parks, sanctuaries, reserves, and communities in the United States. Utah’s Natural Bridges Monument was the first national park to receive dark sky certification in 2007.

The Bortle Dark-Sky Scale measures dark-sky status with a numeric value from numbers one to nine, with one being the most optimal for star viewing. Other factors to consider for stargazing include the phases of the moon and the weather — the best time for astral viewing is during a new moon.

Many national parks receive a Bortle 1 rating, but you might wonder which national park has the darkest sky. According to the National Park Service, Big Bend National Park is so remote that it’s the national park with the darkest sky in the U.S., not including Alaska.

Here are 10 dreamy dark sky parks and places for stargazing.

Grand Canyon, Arizona

Desert View Watchtower is an ideal dark-sky watching spot in the Grand CanyonDesert View Watchtower is an ideal dark-sky watching spot in the Grand Canyon — Photo courtesy of Stephen Dito

The second most-visited park in America welcomes almost 5 million visitors annually, and it’s no surprise that many come here to gaze upon the cosmos. Recognized as a dark sky park in 2019 as it celebrated its 100th anniversary, Grand Canyon National Park spreads across 1.2 million acres — bigger than the entire state of Rhode Island.

When visiting the park, you might notice the street lamps are angled down rather than up; this helps to preserve natural darkness. You can visit year-round to spot the Cygnus Dark Rift and the Scutum Star Cloud in the Milky Way with the naked eye. The best times for stargazing are about 90 minutes after sunset and 90 minutes before sunrise.

Sedona, Arizona

Sedona International is a designated dark sky communitySedona International is a designated dark sky community — Photo courtesy of John Weatherby

Sedona, with less than 10,000 year-round residents, was designated an International Dark Sky Community in 2014. Located in the high desert, Sedona is known for its vibrant red rocks and four vortex sites, but also for its community efforts to minimize light pollution.

Our favorite places to stargaze in Sedona include Thunder Mountain Trailhead for its panoramic vistas and Fay Canyon Trail, a popular area for spotting shooting stars. This eclectic artist town gets sunshine almost 280 days a year, so you have ample opportunity to enjoy clear skies. The only months to avoid are July and August, the rainy season.

Joshua Tree National Park, California

Joshua Tree National Park is one of hundreds of International Dark Sky ParksJoshua Tree National Park is one of hundreds of International Dark Sky Parks — Photo courtesy of Visit Greater Palm Springs

Designated in 2017 as an International Dark Sky Park, Joshua Tree National Park spans over 800,000 acres in the Sonoran Desert of Southern California. Best known for its rugged landscape and gnarly-shaped trees with spiky poms, stargazing here is the ultimate experience.

There are four appointed viewing areas, and you can park your car in any of these lots for optimal views: Quail Springs, Hidden Valley, Cap Rock, and Ryan Mountain. Guests can pitch a tent at any of the nine campgrounds (most require reservations). There are many free nighttime, ranger-led programs highlighting astronomy and park history.

Headlands International Dark Sky Park, Michigan

Headlands staff astronomer Andrew Johnson stargazes in MichiganHeadlands staff astronomer Andrew Johnson stargazes in Michigan — Photo courtesy of John Praderelli

Headlands International Dark Sky Park is a 550-acre county park that sits along the shores of Lake Michigan. It earned its designation as a dark sky location in 2011, at the time only the sixth recognized in the U.S. The park is open 24 hours a day and offers a variety of free educational programs throughout the year.

If looking for an all-around experience, the park offers a three-story guesthouse for rent. Camping in the park is not permitted; although, there are campsites nearby and the county also offers several off-site rentals. The best times to visit are from March to early December; in the summer, watch for the captivating Milky Way and the Perseid meteor shower. The best place for viewing is in front of the Event Center, facing the lake, where guests can park in the lot.

Chaco Culture National Historical Park, New Mexico

Chaco Culture National Historical Park spans 34,000 acresChaco Culture National Historical Park spans 34,000 acres — Photo courtesy of New Mexico True

Nestled in the San Juan Basin in New Mexico, Chaco Culture National Historical Park spreads across 34,000 acres and is a prime dark sky park. It received its designation as an International Dark Sky Park in 2013.

The park showcases the preservation of Pueblo culture and offers guided cultural tours. Additionally, the National Park Service hosts the Chaco Night Sky Program, a long-standing initiative that dates back to 1991. A big draw is the observatory, which leads talks on astronomy and the park’s ties to Pueblan culture and tradition.

Conveniently near the park entrance, Gallo Campground is considered by many to be the best spot for stargazing because of its clear view of the sky.

Oregon Outback International Dark Sky Sanctuary

The Warner Valley Overlook has stunning stargazing opportunities at the Oregon Outback International Dark Sky SanctuaryThe Warner Valley Overlook has stunning stargazing opportunities at the Oregon Outback International Dark Sky Sanctuary — Photo courtesy of Travel Southern Oregon

In 2024, this 2.5-million-acre portion of southeastern Oregon was recognized as an International Dark Sky Sanctuary, deeming it the largest dark sky sanctuary in the world. The collaborative effort to get the designation took four years, including extensive data collection, research, and community outreach.

“With a Bortle 1 night rating, these skies are rare and unique — and we have lots of it,” says Bob Hackett, executive director, Travel Southern Oregon.

The Oregon Outback International Dark Sky Sanctuary contains a section of the Fremont-Winema National Forest, 80,000 acres of state-owned land, 1.7 million acres of U.S. Bureau of Land Management property, and various unincorporated communities. This remote, high desert location is home to sagebrush, rabbitbrush, and bunchgrass, with wildflowers such as Indian paintbrush and mariposa lilies appearing in the spring and summer. You’ll find many options for camping.

Our favorite spot for star viewing is Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge, where you can soak in natural hot springs under the stars.

Copper Breaks State Park, Texas

Copper Breaks State Park offers monthly star parties and Milky Way viewingsCopper Breaks State Park offers monthly star parties and Milky Way viewings — Photo courtesy of Wirestock / iStock Via Getty Images

Copper Breaks State Park, spanning almost 1,900 acres, is located in the panhandle of Texas. With a population of less than 3,500, this area includes mostly farms and undeveloped land, making it an ideal stargazing destination. Copper Breaks gets a Rating 2 on the Bortle Scale, which is excellent

Designated an International Dark Sky Park in 2014, the park holds monthly star parties and viewings. Because of its remote location, many photographers visit to obtain images of the Milky Way. The park features several campsites, which need to be booked in advance.

Enchanted Rock State Natural Area, Texas

Enchanted Rock State Natural Area got its dark sky park designation in 2014Enchanted Rock State Natural Area got its dark sky park designation in 2014 — Photo courtesy of Texas Parks and Wildlife Department

Enchanted Rock State Natural Area covers 1,644 acres in the Texas Hill Country, known for its rugged canyons and steep mountains. There are plenty of things to do for visitors during the day, but it’s also a famous dark sky park, receiving its certification in 2014. This is some of the best stargazing in the state.

The Putman Mountain Observatory monitors and provides real-time darkness fluctuations that might help plan your trip. The park hosts educational nighttime events, including stargazing parties and campfire stories.

You can get great views year-round; however, catch the best views of the Milky Way from February to October.

Greater Big Bend International Dark Sky Reserve, Texas

Big Bend National Park offers ranger-led dark sky programsBig Bend National Park offers ranger-led dark sky programs — Photo courtesy of Travel Texas

Designated an International Dark Sky Reserve in 2022, Greater Big Bend is a collective of parks and communities spreading over 9 million acres throughout Texas and Mexico, making it the largest dark sky certified place on the planet.

Big Bend National Park, which received its dark sky park recognition in 2012, is remotely situated in southwestern Texas, incorporating the Chisos Mountains and a portion of the Chihuahuan Desert. A prime spot for stargazing, the park offers many ranger-led dark sky programs throughout the year. There are four campgrounds available, along with an RV park with hookups.

Zion National Park, Utah

Zion National Park has minimal light impact when the sun goes downZion National Park has minimal light impact when the sun goes down — Photo courtesy of National Park Service, Avery Sloss

Even though Zion National Park is part of the “Mighty 5” national parks in Utah, it was the last to receive its International Dark Sky Park certification in 2021. The expansive 148,016-acre destination is ideal for stargazing because of minimal light impact when the sun goes down. Enjoy the night skies in many spots; the easiest is the Pa’rus Trail, located near the Zion National Park Visitor Center and parking lot.

The eastern side of the park offers the darkest skies for astral viewing. Follow Kolob Terrace Road, which is approximately 25 miles long, but exercise caution as it’s a windy road. If you’re up for a night hike, Canyon Overlook Trail is an easy one-miler, which offers an awesome panoramic view.

Because of its vast skies and limited artificial light, you can’t go wrong any time of the year. As the seasons change in the park, you’ll witness different galaxies and planets.

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