Longer nights and clearer skies during winter make it an ideal season for stargazing, but most Americans live in light-polluted areas where the stars are difficult to see. Fortunately, some national parks feature darker skies near major urban areas.
According to a 2016 study, 99% of people in the United States live under light-polluted skies, and nearly 80% of people in North America can’t see the Milky Way from where they live. National parks provide some of the darkest skies in the country, but the best stargazing opportunities are in remote areas that can be difficult for most people to get to.
Fortunately, some parks near urban areas offer an improved view of the universe in locations that are accessible to more visitors. Here are a few options within about an hour and a half of several major cities. Learn more about parks near you on the National Park Service Night Sky website.
1. Lake Mead National Recreation Area, Arizona and Nevada
About half an hour from Las Vegas
According to National Geographic, Las Vegas is the brightest city on Earth when seen from space at night. But about half an hour east of this glitzy metropolitan area, Lake Mead offers nine designated wilderness areas where visitors can enjoy the solitude of a rugged desert landscape and gaze at a significantly darker night sky. The park sometimes has astronomy events in the summer, though the skies tend to be clear enough for stargazing all year — just pack extra layers to prepare for the much cooler temperatures at night, especially during winter.
2. Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia
About an hour and a half from Baltimore, Maryland, and Washington, D.C.
Thomas Jefferson once said that the landscape at Harpers Ferry was “worth a voyage across the Atlantic” to see. This park, which sits at the confluence of two major rivers, is steeped in Civil War history as well as natural beauty, and its suburban location means its skies are less polluted with light than much of the Baltimore-D.C. region. The Milky Way is visible on clear nights, and, according to Resource Managment Specialist Andrew S. Lee, compared to city views, “a suburban sky can be dramatic.” Lee has been working with town and county governments to raise awareness on lighting standards that will help preserve dark skies in the region, and he has been helping to organize two to three night-sky events a year in conjunction with a local astronomy club so that visitors can enjoy the stars in this unique setting. Offerings have included viewing parties with telescopes as well as programs that emphasize the park’s historic significance, sharing what the night skies were like in the time of 19th century abolitionist John Brown, whose famous raid took place here.
3. Everglades National Park and Big Cypress National Preserve, Florida
About an hour and an hour and a half from Miami, respectively
Even though Miami is right on the beach, extreme light pollution makes it difficult to see the stars from the city. Fortunately, area residents have a couple of excellent options for quality stargazing. Nearby Everglades National Park is so large and undeveloped that it provides ideal conditions for seeing the Milky Way and is one of the best places in South Florida to see the sky. Though Big Cypress is a slightly farther drive from downtown Miami, this preserve was the first national park site on the East Coast to receive recognition as an International Dark Sky Park. This means the site is not only a spectacular place to experience the night sky, but that staff are committed to helping preserve its natural darkness. Both parks offer regular night-sky viewing programs, particularly during the winter tourist season.
4. Golden Gate National Recreation Area and Point Reyes National Seashore, California
About half an hour and an hour and a half from San Francisco, respectively
San Francisco is one of the most populous cities in the country, and the region’s abundant artificial light makes it difficult to see the stars. Fortunately, Hawk Hill, part of the Marin Headlands at Golden Gate, offers an elevated spot in an open area with a better view of the night sky — as long as the city’s famous fog isn’t in the way. On a clear night, visitors can enjoy views of the city lights to the south and star-studded darkness to the north. For an even better chance of seeing the Milky Way, consider the longer drive to Point Reyes National Seashore, a less populous area near the ocean with significantly darker skies. Nearby Mount Tamalpais, a state park, also offers great views and regular, free astronomy programs.
5. Indiana Dunes National Park, Indiana
Less than an hour from Chicago
Chicago is one of the most light-polluted cities in the country, but its proximity to the Great Lakes means it is an easy drive (or an hour-and-a-half train ride) from a significantly darker shoreline. Indiana Dunes offers year-round stargazing programs on the park’s Lake Michigan beachfront, featuring experts from local astronomical societies who share the views from their telescopes and discuss remarkable features in the night sky, weather permitting.
6. Mount Rainier National Park, Washington
About an hour and a half from Seattle
At 14,411 feet tall, Mount Rainier towers dramatically in stature over the rest of Washington’s Cascade Range, offering a majestic centerpiece to one of the oldest national parks in the country. Fortunately for stargazers, this beloved mountain is just as impressive at night, when the peak seems to rise to touch the Milky Way. Park staff offer regular night-sky programs at the Paradise Visitor Center in the summer, weather permitting, though great views are possible throughout the year when skies are clear.
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About the author
Jennifer Errick Managing Editor of Online Communications
Jennifer writes, edits and moderates online content for NPCA.