As the days get shorter, stargazers have more opportunities to celebrate the night—and national parks offer some of the darkest skies in the country.
If you have trouble seeing the stars from where you live, you’re not alone. Urban areas have become so bright that more than 80 percent of the U.S. population can no longer see the Milky Way from their front door. The National Park Service has its own Night Sky Team to help protect this diminishing resource.
Find a spot to enjoy the Perseid meteor shower next week, or a plan an awe-inspiring trip during the darker months for a glimpse of how the heavens looked before the dawn of electric light.
1. Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah
In 2007, the International Dark-Sky Association named Natural Bridges the first international dark-sky park in the world. This prestigious distinction recognizes the park’s world-class stargazing opportunities as well as its commitment to preserving the darkness through educational programs and responsible outdoor lighting. Enjoy spectacular night skies through the monument’s sandstone arches and rock formations—in some places, visitors may see up to 15,000 stars in a single night. Astronomy programs are presented at the visitor center on Wednesday and Thursday nights through October.
2. Death Valley National Park, California
Another acclaimed international dark-sky park, the astonishing dark sky and stark desert landscape make Death Valley an ideal place to look for meteors. According to the International Dark-Sky Association, the level of light pollution is so low, it “offers views close to what could be seen before the rise of cities.” On October 17 and 18, the Las Vegas Astronomical Society presents its fall stargazing program.
3. Chaco Culture National Historical Park, New Mexico
More than 99% of Chaco Culture is a “natural darkness zone” with no permanent outdoor lighting. It is also the only* site in the National Park System with its own observatory, offering deep-space viewing and a digital imaging system that lets visitors see nebulas, supernovas, and distant galaxies. Frequent ranger-led night sky programs include background on the ways early native culture connected with the night skies. On September 22, during the autumn equinox, join park staff at sunrise in Casa Rinconada to observe the alignment of the building with the equinox sunrise.
*Update: Great Basin National Park opened its own observatory in September 2016. These are now the only two parks in the system with deep-space viewing facilities.
4. Acadia National Park, Maine
The East Coast, with its bright lights and big cities, offers few truly good places to see the night sky. Acadia is the exception. Surrounded by ocean, this 47,000-acre park has one of the largest expanses of naturally dark sky east of the Mississippi. Enjoy one of the regular ranger programs on the night skies as stars emerge over Sand Beach, or visit on September 25-29 when the park hosts the Astronomical League’s 6th Annual Night Festival in Bar Harbor.
5. Great Basin National Park, Nevada
Great Basin’s high elevation and arid climate offer excellent opportunities to see the stars, with nearly 360-degree views of the horizon. The Milky Way seems to rise from the park’s highest point, Wheeler Peak. Weekly astronomy programs by the park’s “dark rangers” pair educational talks with telescope observation. The park also offers a Perseid meteor shower watching party in mid-August, as well as a three-day astronomy festival September 18 through 20 with special astronomy-themed events including daytime activities for children and adults.
6. Badlands National Park, South Dakota
On any given night, visitors to Badlands may see up to 7,500 stars and a particularly clear view of the Milky Way galaxy. Astronomy programs with park-provided telescopes in the Cedar Pass area also offer the chance to see planets, nebulae, and other wonders, all set against the stunning buttes, pinnacles, and spires of this landmark park. Night-sky viewing is offered at the Cedar Pass Campground Amphitheater Friday through Monday nights in the summer.
7. Big Bend National Park, Texas
Big Bend’s remote location, low humidity, and infrequent clouds add up to superior night-sky viewing. This international dark-sky park is one of the places least affected by light pollution in the continental United States. On a clear night, visitors can even see the Andromeda galaxy, 2 million light years away. Winter, the park’s least humid season, is the best time to see Big Bend’s night skies.
8. Denali National Park, Alaska
Denali’s wild and remote location offers excellent stargazing—during times of year when the midnight sun isn’t shining. Its latitude also gives it a special claim to fame: the chance to see the aurora borealis. Although the northern lights occur year-round, these fantastic light displays are only visible during the colder, darker times of year. The phenomenon is also famously difficult to predict, but planning a visit from late fall to early spring during the new moon could help your chances. Though you might not have to wait that long—by the second week of August, between midnight and two in the morning, the night sky is dark enough to potentially allow views of the aurora.
9. Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah
The fairy-like silhouettes of Bryce Canyon’s famed hoodoos frame thousands of stars in one of the darkest night skies in the country. This park is one of the most popular places to stargaze in the National Park System, and its staff offers several night-sky programs a week for most of the year, including regular presentations by guest astronomers on a range of topics and more than 50 telescopes for visitors to use. Star programs are offered every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday night beginning at 8:30 p.m. in August and 8 p.m. in September.
10. Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument, Arizona
This national monument just west of Grand Canyon National Park was recently named an International Dark Sky Province for the “flawless night skies” over its million-plus acres of isolated wilderness. Its unique views of the darkness should only be explored by those comfortable with its remote location and experienced in wilderness survival and safety.
About the author
Lynn Davis Former Las Vegas Senior Program Manager
Lynn Davis joined NPCA in April 2008 to open and manage a new, strategic field office in Nevada. As the Las Vegas Senior Program Manager, she works on behalf of the interests of several national parks in Nevada and throughout the American Southwest.