JUN 19 2023    
Best National Parks for Stargazing
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Best National Parks for Stargazing

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For millennia, the stars have been compasses and calendars. The ancients even used the celestial bodies in the night sky to predict the future. An unobstructed view of the pristine Milky Way in all its glory can be a richly spiritual experience. No wonder our primitive ancestors looked skyward with awe and often worshipped the stars as divine guardians. 

Unfortunately, expanding cities and the resulting light pollution have obstructed our modern view of the heavenly bodies spinning in the sky above us. Few people realize the jaw-dropping beauty of the midnight sky unhindered by the light clutter of streetlights.

Because most of our national parks are in secluded areas, any of the 424 sites in the system will offer a better view of the stars than the average suburban backyard. However, a handful of parks provide truly spectacular stargazing opportunities. 

So pack your tent, a telescope, and a warm sweater, and get ready to hit the road to any of these extra-special places to observe the brilliance of the night sky. Here is a list of the best national parks for stargazing.

International Dark Sky Parks

The International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) was founded in 1988 by astronomers David Crawford and Tim Hunter. 

Today, the IDA is the recognized authority on light pollution, which not only disrupts our view of the universe but also disrupts wildlife, negatively affects human health, wastes energy, and contributes to climate change. The organization is also on the leading edge of fighting light pollution worldwide. 

One of their most significant public contributions is recognizing, preserving, and advocating for areas of true darkness. These designated Dark Sky Parks help protect nocturnal wildlife and provide ideal astrological research conditions. 

Additionally, dark parks also provide visitors a front-row seat to the galaxy. That’s why all the spots on our list are certified International Dark Sky Parks.

Cape Lookout National Seashore

North Carolina

While most of the best national parks for stargazing are in the western United States, there is one exception. Cape Lookout National Seashore became a certified International Dark Sky Park in December 2021. It was the first Atlantic coastal spot in the National Park System (NPS) to receive the designation. 

There are a few easily accessible spots at Cape Lookout for stargazing, such as the Harker’s Island Visitor Center parking lot and the nearby picnic area. However, the best galactic viewing opportunities occur on the barrier islands, only accessible by boat. While there are no established campgrounds in the park, more than 50 miles of primitive beach offer ample opportunity for pitching a tent within spitting distance of the water. Lucky seaside campers might also catch glimpses of glowing bioluminescence in the water during summer. 

Voyageurs National Park


Located in northern Minnesota, Voyageurs National Park encompasses 218,055 acres of wetlands, streams, lakes, rocky cliffs, and thick forests. Voyageurs has been a certified International Dark Sky Park since December 2020. 

With plenty of wide open spaces and unhindered horizons, visitors can see an expanse of stars anywhere inside the Park. However, if you’re looking for prime sky-viewing locations, pick a spot anywhere along the park’s endless lakeshores. The Beaver Pond and Voyagerus Overlooks are also popular stargazing areas. 

You may also glimpse the Northern Lights during your stay if you're lucky. The Aurora Borealis shines sporadically over the park. Your chances of seeing them are slightly better during the winter months. 

Badlands National Park

South Dakota

Badlands National Park consists of a sprawling 244,000 acres of protected prairie, unusual rock formations, deeply carved canyons and ridges, and some of the richest fossil beds in the world. While there’s plenty to do and see during the day, the real show begins after the sun goes down. 

Because no big cities or other major sources of light pollution are nearby, Badlands National Park offers a special kind of darkness for its visitors to experience. While the typical constellations we all know are there, bright and clear, the deep darkness of the Badlands allows observers to see the International Space Station, more planets in our solar system, star clusters, vibrant views of the Milky Way, and even nebulae. Occasionally, the Aurora Borealis will make an appearance in the Badlands night sky. 

Big Bend National Park


With more than 150 miles of desert and mountain trails, Big Bend National Park is a hiker’s dream come true. In addition to hiking trails, scenic drives, and plenty of floating opportunities on the Rio Grand, Big Bend has the least light pollution of any park in the Lower 48.  It is also one of the least-visited parks in the NPS, so you’ll have plenty of elbow room as you enjoy pristine night sky views. 

The park makes the most of its wide-open dark skies with regularly scheduled night sky interpretive programs, such as moonlight walks and ofter-dark star parties. 

Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve


Although Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is home to the tallest sand dunes in North America, the Park has a diverse landscape that includes wetlands, forests, grasslands, alpine lakes, and gorgeous mountain views. 

A certified International Dark Sky Park since 2019, Great Sand Dunes is truly an experience after the sun goes down. The best stargazing conditions coincide with the new moon when the Milky Way appears as a dull, luminescent cloud in the sky. 

Glacier National Park


There’s a reason Montana has the nickname “Big Sky Country,” and those expansive, wide-open skies are perfect for viewing stars, planets, comets, and other celestial bodies. 

Located in northern Montana, right on the Canadian border, Glacier National Park is “a showcase of melting glaciers, alpine meadows, carved valleys, and spectacular lakes.” With over 700 miles of trails, the Park is a perfect destination for wilderness adventure seekers. 

Glacier National Park shares its International Dark Sky Park designation with its sister park,  Waterton Lakes National Park of Canada, making it the only Dark Sky Park to span two countries. 

Glacier hosts park-wide night-time viewing events and plans some excellent Ranger-led programs throughout the year, and the Northern Lights sometimes put on a show for park visitors.

Zion National Park


During the day, the massive sandstone cliffs and towering rock formations almost glow in creams and pinks against a brilliant blue sky. Those same cliffs blaze in reds and oranges at night against a steady stream of stars. 

Zion’s Museum patio is a popular spot for gazing at the star-filled night sky. Parking and public restrooms are open for nighttime visitors, and the location is also a great place to watch the sunrise. If you prefer to do your nighttime viewing away in a more secluded spot, the Pa’rus Trail is perfect. The South and Watchman campgrounds also offer impeccable views if you plan to stay overnight. 

Zion isn’t the only spot in Utah to enjoy the night sky. The state is chock full of International Dark Sky Parks. Every National Park in the state,  Arches National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park, Canyonlands National Park, and Capitol Reef National Park, has earned the designation, as well as multiple Utah state parks. 

Grand Canyon National Park


Grand Canyon National Park stretches along 278 miles of the Colorado River and offers one of the most spectacular examples of erosion on the planet. The gorge is 10 miles across and a mile deep. The daytime views of this national monument are breathtaking and draw nearly 5 million visitors each year. 

However, the Grand Canyon is just as breathtaking at night. The Milky Way is bright enough to cast shadows during the new moon. Sky viewing is easy in the Park. Plenty of places along the Rim Trail and convenient overlooks along the scenic Desert View Drive make perfect spots for stargazing. 

Great Basin National Park


Great Basin National Park features stunning vistas and mysterious underground limestone caves. A designated Dark Sky Park since 2016, it is also one of the best National Parks for stargazing. Thanks to its remote location, high elevation, and low humidity, visitors can view spectacular displays in the heavens. Great Basin also hosts a superb ranger-led astronomy program.

Star clusters, satellites, the Milky Way, the Andromeda Galaxy, and five planets are easily seen on a clear, moonless night, even without a telescope. The views are fabulous from almost anywhere in the park. However, if you want to experience something truly magnificent, take in the scenes from the Baker Archeological Site after the sun goes down. 

Joshua Tree National Park


Located where two distinct desert ecosystems, the Colorado and the Mojave, intersect, Joshua Tree National Park is home to a variety of plants and animals and stretches through scenic desert landscapes. At night, the Park’s sky becomes a glittering dome of stars, planets, satellites, and passing meteors. 

The night-sky views are breathtaking from anywhere inside the Park. However, the Pinto Basin Road between Cholla Cactus Garden and Cottonwood is the best place for stargazing because it has the least traffic. 

The Park offers night sky programs throughout the year. It also hosts the Night Sky Festival in mid-October. This ticketed event is planned in conjunction with the Joshua Tree Residential Education Experience (JTREE) and the Sky’s The Limit Observatory and Nature Center.

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