Dark sky parks that offer majestic views of the Milky Way
What is a dark sky park? The International Dark-Sky Park Association (IDA) is an organization set up to protect natural environments against the effects of light pollution. The IDA considers areas to be designated dark sky parks based on criteria they describe 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.”
It’s no coincidence that many of the best places for viewing the night sky are in America’s national parks, seeing as these are some of the most remote and least developed places, particularly the desert and canyon areas. Again not a coincidence, as these are the places with little to no development and are far from major population centers and urban lights. Thus, the majority of the best places for stargazing are in the west of the country, in areas with the little to no light pollution.
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t any good dark sky locations in other parts of the United States, just fewer of them, and it also doesn’t mean they are all in national parks. So read on to find out which are the best places for perfect night sky viewing. On moonless nights with clear conditions, some of these places may even allow you to see Saturn’s rings with just a pair of binoculars! Stunning.
Arches National Park, Utah
The region of the Colorado plateau that is home to Arches National Park is also home to some of the darkest night skies in the United States. This area is so far from any urban light pollution, that you can see the Milky Way in all its splendor, thousands of stars, as well as planets such as Jupiter and Saturn. Popular locations for stargazing are The Windows area, the Garden of Eden viewpoint and the Balanced Rock picnic area. Click here to visit the National Park Service website to learn more about stargazing in Arches National Park.
Big Bend National Park, Texas
Big Bend National Park in Texas is one of the places in the whole of the lower 48 states that has the least light pollution, so it’s not surprising that it boasts spectacular nighttime views of the sky. Efforts are taken here to keep light pollution to an absolute minimum for pristine views of the Milky Way and other galaxies. As such, it is an excellent location for night sky photography and constellation spotting. Find out more here.
AMC Maine Woods, Maine
While the majority of the best places for viewing the night sky are in the western United States, there are still some places in the east where you can see a pristine night sky. AMC Maine Woods in Maine is the first such location in New England that is certified as an International Dark Sky Park. Here, people can view the darkest skies on the whole of the U.S. East Coast and there are astronomy-based education programs to take part in too. Click here to learn more.
Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park, Florida
Located in Okeechobee, Florida, Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park is one location in the Southeastern United States that is further removed from urban and suburban light pollution than probably anywhere else in Florida. Here you can see the Milky Way in all its glory and marvel at the beauty of the full night sky. Take a look on the Florida State Park website for all the details.
Great Basin National Park, Nevada
At Great Basin, you can enjoy wondrous views of the night sky at almost any location in the park. The National Park Service tell us somewhere with an open horizon would be a good spot, and that Mather Overlook is an excellent choice, or the Baker Astrological Site. Take a star chart with you and a good pair of binoculars on a moonless (new moon) night. More information can be found here on the National Park Service website.
Cherry Springs State Park, Pennsylvania
Another location in the eastern United States that, due to its exceptionally dark skies, offers up fantastic opportunities for stargazing and astronomy. Cherry Springs is designated an International Dark Sky Park and as such has very little urban light pollution. There are regular stargazing programs you could choose to attend, or simply visit the park’s Night Sky Public Viewing Area with a pair of binoculars. The Pennsylvania State Park website has more details.
Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
There are few more picturesque places for viewing a prehistoric night sky than that of the Grand Canyon. Visitors are treated to jaw-dropping scenery by day that is perfectly partnered with night sky views that leave people starring in amazement. Two of the best locations on the South Rim are Moran Point and Lipan Point. Wrap up warm as it can get chilly after the sun sets. Learn more about stargazing at the Grand Canyon here.
Craters of the Moon National Monument, Idaho
As a national park unit named after the moon, it is fitting that Craters of the Moon National Monument is also a wonderful location for viewing the celestial sky. You can take a tour of the heavens by joining a Star Party, which are held by the Idaho Astronomical Society each Spring and Fall, or join one of the ranger-led moon hikes that take place in the summer. To find out more, visit the NPS website.
Chaco Culture National Historical Park, New Mexico
The Chacoan people lived in this area thousands of year ago, and today visitors are drawn to the park to learn about the ancient sites of the Chacoan culture. But it’s not only this reason that people attend. The Chaco Canyon draws in stargazers and astronomers for it’s exceptionally dark skies. Here you can view the night sky while sharing a special connection with the ancient lands of the people that once thrived in this challenging environment. Take a look here to discover more.
While the above locations are highly recommended for stargazing and viewing the Milky Way, they are not the only places that offer great views of the night sky. There are more than 60 International Dark Sky Parks in America. For the full list, click here.
Tips before you go
- Always check the weather forecast! This is obvious, but ideally you want a completely cloud-free sky.
- Go on moonless nights. Unless you specifically want to see the moon, going on a new moon will be the best choice for darker skies.
- Wear warm layers you can remove/add. In remote locations, the nighttime temperature can differ vastly from the daytime temperature.
- Take binoculars. Even a regular pair of binoculars will offer up some fantastic viewing of the night sky.
- Take a camping chair. If you plan on stargazing for any length of time, the last thing you want is to be standing and looking upwards for long periods.
Wherever you decide to go stargazing, picking one of the above places is sure to give you a fantastic night sky experience. Don’t forget to check out the links for detailed information of the above locations and check ahead with the park before you go to make sure all the usual facilities are open.
We wish you happy stargazing wherever you choose to go.
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The Kovol Blog Team