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No City Lights Here: The Best Stargazing Sites in the U.S.

July 11, 2014

Cherry Springs State Park offer 360 degrees of night-sky viewing. (Photo: Kevin Wigell, Wikimedia Commons)

By Jayme Moye

Experiencing the full brilliance of a starry night sky is no longer a given when you step outside. Even on the clearest nights, artificial light from cities obscures the natural darkness, making nighttime skies look a lot less majestic than they should. Across the country, however, there are still vast swathes of wilderness that retain the natural lightscape. In these star-gazing destinations, you’re sure to be awestruck as you gaze up at the jaw-droppingly beautiful skies above.

Cherry Springs State Park

Where: Pennsylvania

One of the darkest spots east of the Mississippi, Cherry Springs State Park became a Gold-Certified International Dark Sky Park, one of only a handful in the U.S., in 2008. Despite its proximity to urban areas, the 82-acre park is set atop a hill surrounded by the 262,000-acre Susquehannock State Forest and offers a 360-degree view of the night sky free from light pollution. In the summer, Cherry Springs serves up a robust schedule of sky tours on Friday and Saturday nights.

Insider Tip: Cherry Springs State Park’s Night Sky Viewing area, located north of Route 44 (opposite the gated Astronomy Observation Field), is always open. Here you’ll find public parking and information kiosks. Follow the walkway to the viewing area, which is shielded from passing vehicle lights.

Death Valley. (Photo: beboy / Shutterstock)

Death Valley National Park

Where: California

For those hoping to see meteor showers or lunar eclipses, there is no better vantage point than Death Valley National Park. The park produces very little artificial light within its 3.4 million acres, 91% of which are designated as wilderness with no development. But what really makes this Gold-Certified International Dark Sky Park so special is the combination of dry climate, clean air, and an expansive horizon that seems to start at your feet.

Insider Tip: Steer clear of Death Valley in the summer, when temperatures soar well above 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Instead, plan your visit from November to April, when temperatures are in the 70s and park rangers lead night sky programs.

Related: No Tents Allowed: The Best Tepee Hotels and Camps in the Country

Mauna Kea. (Photo: Andreas Koeberl/Shutterstock)

Mauna Kea

Where: Hawaii

Located on the Big Island, Mauna Kea is a 13,803-foot dormant volcano and the highest point in Hawaii. It’s also the site of the world’s largest and most advanced astronomical observatory. Astronomers consider the stargazing atop Mauna Kea to be the best on the planet, with virtually zero light pollution due to Hawaii’s location in the middle of the Pacific, and a strong island-wide lighting ordinance. But what really sets Mauna Kea apart is a tropical inversion cloud layer that isolates the summit from the moist maritime air below and ensures pure, dry skies free from atmospheric pollutants.

Insider Tip: Start at the Onizuka Center for International Astronomy Visitor Information Station at 9,200 feet, where free nightly stargazing programs are held every evening starting at 6 p.m.

Chaco Culture. (Courtesy: Gary A. Becker)

Chaco Culture National Historical Park

Where: New Mexico

With more than 4,000 prehistoric archaeological sites, Chaco Culture National Historic Park is a fitting place to gaze at a night sky as pure and dark as when our earliest ancestors did. A natural dark spot thanks to its protected location in the San Juan Basin in northwestern New Mexico, Chaco reconfirmed its commitment to the night sky in 2013 with an International Dark Sky Park Gold Certification. The Chaco Night Sky Initiative presents astronomy programs, solar viewing, and stargazing by telescope from April to October. Pick up a schedule at the Visitor Center.

Insider Tip: The remote park can only be accessed via dirt roads. Use the directions on the park’s website, as the local roads recommended by some mapping applications can be unsafe for ordinary passenger cars.

Related: Let’s Go Camping — in a Teeny-Weeny Trailer

Kitt Peak. (Photo: John A Davis / Shutterstock)

Kitt Peak National Observatory

Where: Arizona

The Kitt Peak National Observatory near Tucson houses the world’s largest collection of optical telescopes, and the Visitor Center and Museum is open to the public. The clear dark skies of the Sonoran Desert are famous for stargazing, and the observatory’s location atop a mountain (and the opportunity to use a 20-inch telescope) solidifies this site as one of the best night sky views in the U.S.

Insider Tip: To use the Observatory’s telescopes, register for one of the Nightly Observing Programs for $49, plus a small fee for the shuttle from the Visitor Center to the peak. For a once-in-a-lifetime experience (with a price tag to match), try the Advanced Observing Program and spend the night at the Observatory with a staff astronomer. 

The Headlands. (Courtesy: Robert de Jonge)

The Headlands

Where: Michigan

Free from most city light pollution, the Headlands are located on the shores of the Straits of Mackinac, at the tip of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. A 550-acre park, the Headlands became a Silver-Certified International Dark Sky Park in 2011. While the stargazing can’t quite compete with the remote sites in the Western U.S., the Headlands more than makes up for it with staff enthusiasm and extensive programming offered free of charge.

Insider Tip: Built in 2012, the Dark Sky Discovery Trail takes visitors from the Headlands entrance to the designated Dark Sky Viewing Area along a one-mile paved path.

Related: 7 Natural Phenomena You Must See Before You Die

Denali National Park. (Photo: karrapavan / Shutterstock)

Denali National Park and Preserve

Where: Alaska

No discussion on stargazing would be complete without mentioning the Northern Lights, also known as the Aurora Borealis. This jaw-dropping phenomenon of greens, reds, blues, and purples dancing across the night sky occurs as a result of a coronal mass ejection—a giant burst of solar wind and magnetic fields that interact with elements in the earth’s atmosphere. The Northern Lights center on the magnetic poles, which makes Alaska the best place in the U.S. to spot them. And what better place than Denali National Park? Think six million acres of raw, wild landscape with just one road.

Insider Tip: In Alaska, there is too much natural sunlight in the summer to see the stars. Plan your trip for the fall, winter, or early spring, when long hours of darkness make for perfect night sky viewing. The Northern Lights are hard to predict, so consult the aurora forecast from the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

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