Stargazing Kit for Camping and RVing

One of the best things about camping is getting away from city lights and gazing into the night sky. I’ve made a list of things that’ll make it even more enjoyable in this stargazing kit for campers.

With more than 200 Dark Sky Places there are plenty of places to catch a glimpse of the majesty and wonder of the stars. Astrological adventures and stargazing trips are a great way to explore natural phenomena in the night sky whether you’re planning around a supermoon or a meteor shower. 

For millennia, humanity has gazed upon the heavens searching for the answer to the universe. Although the constant movement of stars was the easiest to record, other events like the movements of neighboring planets and eclipses were also predicted and charted. Astronomy has always focused on the observations of its heavenly bodies.

Astronomy is the study of the planets, moon, stars, sun, galaxies, gas, dust, comets, and any other non-Earthly phenomena and bodies. NASA defines it simply as “the study of the planets, stars and space.”

With so many stars in the sky and a universe so vast, stargazing helps put life (and all of our problems) into perspective! It’s one of the biggest perks of camping when you have an open sky filled with stars above you.

Of course, all you need to stargaze is a clear sky and a craned neck. But to really soak in the heavens and enjoy your time outside at night, it helps to be comfortable. It’s also nice to know what you’re looking at and to see things even better.

Along the Bush Highway, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

By the way, I have written:

You should check those out, too.

Alrighty, let’s just jump right into this. The sooner we get through the items, the sooner you can plan your stargazing adventure.

1. Yoga mat

Um, I want to look at stars, not do yoga. I hear ya! But a quality yoga mat is better than any picnic blanket you’ll find. With their thick padding, you can lay down anywhere and comfortably gaze up at the stars.

It’s light and easy to carry with its strap. And it’s not a problem if it gets wet. Just be sure to let it air dry before you store it. 

Arches National Park, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Travel blanket and pillow

Look for a soft blanket made of microfiber fleece with waterproof backing. Some even come with a small inflatable pillow which means you can use the pillow and blanket at the same time.

Both the blanket and pillow zip up into a little bag. It’s lightweight, easy to carry, and, most importantly, very cozy!

Instead of sitting in a folding chair or camp chair where you have to crane your neck upward for hours to watch the stars, a more comfortable option is to spread out a warm, soft blanket. A good choice, the Lumberlander Camp Blanket from Duluth Trading Company will help you get comfortable on the ground. For a water-resistant option to keep the dampness of the ground from seeping in as the night goes on, REI’s Camp Blanket works perfectly.

3. Comfy, warm clothes

The travel blanket is really nice but you’ll also want to wear some warm, comfy clothes. There are obviously so many different options to choose from. But, obviously, any comfy, warm clothes will do.

I recommend a long-sleeve shirt or sweatshirt to keep the bugs off your arms. A hoodie is great too.

Usery Mountain Regional Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Bug spray

Some of the best stargazing spots are the ones that offer unobstructed views of the night sky with little to no light pollution like Big Bend National Park in Texas, Cosmic Campground in New Mexico, and Death Valley National Park in California. This means going away from the city into wide open spaces that are the perfect hangout spot for bugs—and nothing ruins the idyllic outdoor experience quite like being plagued and bitten by bugs or mosquitoes.

So, before you head out, make sure to use a long-lasting bug repellent that is effective and safe to use. Coleman SkinSmart DEET-free insect repellent spray is non-greasy, works on bugs like mosquitoes and ticks, and lasts for up to eight hours.

Stinkin’ mosquitos can ruin stargazing faster than a shooting star. I have two recommendations for bug spray. The first is a DEET-free botanical formula called Buzz Away Extreme. It’s perfect for those who want to use a natural repellent against mosquitos and ticks.

For those who are more concerned about ultimate protection and less about chemicals, there is Off! Deep Woods Bug Spray. It has 25 percent DEET and repels mosquitos, ticks, biting flies, gnats, and chiggers.

5. Backyard guide to the night sky

Good ol’ National Geographic created this excellent guide that lives up to its name. It provides essential information that’s easily understood and organized logically. 

It starts with the easiest constellations and then explains how to star-hop across the night sky to find others nearby. You’ll learn about black holes, solar flares, supernovas, and more.

It’s really a great guide for the whole family. A must-have in your stargazing for campers kit!

Casa Grande, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. Guide to the stars map

Purchasing a star map can be extremely helpful; you see what exactly it is you are looking at in the sky. 

This is a neat little gadget to play with. This map helps you find constellations visible to you based on the time and date and where you are.

It’s designed for beginners, so don’t worry if it sounds difficult to use. It’s not!

7. Using Star Charts and Wheels

Star wheels, also called planispheres, are circular maps of the stars designed to show what stars are viewable in the sky on any date and time. Ideal for people who are just starting out, planispheres use a star chart in the shape of a circle to provide a clear and easily maneuvered view of the brightest constellations, stars, and deep sky objects visible from a specific latitude.

Crystal River, Florida © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

8. Red flashlight

In order to read your stars map, you’re going to need a flashlight. But you don’t want to use a standard bright flashlight. Your eyes will have to keep adjusting to the darkness if you do.

Instead, you want to use a red flashlight. You’ll be able to see what you need to see without affecting your night vision. The added perk is red lights don’t disturb animals so you may spot some nocturnal wildlife while stargazing. 

9. SkyView Lite App

For those of you who don’t want to mess with a stars map (even though it’s fun), there’s a great modern option. SkyView Lite is a cool augmented reality app that outlines the constellations and names the planets on your iPhone.

You simply point your device’s camera at the sky and it’ll tell you what you’re looking at. It’s really neat, and one of the few times you’ll ever hear me encouraging people to use their phones while camping.

If you have an Android, look into using Star Walk2. And if you REALLY want to explore all the available apps, Space.com has a full review post for you to explore.

10. Beginner astronomy binoculars

Telescopes are bulky and hard to use. So, they’re not ideal for camping unless you’re an avid astronomy hobbyist. Celestron 7X50 beginning astronomy binoculars are a much more practical option for most people.

While the magnification won’t really compare to a telescope, they do give you a closer look with nice details and a sharp image. They come at a great price (under $50) especially relative to their highly-rated value.

Arches National Park, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

11. Fuel and hydration

Those of us who have pulled an all-nighter know the importance of caffeine and hydration for staying awake. This is even more important if you are spending a night outside stargazing. In fact, the Milky Way is most visible from 3 a.m. to sunrise in the summer months and from late evening to overnight hours during the fall. InstaFuel chai, coffee latte, and matcha powders from Laird Superfood—sipped from a travel coffee mug or insulated bottle like Yeti’s 46-ounce Rambler—are easy on-the-go options for a late night caffeine fix.

12. Backpack with cooler compartment

Now that you have everything your need for stargazing, you need something to keep it all in. Plus, some snacks, of course!

A large Matein backpack has plenty of room for your guidebook, binoculars, flashlight, map, bug spray, and possibly you can even fit your pillow and blanket pouch or at least clip it onto it. 

Best of all, it has an insulated compartment for a few snacks and drinks. Now you’ll have everything you need for stargazing while camping. It comes in a few different patterns, too.

Worth Pondering…

I have long thought that anyone who does not regularly—or ever—gaze up and see the wonder and glory of a dark night sky filled with countless stars loses a sense of their fundamental connectedness to the universe.

—Brian Greene

Big Bend National Park: Where the Mountains Meet the Desert in Texas

If you’re ready to see what the big deal is about Big Bend, here’s what you need to know to make the most out of your trip

Picking a national park is all about setting: Do you want deserts, forests, mountains, or water? Since everything’s bigger in TexasBig Bend National Park has it all. Cacti-strewn deserts shift to the wooded slopes of imposing mountains before again changing to spectacular river canons where greenish water flows.

Tucked in a remote corner of southwest Texas, mountain peaks meet the Chihuahuan Desert in the vast wilderness of Big Bend National Park. Adventure comes in many forms in this 1,252-square-mile reserve. You can hike to the top of lofty peaks, go paddling on the Rio Grande, soak in hot springs, or look for wildlife amid the park’s diverse habitats. Beyond the park, there are ghost towns to visit, scenic drives, and magnificent night skies—the stargazing is so impressive that Big Bend was named an International Dark Sky Park back in 2012.

As is the standard way of getting places in Texas, arriving at this natural marvel requires a good amount of driving, so get those road trip snacks and playlists ready. Given the logistical challenges of getting here, you’ll want to stick around a while to make the most of your stay.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Lay of the Land

The park has two main visitor centers: one at Panther Junction near the south end of Highway 385 and another at Chisos Basin where you’ll also find the Chisos Basin Campground and the Chisos Mountains Lodge. Three other visitor centers open seasonally from November to April.

There’s no public transport in the park, so you’ll need a car. If you plan to explore some of the backcountry roads, make it a high-clearance SUV.

Getting There

This park is far from everywhere which is part of Big Bend’s allure. Even if you live in Texas, you’ll be up for a serious drive: it’s over seven hours from San Antonio.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What to Do

The national park has over 150 miles of trails from short jaunts to multi-day backpacking adventures. One of the best full-day hikes is the ascent up Emory Peak, a roughly 10.5-mile roundtrip hike that affords magnificent views from atop the park’s highest summit (7,825 feet).

For something shorter but no less rewarding, hike the 1.7-mile Santa Elena Canyon Trail which takes you through a steep-walled canyon along the edge of the Rio Grande.

Speaking of the Rio Grande, this life-giving river in the desert offers a wide range of aquatic adventures. If you’re not packing a canoe, sign up for a river trip with a park operator like Far Flung Outdoor Center based in Terlingua. Going strong since 1976, this outfitter offers river trips ranging from half a day to 3- or 4-day trips, camping in pristine spots along the way. For DIY (Do It Yourself) adventures, Far Flung also hires out gear including canoes and an open-topped Jeep Wrangler.

While you’re in the Big Bend area, be sure to pay a visit to Terlingua, a former mining town that went bust in the 1940s. You can check out a desert graveyard and the ruins of old buildings some of which have been revitalized into newer restaurant and lodging options.

Wherever you roam, be sure to leave some time at the end of the day for a soak in the park’s hot springs. Set along the Rio Grande on the southeast side of the park, the hot springs are reachable via an easy half-mile hike and the 105-degree waters offer a delightful cap to the day’s adventures.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to stay in and around Big Bend

Since it takes a long time to reach the park—and then once there, you can spend a good amount of time just getting around within the park—it’s not a good idea to expect to find a campsite when you arrive; booking in advance is crucial if you plan on camping at Big Bend. Seriously, reservations for the developed campgrounds are required. These campgrounds are pretty much guaranteed to be full every night from November through April and there’s no first-come, first-serve situation here.

You definitely don’t want to be that person who just spent who knows how many hours driving to Big Bend to realize you’ll have to drive an hour or more back out to find somewhere to stay because there are no overflow campsites. And don’t even think about setting up camp in a parking lot or along the park roads because you will get in trouble—sorry ‘bout it.

So, on to the options! For camping within Big Bend, you have four developed campgrounds to choose from: Chisos Basin, Rio Grande Village, Cottonwood, and Rio Grande Village RV Park. You can book your site up to six months in advance, so get to planning now.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you’re someone who waits a little bit longer before making a move, there are a limited number of sites available for reservation up to 14 days in advance, but again—planning ahead pays big time with this out-of-the-way national park. There are also backcountry campsites and you’ll need a permit for those.

If there are no developed campsites within the park available during the time of your planned visit, don’t assume your big Big Bend camping adventure is dashed. There are still some camping options outside the park in nearby areas like Study Butte, Terlingua, and Lajitas.

Chisos Basin Campground (elevation: 5,400 feet) is nestled in open woodland within a scenic mountain basin. Campers enjoy the views of Casa Grande and Emory Peak. The sunset through the nearby “Window” is a Big Bend highlight. Some of the park’s most popular trails begin nearby. Chisos Basin offers 56 camping sites. Trailers over 20 feet and motorhomes over 24 feet are not recommended due to the narrow, winding road to the Basin and small campsites at this campground.

Rio Grande Village Campground (elevation: 1,850 feet) is set in a grove of cottonwoods and acacia trees near the Rio Grande River. Paved roads connect each campsite and grassy areas separate each site. Flush toilets, running water, picnic tables, grills, and some overhead shelters. Dump station nearby. Campers enjoy birdwatching, hiking, exploring. A camp store with showers and a park visitor center are nearby. Rio Grande Village offers 93 camping sites.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cottonwood Campground (elevation: 2,169 feet) is a quiet oasis in the western corner of Big Bend National Park. Reservations are required. Conveniently located between the Castolon Historic District, the scenic Santa Elena Canyon, and the tail end of the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, this small 22-site campground is one of the least-known and quiet campgrounds in the park. There is one group campsite and 21 individual sites. This is a remote campground in a remote park. It is dry camping, no hook-ups, and no generators are permitted.

Rio Grande Village RV Campground (elevation: 1,800 feet) is operated by Forever Resorts and offers 25 back-in RV sites with full hookups. Adjacent to the Rio Grande Village camp store the campground features a paved lot with grassy, tree-lined edges. This campground has the only full hook-ups in the park. Periodically, a few sites may not be available for a 40 foot or longer RVs due to the size of the parking lot and orientation of the spaces.

Your best bet if you’re staying outside the park is in Terlingua about a 45-minute drive from the Chisos Basin. Terlingua Ranch Lodge RV Park offers 8 pull-through sites with electric, water, and sewer connections and 12 back-in sites with electric and water hookups and a dump station nearby.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Maverick Ranch RV Park offers 100 full-service sites including 60 pull-through sites. Guests of the Maverick Ranch RV Park enjoy all of Lajitas Golf Resort amenities and activities including the Agave Spa, Black Jack’s Crossing Golf Club, horseback trail rides, and shooting activities including 5-Stand Sporting Clays, 3-Gun Combat Course, Cowboy Action Shoot, ziplining Quiet Canyon, mountain bike trails, and fitness center. Situated 12 miles southwest of Terlingua on FM 170, Lajitas Golf Resort is located between the Big Bend National Park and Big Bend Ranch State Park on the banks of the Rio Grande.

Looking for the most unique place to stay in the Big Bend? Located in Terlingua just across the road from the Historic Terlingua Ghost Town, The Buzzard’s Roost is a collection of three, fully furnished, traditional Sioux-style tipis.

The summer heat is no joke here, so come prepared. Wear a wide-brimmed hat, use strong sunscreen, and bring four liters of water per person per day on full-day hikes. Be mindful of desert critters (scorpions, snakes, spiders): Shake your shoes out before putting them on your feet. Keep in mind that cellphone reception is poor in the park; help is a long way off (the nearest hospital is 100 miles away in Alpine) so don’t go beyond your limits.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Best Time to Visit

The summer is blazing hot with temperatures regularly above 100 degrees and even reaching 110. The most pleasant times for hiking, camping, and other activities is in the spring (March to April) and fall (October to November). Winter can be chilly, bringing occasional snowfall, but it’s rarely enough to prevent hiking. As long as you have adequate clothing, it can be a great time to visit without the crowds.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Details

Location: Far West Texas

Acreage: 801,163 acres

Highest peak: Emory Peak at 7,832 feet

Lowest point: Rio Grande Village at 1,850 feet

Miles of trails: 200

Main attraction: Hiking the trails

Entry fee: $30 per private vehicle (valid for 7 days)

Best way to see it: Day hikes

Best time to visit: In the cooler months, between November and April

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

Big Bend is a land of strong beauty—often savage and always imposing.

—Lon Garrison

Look to the Stars! National Parks Stargazing Festivals (2024)

Stargazing season is amazing! Enjoy the night skies at their brightest at National Parks stargazing festivals.

National parks are helping visitors make the most of their dark skies by hosting stargazing festivals. The festivals include various night-time events in addition to stargazing. 

These events are right around the corner so bust out your stargazing kit and get going!

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Dark Sky National Parks

National parks are becoming night sky havens since they have less exposure to light pollution. Dozens of national parks are even designated Dark Sky Parks because of their “exceptional or distinguished quality of starry nights…”

Some national parks with the official Dark Sky Park classification are:

You’ll notice Utah is a big hitter when it comes to stargazing. There are so many incredible places to not only see during the day but also to be mesmerized by at night!

That’s why it’s no surprise that my posts on Southern Utah are some of my most popular posts. Here’s a sampling:

I also have an article on the Best National Parks for Stargazing.

National Parks Stargazing Festivals (2024)

These annual events are held at similar times annually so if you’ve missed one you can start planning for next year. 

National parks often host many stargazing activities and events throughout the year so check for those whenever you plan to visit.

Pro tip: If you plan on visiting multiple national parks, you can save a lot of money by getting an America the Beautiful Pass.

Alrighty, let’s take a look at the national parks stargazing festivals 2024.

Death Valley Dark Sky Festival, March 1-3

Death Valley is known for some of the best stargazing in America. It’s even designated a Gold Tier Dark Sky Park, the highest rating of darkness.

During the Death Valley Dark Sky Festival visitors can enjoy the stunning night sky as well as special events like the Exploration Fair, auditorium talks, astrophotography meetups, and more.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon Star Party, June 1-8

Grand Canyon National Park is known for its breathtakingly beautiful rugged terrain. But did you know it also hosts some of the most beautiful night skies around? 

You can take in those skies in early June at their annual Star Party. The event is free but you must still pay to enter the park. The park fee is good for the North and South rims for seven days. 

The event starts at sunset and the best viewing time is after 9 pm. Most telescopes will be taken down at 11 pm although some folks still share theirs after that when the skies are crisp and clear.  

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bryce Canyon Astronomy Festival, June 5-8

Bryce Canyon National Park is located in southern Utah. This park has such excellent night sky viewing that it earned its dark-sky designation in 2019!

Come view the reddish-colored hoodoos during the day and then return for its spectacular nighttime views.

Their Annual Astronomy Festival includes lectures, star stories presentations, and guided stargazing sessions. Last year, they had a performance by an Arizona string quartet called Dry Sky Quartet and other family-friendly activities. 

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Annual Badlands Astronomy Festival, July 5-7

South Dakota is home to Badlands National Park which boasts exciting fossil beds and unique geologic formations. You can see things like sod tables and clastic dikes during the day then stay to take advantage of their dark night skies. 

The Badlands Astronomy Festival partners with the NASA South Dakota Grant Consortium. Their festival typically includes guest speakers, telescopes, sky viewing, and a guided walk through a scaled solar system model!

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shenandoah Night Sky Festival, August 11-13

Shenandoah National Park is a gorgeous gem in the Blue Ridge Mountains in north-central Virginia. In fact, this almost 200,000-acre park is so breathtaking that I have done several posts about it:

You can view its cascading waterfalls, wildflower fields, and quiet woods daily then stay for its spectacular nighttime views.  

The other great thing about this park is its location. It is only a 75-mile drive from Washington, D.C. So, you’re close to many historical sites and museums as well.

Their annual stargazing event hosts public stargazing sessions.

The event includes ranger talks, other lectures and presentations, and family-friendly activities. The guest presentations include a span of topics, including space travel, space weather, and our future in space. 

The event is free with park admission. 

Great Basin Astronomy Festival, September 5-7

The Great Basin National Park might be for you if you prefer to avoid crowds. It is one of the least crowded national parks! 

The 77,000-acre park in eastern Nevada also has a research-grade observatory! 

This fall, you can attend their 15th annual stargazing event. This year’s festival will have many of the same events as 2023 with new guest speakers, ranger programs, and art projects.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree Night Sky Festival, October (Dates TBA)

Joshua Tree National Park is designated as an International Dark Sky Park by the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA).

Every year, the park and non-profit organizations Joshua Tree Educational Experience (JTREE) and Sky’s the Limit Observatory and Nature Center partner to bring this incredible stargazing event. 

The Night Sky Festival is a ticketed event and has a limited capacity. They haven’t announced the 2024 dates yet, but it’s typically held around the second weekend of October. You can click that link to see if they’ve updated their website with dates and ticket information.

It is usually located just outside the park limits at the Sky’s The Limit Nature Observatory and Nature Center. Tickets go on sale in early summer. 

Worth Pondering…

I have long thought that anyone who does not regularly—or ever—gaze up and see the wonder and glory of a dark night sky filled with countless stars loses a sense of their fundamental connectedness to the universe.

—Brian Greene

Saguaro National Park is Arizona’s First Urban Night Sky Place and Why It Is a Big Deal

Saguaro National Park in Tucson has been named a new Urban Night Sky Place for offering authentic, dark views of the night sky despite light pollution from the nearby city

Dark sky places are the best for stargazing, for watching the stars, constellations, galaxies, nebulae, and as much as possible from our planet. As we live in brighter and brighter environments, few of them exist hence the importance of the term itself.

Saguaro National Park in Tucson has been certified as the newest Urban Night Sky Place by Dark-Sky International

Urban Night Sky Place recognition is awarded to sites near or surrounded by large urban areas that actively promote an authentic nighttime experience amid artificial light.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park is the first National Park Service location in Arizona to achieve this certification. The park encompasses over 94,000 acres of Sonoran Desert on the western and eastern edges of Tucson.

Tucson and Pima County have played significant roles in curbing light pollution with Tucson being the “first city in the world to have an ordinance to address light pollution for space observation,” Saguaro National Park said in a press release.

Events to celebrate the park’s designation are planned for early 2024.

What is an Urban Night Sky Place?

The Urban Night Sky Place designation recognizes areas that work to promote authentic nighttime experiences despite the challenges posed by significant artificial light.

The designation is part of an effort to combat light pollution which can disrupt ecosystems, affect human health, and waste energy. The certification is given to communities, parks and protected areas that demonstrate robust community support for dark sky advocacy and strive to minimize light pollution.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where can you stargaze in Arizona?

Arizona offers numerous locations for stargazing due to its clear skies and relatively low light pollution in many areas. Here are some popular places for stargazing in Arizona:

Grand Canyon National Park: The Grand Canyon is a designated Dark Sky Park making it an excellent location for stargazing. The Grand Canyon Star Party is an annual event that attracts astronomers and stargazers.

Oracle State Park: Far enough from light pollution to make the Milky Way visible, the park is another exceptional place to watch the night skies. Though you can’t stay in the park overnight, its American Avenue parking area is available after dark.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Kitt Peak National Observatory: Located southwest of Tucson, Kitt Peak is home to several telescopes and offers nighttime observing programs for visitors.

Saguaro National Park: Saguaro National Park near Tucson has been certified as an Urban Night Sky Place making it a great spot for stargazing while being close to urban areas.

Mt. Lemmon Sky Center Observatory: Featuring the largest telescope in Arizona dedicated to public viewing, the Mt. Lemmon Sky Center Observatory has a popular after-dark viewing program.

Flagstaff: Flagstaff is the world’s first International Dark Sky City. The city has strict lighting ordinances to minimize light pollution. Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff offers stargazing programs.

Fun fact: The Four Corners region of the United States has the most IDA Dark Sky Communities in the world. In fact, Arizona has 19 dark-sky communities and places.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What is the darkest city in Arizona?

In 2001, Flagstaff was named the world’s first International Dark Sky City. This designation is granted by the International Dark-Sky Association to places that have taken significant steps to minimize light pollution and protect the natural darkness of the night sky.

Arizona’s IDA-certified Dark Sky Parks

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Why is Arizona such a wonderful place for stargazing?

The simple answer: good weather and mountainous geography. On a clear night you can see Mercury, Mars, Jupiter, and the Andromeda galaxy. The sky is awash in stars, double stars, and star clusters.

Best practices for stargazing

When stargazing, you need to give your eyes time to adjust to the dark which takes about twenty minutes. Once your eyes are adjusted you’ll be amazed at how much you see in a dark sky. You’ll notice differences in brightness and colors of the stars; you’ll recognize patterns and constellations.

Turn all your light sources off and don’t use your phone while waiting since the light of its screen will ruin your night vision. If you need a light to see where you’re going use a flashlight with a red filter on. You can buy one with a filter or do this yourself by putting a piece of red filter paper under its lens. If you attend a star party, the astronomers will show you how or offer you one with a filter.

Worth Pondering…

The dark sky beckoned the stars so dim and small like speckles of frost.

―Sarah J. Maas, A Court of Mist and Fury

The Best Road Trip from Salt Lake City to Moab

Though Utah may appear arid and sparse, there’s plenty to do in the Beehive State. And if you’re willing to embrace the great outdoors, a winding journey from Salt Lake City to Moab features the best scenery the state has to offer.

Salt Lake City and Moab are about a 4-hour drive apart if you navigate straight through from one to the other. However, you want to stop and explore Utah’s gorgeous scenery. The landscape along the way makes you want to grab your water bottle—a must-have in the hot, desert environment—and hike through the red rock formations.

Two intriguing and different Utah destinations—Moab and Salt Lake City—await you to explore their gifts. From high-energy adventure to world-renowned musical talent, your road trip between the two will be filled with history, exploration, and great food.

You will find exciting adventures, history, refined culture, and amazing cuisine along the way. Plan to enjoy a day or two or more on either end—Salt Lake City and Moab offer their special character and are unique in their offerings. Take a day in between the two and make the drive a quintessential Utah road trip.

Moab © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Salt Lake City

While it may just be the start of the road trip, Salt Lake City is a fascinating metropolis in its own right. Spend the day in the city, sampling food and enjoying local culture before you hit the road. Salt Lake City was founded in 1847 by Brigham Young and has a history steeped in the Mormon faith. Therefore, there are plenty of interesting religious institutions and monuments to visit. It is also surrounded by a variety of landscapes and terrain that make it a top spot for world-class skiing, hiking, mountain biking and, of course, taking a dip in the Great Salt Lake.

One of the most iconic things to see and do in Salt Lake City is to attend a rehearsal of the world-renowned Mormon Tabernacle Choir. With a 360-member volunteer chorus of men and women, their vocals lift the spirits of those attending their rehearsals.

2. Utah Museum of Natural History

Utah is known as a hub of Mormon history but you don’t have to be religious to appreciate its culture. Start your day by checking out the Utah Museum of Natural History. It features 10 revolving exhibits, each delving into the culture, history, and geography of Utah and The Great Salt Lake.

3. Temple Square

Take a stroll around Temple Square. It’s a must-see for the wonderful architecture alone. Located in the center of downtown Salt Lake City, the Salt Lake Temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is surrounded by the five-block area of Temple Square. The Square is the hub of worship, history, commemoration, gatherings, and music. Visitors can take a free guided tour to visit the temple, museums, libraries, gardens, monuments, and fountains.

4. Great Salt Lake

You can’t visit Salt Lake City without floating in the Great Salt Lake, the largest saltwater lake in the western hemisphere. It is located within the Salt Lake City State Park, just 16 miles west of Salt Lake City. The salinity of the water, ranging anywhere between 5 to 27 percent salt, makes it very buoyant. Other activities include sailing, kayaking, and hiking. Bring binoculars because there is a plethora of wildlife to view, such as bison, antelope, deer, bobcats, coyotes, elk and birds.

5. Brigham Young University, Provo

Home of Brigham Young University, Provo is a good spot to stop and stretch your legs. Wandering around the campus grounds brings back the halcyon days of college life. Mingling with students on the cusp of exploring their future imparts a sense of youthful exuberance, not to mention a trip down memory lane.

Utah Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. Utah Lake State Park, Provo

Known as Utah’s largest freshwater lake at roughly 148 sq. miles, Utah Lake provides a variety of recreation activities. Adjacent to Provo, Utah Lake State Park offers fishing access for channel catfish, walleye, white bass, black bass, and several species of panfish. Utah Lake provides an excellent outlet for swimming, boating, and paddleboarding.  The RV campground consists of 31 sites, complete with water and power hookups.

7. Utah State University Prehistoric Museum, Price

Dinosaur hunters will want to stop at the Utah State University Prehistoric Museum. Wannabe paleontologists, archaeologists, and geologists alike will find displays to captivate their attention. The Aggies are proud of their university and take great care in maintaining the museum for their guests to enjoy.

Throughout the West, you will come upon dinosaur museums in the most unlikely little towns. These ancient beasts left copious footprints and fossil evidence that will amaze you and pique your imagination.

8. Ray’s Tavern, Green River

A little way down the road from Moab is Green River, home to Ray’s Tavern. Time your journey to land here for lunch. The order of the day: burgers and fries. Keep it simple and keep it delicious. This local dive bar has morphed into a must-stop eatery on any road trip between Moab and Salt Lake City.

Moab © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

9. Moab

Moab is an active, popular town (pop. 8,900) in the heart of the beautiful red rock canyon country of southeastern Utah. It plays host to the thousands who visit southeastern Utah to take advantage of the area’s great recreational opportunities. From Moab, one can conveniently hike in Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, mountain bike on the famous Moab Slickrock Trail, whitewater raft the Colorado River, tackle the thousands of miles of rugged canyon roads in four-wheel drive vehicles, or horseback ride amidst the alpine beauty of the La Sal Mountains.

You will love the Western vibe in this dusty adventure town.

Downtown Moab is a fun place to shop, eat, and people-watch. A mix of souvenir shops, jewelry stores, and Western outfitters line the downtown area, making it a perfect spot to stretch your legs and absorb the Moab outdoorsy vibe.

10. Moab Food Truck Park

In one corner of downtown Moab is a large food truck park where you can dine on everything from gelato to paninis. There are over nine independently operated food trucks serving a variety of cuisines in a relaxed outdoor setting. It’s family-friendly, pet-friendly, and bicycle-friendly. Around the corner from the park sits a lone, bright yellow truck—Quesadilla Mobilla. Monster quesadillas that will fuel you up with energy for your outdoor exploits are served up at this food truck stop. Grab a picnic table and a fist full of napkins—their ooey-gooey quesadillas are legendary.

11. Hell’s Revenge, Moab

Exploring Hell’s Revenge is at the top of everyone’s list when visiting Moab. The intrepid explorer can pilot their own ATV/UTV up and down the precarious rock formations following in the footsteps of many a skilled driver. For thrill-seekers who are happy to hand over the controls to a professional, there are large all-terrain vehicles where you can buckle in and enjoy the scenic route. With obstacles to attack with names like the Tip-Over Challenge and Rubble Trouble, you know you are in for an exciting ride.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

12 Arches National Park

No trip to Moab is complete without visiting Arches National Park. A drive through the park is like visiting the moon or another unearthly planet. Every turn opens up new and unusual gravity-defying red rock formations.

From April 1 to October 31, 2023, visitors are required to have a timed entry ticket to enter the park. Ticketed entry will run from 7 am to 4 pm daily. Those without a ticket may enter the park before 7 am or after 4 pm. The park is open 24/7.

Due to its high elevation (4,085 to 5,653 feet) and intense summer heat even short hikes through the park can be a challenging exertion and sturdy shoes are a necessity. If you don’t have time for a hike, a simple drive-through to enjoy the panoramic vistas is a minimum must-do when visiting the area.

Enthusiastic adventurers will want to make a reservation at Devils Garden Campground to enjoy the immersive national park experience. Try to take a midday nap and rest up for the amazing nighttime starlight dark sky extravaganza.

Dead Horse Point State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

13. Dead Horse Point State Park

At the top of Dead Horse Point State Park, there is a large flat area—the point—surrounded by deep, rocky canyons with precipitous drops. The point is accessible by a precariously narrow road—don’t look down. In pioneer days, wranglers would drive wild horses into the flat and barricade the entrance, corralling them on the inescapable point. Legend claims at one time the horses were forgotten high on the point and died—thus the park’s name.

The beauty of the park’s wild landscape viewed from your perch high up on the point is stunning. No matter which direction you turn, the panorama is breathtakingly beautiful, offering views of Canyonlands National Park, the La Sal Mountains, and the Colorado River.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

14. Canyonlands National Park

Avid hikers will love Canyonlands National Park. The park boasts hundreds of miles of hiking trails for all levels. Hiking in Canyonlands National Park requires some pre-planning—water, sunscreen, a wide-brimmed hat, and a trail map are at the top of the list.

The easy-rated White Rim Overlook is just under 2 miles round trip with a rewarding view. Expert hikers can embark on the 10-plus-mile Alcove Spring Trail that brings you to the base of the Moses and Zeus Towers.

La Sal Mountain Scenic Loop © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

15. La Sal Mountain Loop

The La Sal Mountains form a majestic backdrop to the Moab area. A trip on the La Sal Mountain Loop takes you on a 3-hour scenic, winding drive. From the alpine ridges of the La Sal Mountains to the red rock desert and sandstone pinnacles of Castle Rock, this backroad is an adventure. You will see mesas and buttes used in movies and drive past steep bulging peaks that often serve as the backdrop in photographs of the famed Delicate Arch.

This 60-mile route is paved and starts about 8 miles south of Moab off US-191 and loops through the mountains down to Castle Valley and SR-128 where it follows the Colorado River back to Moab. The narrow winding road while suitable for passenger cars is not suitable for large RVs or trailers. There are no services available along the route so make sure you have all the gas, food, water, and other supplies you may need for at least a few hours.

16. International Dark Sky Experience

Arches National Park is a certified International Dark Sky Park, an award given to parks with exceptional starry night viewing. These parks offer protected areas with public viewing of the night sky, offering an illuminating experience.

As you drive north through the park at night, the sky darkens and the stars twinkle in a glorious light show. Some of the best spots are the Balanced Rock Picnic Area and the Garden of Eden Viewpoint.

Join a Stargazing Event with a National Parks ranger-led program. The rangers rotate tours between Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park, and Hovenweep and Natural Bridges National Monuments for nightly viewings during the summer months. Gazing at the stars without the ambient city lights is a unique and magical experience.

Hiking Arches © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

17. Hiking for Miles

Nature trails, backcountry hikes, and multi-day excursions are high on the list of every Moab outdoor enthusiast. One of the top spots to hike is Arches National Park. Delicate Arch, one of the most visited sites, can be viewed from one of two trails ranging from a 10-minute easy walk to a more heart-pumping 30-minute climb. Another popular hike through the park is to Balanced Rock, a 20-minute, easy loop trail.

For more Utah road trip ideas, explore these articles:

Worth Pondering…

Standing there, gaping at this monstrous and inhumane spectacle of rock and cloud and sky and space, I feel a ridiculous greed and possessiveness come over me. I want to know it all, possess it all, embrace the entire scene intimately, deeply, totally…

—Edward Abbey, once a park ranger at Arches, from his classic novel Desert Solitaire

10 Amazing Places to RV in October 2023

If you’re dreaming of where to travel to experience it all, here are my picks for the best places to RV in October

You will either step forward into growth, or you will step backward into safety.

—Abraham Maslow

American psychologist Abraham Maslow is best known for his theory of the Hierarchy of Needs which outlined the basic human needs that must be met before one can seek social or spiritual fulfillment. Feeling that psychology didn’t take into account human creativity or potential, Maslow defined the concept of self-actualization as a process in which humans continually strive to reach our best selves. Choice played a prominent part in his theories: Here, he reminds us that our progress in life is up to us, if we have the courage to move forward into the unknown.

Planning an RV trip for a different time of year? Check out my monthly travel recommendations for the best places to travel in August and September. Also check out my recommendations from October 2022 and November 2022.

Helen © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Alpine Helen’s Oktoberfest

Nestled in Georgia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, the town of Helen was overlooked by tourists for years. They’d stop to top off their tanks on the way to the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest, Brasstown Bald, or Georgia’s beloved Vogel State Park.

Then in 1969, a business owner had enough. He noted the region’s similarity to Bavaria where he’d been stationed while in the Army so he made a proposal: Transform sleepy Helen into an alpine village that appeared to be plucked right out of a German forest.

Slowly, the town changed its face adding half-timber facades, cobblestone alleys, and delicate gingerbread latticework and hand-carved details to eaves and rooflines. Soon after it became Alpine Helen; this year-round bit of Bavaria not too far north of Atlanta held its first Oktoberfest celebration.

Alpine Helen’s Oktoberfest has entertained festival-goers for more than 50 years. Nowadays, more than 500,000 visitors attend the two-month event. The Oktoberfest Parade kicked things off on September 7 and continues daily from September 28-October 20, 2023.

German-style bands from across the U.S. and Germany, more than 30 beers from local breweries and German brewmeisters, authentic Bavarian cuisine, traditional Alpenhorn instruments and plenty of folks in festive costumes make Helen’s Oktoberfest a memorable event.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. A White Oasis

White Sands National Park is one of the most jaw-dropping and surreal places in all of America. Until 2019, White Sands was a National Monument but officially changed to a National Park. What’s the difference? National Parks are protected because of their scenic, recreational, and educational value whereas a National Monument may have objects of cultural, historical, or even scientific interest.

It’s the biggest gypsum dune field in the world. The sand is so perfectly white because it’s made of gypsum whereas most sand is made of silica. Gypsum is very rare in sand form because it is a mineral that dissolves in water. That’s right—it starts to dissolve everytime it rains. But just how much of a big deal is this? White Sands covers 275 square miles of dune fields while the second largest in the world is a whopping 8 square miles in Mexico.

>> Get more tips for visiting White Sands National Park

Crowley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Where Life is Rice & Easy

At the crossroads of LA 13 and U.S. Highway 90 lies the city of Crowley.

Rice is the bedrock of the region’s celebrated Cajun cuisine and no other Louisiana community is as intimately tied to the crop as Crowley. The swallow ponds and level prairies surrounding the city produce lots of crawfish too, but it was the turn-of-the-century rice mills that gave Crowley its identity and made possible today’s impressive collection of historic structures.

Many historic buildings still play prominent roles in the city’s life. One such example is Miller Stadium, a 1940s-era ballpark and the Grand Opera House of the South that first opened in 1901 and was recently revived as an elegant space for world-class performers. Visitors can relive regional music history at the J.D. Miller Recording Studio Museum downtown or get a taste of prairie life at the Crystal Rice Heritage Farm.

Next door to the opera house, the Crowley City Hall, housed inside a restored 1920 Ford Motor Company building has been restored and features a museum on the city’s history.

Crowley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Crowley City Hall, Historic Ford Building is comprised of four interesting museums—Rice Iterpretive Center, the History of Crowley, J.D.Miller Music Recording Studio, and Ford Automotive Museum. Built in 1920 at the cost of $40,000 the Crowley Motor Co. was the city’s Ford Motor Model T dealership. Designed by an architect for the Ford Motor Co, it was one of 1,000 similar Ford dealerships constructed in the U.S.

Plan a visit for the International Rice Festival (86th annual; October 19-22, 2023) and stay to explore the area. The International Rice Festival, held annually every third full weekend in October, is one of Louisiana’s oldest and largest agricultural festivals.

>> Get more tips for visiting Crowley

Vanderbilt Estate National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. This house belonged to the Most Powerful Family in America

By any standard, past or present, this property with a magnificent view of the Hudson River and Catskill Mountains would be considered prime real estate. A series of fine homes has stood on the tract since about 1764 and in 1847 the estate was called “one of the finest specimens of the modern style of Landscape Gardening in America.”

Such superlatives attracted the attention of Frederick Vanderbilt, the grandson of Cornelius Commodore Vanderbilt who had built a fortune from shipping, ferries, and the New York Central Railroad. One of Frederick’s brothers, George Washington Vanderbilt, is perhaps best-known for his Biltmore estate near Ashville, North Carolina. Collectively the Vanderbilts were known as both the richest and the most powerful family in America in the late 1800s.

Take in the unique colors of fall framing the impressing Vanderbilt Mansion from the Vanderbilt Riverfront Trail and Bard Rock picnic area as well as the formal gardens.

Vanderbilt Mansion is in the Hudson River Valley in Dutchess County, New York, about 90 miles north of New York City and 70 miles south of Albany. 

Saratoga National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Get your history fix at Saratoga National Historical Park

The Saratoga National Historical Park in Stillwater, New York holds activities and attractions for travelers during any season. The significance of the property dates back to the Battle of Saratoga. During a fall evening in the 1770s, American forces defeated the British army forcing them to surrender and locking in crucial foreign support.

Although the park is known for its rich history including the Schuyler House, Saratoga Monument, and Victory Woods, it’s also a popular destination for cycling at any level. Serious hikers and bikers can take part in the 100-mile challenge in the park. All you need to do is log your miles (walking, hiking, or biking) in the park and once you hit that magic number you’ll earn a special reward and some serious bragging rights. 

For some spectacular views of the Hudson River Valley, climb the 188 steps to the 155-foot stone Saratoga Monument; on a clear day visitors can see for miles. The park is especially beautiful during autumn. 

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. Joshua Tree Night Sky Festival

Venture to Southern California to marvel at the stars and planets at Joshua Tree National Park which as the International Dark Sky Association notes is the “nearest convenient place to go stargazing under a relatively dark sky” for the 18 million people who live in the Los Angeles metropolitan area. Joshua Tree became an official dark sky park in 2017 and each year it hosts a night sky festival in the fall. As luck would have it, this year’s dates overlap with the ring of fire solar eclipse. From Joshua Tree, the moon will appear to obscure between 70 and 80 percent of the sun.

The 2023 Night Sky Festival is scheduled for October 13-14. This event is sponsored and organized by non-profit organizations Joshua Tree Residential Education Experience (JTREE) and Sky’s The Limit Observatory and Nature Center in partnership with Joshua Tree National Park and supported by the City of Twentynine Palms.

The annual Night Sky Festival is a ticketed event with limited capacity held primarily at Sky’s the Limit Nature Center and Observatory located just outside the park’s north entrance.

Cherohala Skyway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. Cherohala Skyway

Retreat to the serenity of the Cherohala Skyway, a picturesque byway that crosses the Nantahala and Cherokee National Forests. The drive will take people from the Tellico Plains of Tennessee all the way to North Carolina’s Robbinsville. Through this gorgeous route, travelers will ascend to elevations of more than 5,000 feet where they can see the stunning scenery of the mountains and valleys in the area. Tourists will be mesmerized by the breathtaking sights, flowing waterfalls, and lush vegetation as they travel. Visitors can also discover the hiking trails leading to secluded attractions like Bald River Falls and Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, home to eons-old, soaring trees. Every turn of the Cherohala Skyway brings tranquility and magnificent surroundings.

>> Get more tips for driving the Cherohala Skyway

Fredericksburg © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

8. Oktoberfest

Oktoberfest celebrates Fredericksburg’s German heritage with four stages of continuous oompah music, arts, crafts, shopping, a children’s area, 50 varieties of American, Texas and imported beers, Texas Wine Country selections, great food and fun all weekend long! 

Oktoberfest takes place at Marktplatz in downtown Fredericksburg, Texas the first weekend of October. The festival typically runs from 6 p.m. to midnight on Friday, 10 a.m. to midnight on Saturday and from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Sunday. Ticket prices are $10 for adults while children 7-12 are $1 and children six and under are free. A two-day pass can be purchased for $15 and a three-day pass is $20. 

In 2023, Oktoberfest in Fredericksburg will be October 6-8, 2023. Future dates for Fredericksburg Oktoberfest include October 4-6, 2024 and October 3-5, 2025.

If you can’t make it to town for Oktoberfest weekend, any time during the fall is a great time to visit the Texas Hill Country.

Julian © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

9. Apple Central

Fall is here and that means it’s time for apple picking in Julian, California! September and October are prime apple picking months so it’s an ideal time to be outdoors and plan a fun family outing.

And nothing is better than gathering up your own apples and taking them home to your RV for eating, cooking, and baking. So, let’s head to the mountains of Julian for these wholesome fall treats and maybe try some of the famous Julian apple pies.

Julian is at its most charming―and busiest―during the fall when leaves change color and local apples ripen. Stop by an apple orchard to sample local varieties not found elsewhere, pick up some of your favorites, or pick your own.

>> Get more tips for visiting Julian in October

Stowe © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

10. Vermont in fall says it all

Stowe packs a big punch when it comes to outdoor pursuits—and fall is when the tiny town of 5,000 truly comes alive. In autumn, the abundance of sugar maple trees surrounding this popular northern Vermont ski area put on a spectacular color show. Visitors can enjoy it all while hiking up Elmore Mountain or Stowe Pinnacle, taking a scenic drive along the backcountry roads or venturing out into the Waterbury Reservoir on a private boat cruise. In Stowe, the best time for fall foliage viewing starts in early September and runs through late October.

Worth Pondering…

We know that in September, we will wander through the warm winds of summer’s wreckage. We will welcome summer’s ghost.

—Henry Rollins

The Complete Guide to Lassen Volcanic National Park

Explore the otherworldly landscape and see bubbling mud pots and hot springs in this northern California park

On May 30, 1914, Lassen Peak awoke from a 27,000-year sleep with a violent explosion, the first of hundreds that rocked this Northern California mountain over the course of the next year carving out a lava-capped crater 1,000 feet across.

But the biggest eruption by far came on May 22, 1915 when a tremendous plume of steam shot into the air shattering the lava cap and sending glowing chunks of molten lava high into the sky. As they fell back onto the mountain which was already blanketed in a record 30-foot snowfall the hot rocks triggered an avalanche a half-mile wide that thundered into the valley creating a mudflow of such tremendous force that it swept over hills and into more valleys beyond, burying farms and homesteads.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

No lives were lost thanks to the early alert of the initial explosions but more than a century later that torn and blasted landscape known as the Devastated Area remains. Located just northeast of Lassen Peak, it’s one of the many attractions of the 106,000-acre Lassen Volcanic National Park, an awe-inspiring showcase for the sheer power of the Earth’s volcanic forces. The most popular attraction, Bumpass Hell—a hissing, bubbling expanse of sulfuric mud pots, hot springs, and fumaroles—on the park’s southern end serves as an eerie reminder that these forces are still active today.

Four kinds of volcanoes can be found in the world: cinder cone, composite, plug dome, and shield. Lassen Volcanic has all four along with chiseled rock spires, lava fields, and huge boulders tossed about like bowling balls by the formative explosions of 1914 and 1915. 

This magical landscape was protected in 1907 as two separate national monuments, Lassen Peak and Cinder Cone then Congress unified them into one national park in 1916. The park was created to protect all these amazing volcanic features after the eruption and ever since then people have come to see this otherworldly landscape.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Perhaps due to its out-of-the-way location, an hour’s drive on mountainous roads off Interstate 5, Lassen Volcanic National Park receives just 500,000 visitors a year. It’s kind of this gem that people don’t know about just three to four hours from San Francisco.

You’ll experience the eerie majesty of Lassen’s cratered landscape—and pass a series of geological wonders—as you drive the Lassen Volcanic National Park Highway which makes a semicircle around Lassen Peak, still 10,457 feet high even after blowing its top.

To the east are three additional park sections—Butte Lake, Juniper Lake, and Warner Valley—all accessed by separate roads from the northeast and southeast. Since you can’t reach these areas from the park highway check maps beforehand to determine your route if you plan to visit them.  

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Plan your trip

Two entrance stations at the park’s south and north ends provide access to Lassen Volcanic Park Highway which runs generally north to south making a horseshoe bend around Lassen Peak. 

Driving from San Francisco, the park is 247 miles to the north. Enter the park at the southwest gate and stop at the Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center to get oriented. Here you’ll find maps and signage explaining what’s open in the park, current trail conditions, and information on ranger programming. If you’re driving from Portland, 453 miles to the north you’ll enter at the northern entrance and continue to the Loomis Museum where a smaller visitor center provides updates on park conditions and happenings.

Be sure to download the park app which provides a guided audio tour of 16 stops along the park highway almost all of which can be seen from pullouts on the road or from accessible parking areas. There’s no cell service in the park but you can use the free Wi-Fi at the Kohm Yah-mah-nee center to download the app. If entering from the north, you must download it ahead of time as the Loomis Museum has no Wi-Fi. “If you don’t download it in advance, the last reliable cell service north of the park is in Shingletown,” notes Arreglo, referring to a small community about 17 miles west of the north entrance. 

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In the late summer and fall of 2021, California’s devastating Dixie Fire burned 73,240 acres in the park. In addition to leaving behind huge swaths of blackened pine forest, the fire buckled park roads and destroyed lookouts and other facilities, some still closed for repairs. Nonetheless, the average visitor doesn’t experience many significant impacts. Most damage to attractions along the park highway was repaired before the park reopened this past summer. 

Lassen Volcanic gets snow early and it stays late often lingering well into June on the higher trails. Wildflowers which begin to emerge in late May and blanket the slopes and valleys all summer have become even more profuse since the fire. 

The 30-mile highway through Lassen Volcanic National Park has opened for the 2023 summer season though sections might seem like winter. A higher-than-average snowpack has been fully cleared. Visitors to the park should prepare for winter conditions at higher elevations and possible delays due to ongoing road work.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Nights can be cool even in summer though daytime temperatures can climb into the 90s. By mid-fall, temperatures creep towards freezing. The park remains open year-round despite cold winters although most of the campgrounds close and the park highway isn’t plowed then. Rangers close the gates located just inside the north entrance and just past the Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center at the south end with the first significant lasting snowfall typically in November. The Kohm Yah-mah-nee center remains open providing the only park services until the Loomis Museum reopens in May. 

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to stay and eat

Lassen Volcanic National Park’s only hotel-style lodging, the Drakesbad Guest Ranch in Warner Valley remains temporarily closed due to damage from the Dixie Fire. The pine-paneled cabins encircling the sunny meadow survived intact but infrastructure repairs are still necessary before reopening. 

​The park has seven campgrounds with all sites featuring picnic tables, fire rings, and lockable bear-proof cupboards.

Manzanita Lake Campground just inside the park’s northern entrance in a shady pine forest uphill from the lakeshore is the largest and best developed campground with 179 sites ($26 per night) and amenities including hot showers, an RV dump station, a laundry, and a camp store. It also features 20 uber-rustic one- and two-room camping cabins (both shower areas have an accessible stall with bench seat and hand rails) and a larger eight-bed bunkhouse ($76 to $101 per night) without electricity. They have beds but you’ll need to bring your own bedding and linens. 

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

​Summit Lake North and South campgrounds which bookend a pretty, pine-fringed alpine lake in the park’s center have 46 sites ($24 per night) between them. The 101 sites ($22 per night) at Butte Lake Campground cluster in a dense pine forest adjacent to the lake reachable by a 6-mile dirt road. 

​At Juniper Lake Campground 18 sites ($12 per night) line the shore of the deep blue lake shaded by tall ponderosa and Jeffrey pines and you’ll find a mostly level campground with wheelchair-accessible sites. 

​​Butte Lake and Manzanita Lake campgrounds have wider roads making them good choices for those traveling in an RV. Manzanita Lake, Summit Lake, and Butte Lake campgrounds will be reservation-only starting in 2023 (check the park website for exact dates). Make your reservations through recreation.gov. 

​The park’s only restaurant, Lassen Café & Gift inside the Kohm Yah-mah-nee center serves soup, salads, and other simple fare along with hot coffee and ice cream. You can pick up to-go sandwiches and snacks at the Manzanita Camp Store. 

​Picnicking is the way to go in Lassen so stock up on supplies before heading into the park. Devastated Area, Kings Creek Meadow, and Lake Helen are all in the park’s center. Manzanita Lake feature level picnic sites, accessible parking, and restrooms.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Things to do

Drive Lassen Volcanic National Park Highway. From the jagged cliffs of Chaos Crags and mounds of black lava boulders at Chaos Jumbles to the azure waters of Lake Helen and the viewpoints overlooking Hat Creek, Little Hot Springs Creek, and Diamond Peak every stunning stop on the 30-mile park highway route is indicated by a numbered road marker matching the numbers on the park map. 

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

​Visit geothermal spots

Lassen Volcanic is dotted with areas of constant geothermal activity where boiling water spurts from vents, pools of mineral-rich mud bubble and spit, and fumaroles release vaporous clouds of steam that hang in the air like a ghostly mist.

Not far past the south entrance, stop at wheelchair-accessible Sulphur Works located right on the park highway to marvel at the silica-crusted mud pots and breathe in the malodorous vapor that gives them their name. It’s a moderate 3-mile round-trip hike to Bumpass Hell, the largest and most active of the park’s geothermal areas named for hapless explorer Kendall Bumpass who fell into one of the mud pots and suffered severe burns. 

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

​Go stargazing

While not certified as an International Dark Sky Park, Lassen Volcanic’s high elevation, crystal clear air, and lack of light pollution make it a perfect setting for celestial viewing. As such, the park schedules numerous viewing activities including monthly full moon hikes, astronomy demonstrations, and an annual Dark Sky Festival in early August. Plan your trip to be here during a meteor shower like the Perseids and you’ll see quite a show from Summit Lake or another high point in the park. You’ll see more sky in wide-open spots like the Devastated Area and the Bumpass Hell parking lot.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

​Have fun in the snow

In winter, the park highway is plowed until just beyond the Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center and its expansive parking lot offering easy access for those who come to see the craggy landscape made even more dramatic when iced in white. Lassen Volcanic is also popular for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. The hill behind the visitor center also becomes a sledding area with people banking trails and going down on tubes, discs, and toboggans.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

​Hit the hiking trails

Plunging 30 feet straight down from a rock shelf, Kings Creek Falls near Summit Lake is a must-see for those who can manage the 2.3-mile round-trip loop to the overlook. Rated moderate for its 486-foot elevation gain, the trail follows the creek through wildflower-strewn meadows and meanders through fire-damaged pine forests already showing optimistic regrowth. The final stretch, a series of cliff-hugging stone steps known as the Cascades Foot Section is more challenging but is easily avoided by doing the hike as an out and back rather than as a loop.  

​Another short but considerably more ambitious hike is the 2-mile round trip to the Ridge Lakes which leaves from the Sulphur Works parking lot and gains 1,000 feet of elevation reaching a string of impossibly blue glacier-scooped bowls on Lassen Peak’s shoulder. Then there’s Arreglo’s favorite, the Terrace, Shadow, and Cliff Lakes Trail, a moderate four-mile round trip with 700 feet of elevation gain which departs from a trailhead just north of Lassen Peak’s parking lot. “It takes you through Paradise Valley to three gorgeous subalpine lakes one after another with these incredible views of Lassen Peak rising above them.” 

Sun Dial Bridge, Redding © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Gateway towns

The closest lodging to the park is 10 minutes from the south entrance at the rustic-chic Highlands Ranch Resort. Stay in one of seven splurge-worthy, easy-to-access cottages, some with lofts to accommodate larger groups and dine at the all-American bistro in a firelit, high-beamed dining room.

​However, most non-camping park visitors stay in gateway towns on different sides of the park. 

Redding, the area’s largest town is popular with those driving north from San Francisco. Located on Interstate 5, 47 miles from the park’s south entrance, the town was founded as a rail hub for transporting minerals, lumber, and cattle from the surrounding mines, forests, and ranches and trains still whistle nightly through its quaint downtown.

Sacramento River from Sundial Bridge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The area’s wealth of outdoor activities include Turtle Bay Exploration Park with the renown Sundial Bridge, Whiskeytown National Recreation Area, Shasta Lake, and Lake Shasta Caverns. Turtle Bay Exploration Park is a 300-acre campus along the banks of the Sacramento River. Gateway to the city’s 220-mile trail system, the Park features a botanical garden, natural history and science museum, and exploration center in the guise of a traditional forest camp. The 300-acre complex is tied together by Redding’s jewel, the Sundial Bridge that was the first American project by celebrated Spanish bridge architect Santiago Calatrava. The supporting pylon and curving, translucent deck perform as the world’s largest sundial.

Surrounded by pristine mountains, lakes, and rivers, Redding offers a wide range of RV parks and campgrounds including Green Acres RV Park, Marina RV Park, Premier RV Park, Redding RV Park, and Win-River Resort.

JGW RV Park, Redding © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Our home base while touring the Redding area was JGW RV Park, a big-rig friendly resort located 9 miles south of Redding on the Sacramento River. This is a beautiful 5-star RV park with water, sewer, and 30/50-amp electric service centrally located. The majority of pull-through sites are back-to-back and side-to side. Our site backed onto the Sacramento River. Interior roads are paved and in good condition with concrete pads.

Centrally located on the Sacramento River, Red Bluff is just 32 miles south of Redding on I-5.

Red Bluff KOA © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big-rig friendly, Red Bluff KOA Journey (formerly Durango RV Resort) is a 5-star resort located on the Sacramento River. The park is well laid out and designed. Most sites are pull-through, 70-90 feet in length, and 30-35 feet wide. In addition, there are 11 riverfront sites and 21 water-feature spaces (fountains); these sites have utilities on both sides of the concrete pads enabling fifth wheels and travel trailers to back onto the sites and motorhomes to drive forward maximizing the view and water features. In addition, there are several buddy sites.

​Farther from the park is the uber-photogenic former lumber company town of McCloud, 81 miles northwest of Lassen Volcanic’s north entrance. Here, pastel-painted clapboard buildings cluster in the shelter of Mount Shasta’s eastern slope. The McCloud Mercantile Hotel occupies the upper floor of the former McCloud Lumber Company store, each of its 12 antique-furnished rooms themed to reflect a colorful local resident or significant event. The moderately priced hotel offers two accessible rooms with open floor plans, roll-in showers, and whirlpool tubs. 

​On the east, 30 miles from the park’s south entrance, the tiny town of Chester borders Lake Almanor. It’s basically just a place to overnight with the Timber House Brewing and Lodge a favorite of those seeking a retro Wild West vibe enhanced by modern comforts. Accessible rooms are available. For breakfast, head to Cravings for homemade corned beef hash. 

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

​En route 

All routes to Lassen Volcanic National Park include at least one stretch of the Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway that encircles the park and continues north to link the park with Lava Beds National Monument and Crater Lake National Park. 

Check this out to learn more:

Facts box

​Location: Northern California

Size: 106,000 acres

Highest point: Lassen Peak, at 10,457 feet 

Lowest point: Hot Springs Creek, at 5,275 feet

Miles of trails: 150

Main attractions: Bumpass Hell, the Devastated Area, Lassen Peak, and other geothermal and volcanic features

Entry fee: $30

Best way to see it: By car

Worth Pondering…

Lassen’s Peak looks sharper from this side than any other, and views seen from among these pinnacles and rocks are some of the most picturesque imaginable. A series of photographs would be treasured indeed.

—William H. Brewer, Up and Down California (Journals; 1860-1864)

Look to the Stars: How to Stargaze in National Parks This Summer

Stargazing season is here! Enjoy the night skies at their brightest at National Parks stargazing festivals.

When you look up at the night sky, what do you see? Innumerable stars, a planet or two, even a bright meteor? Depending on where you are, you may see greater or fewer celestial objects in the night sky because light pollution can drown out all but the brightest stars and satellites.

To really take in the beauty of our solar system, you’ll want to visit the darkest places in the U.S. for some truly unforgettable stargazing. Of course, you’ll want to plan to go on a clear night, so you have the best chance of seeing the stars.

National parks are helping visitors make the most of this time by hosting stargazing festivals. The festivals include various nightime events in addition to stargazing.

These events are happening now and in the weeks and months ahead so bust out your stargazing kit and get going!

Cedar Breaks National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Exploring night skies

Many of the last dark skies in the country lie over the national parks. As over-lit skies become the norm, the public is seeking out star-filled skies. Many park visitors have never experienced the unfettered views of a starry night sky and are surprised to witness such a beautiful sight. Others may come to parks specifically to enjoy stargazing through telescopes, walking among a natural nighttime scene, or camping beneath the stars. A park ranger can not only connect you to the plants, animals, and geology of a park but also guide you through the night sky.

Several national parks have regular stargazing programs or night appreciation events. Examples include the bat flight breakfast at Carlsbad Caverns National Park, star parties or moonlight hikes at Bryce Canyon, telescope viewing at Rocky Mountain National Park, and the observatory at Chaco Culture National Historic Park.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Dark Sky National Parks

National parks are becoming night sky havens since they have less exposure to light pollution. Dozens of national parks are designated Dark Sky Parks because of their “exceptional or distinguished quality of starry nights.”

National parks with the official Dark Sky Park classification include:

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You’ll notice Utah is a big hitter when it comes to stargazing. So many incredible places to not only see during the day but also to be mesmerized by at night!

That’s why I have articles on the Best National Parks for Stargazing and These National Parks Are Hosting Free Stargazing Festivals This Summer.

I’m a little late writing this article as the first two events have just passed. But these annual events are held at similar times annually so you can start planning those for next year. 

In the meantime, there are four amazing stargazing festivals at national parks in the near future. And, national parks often host many stargazing activities and events throughout the year so check for those whenever you plan to visit.

Let’s take a look at the national parks stargazing festivals 2023.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon Star Party, June 10-17 (Check in a few months for 2024 dates)

Grand Canyon National Park is known for its breathtakingly beautiful rugged terrain. But it also hosts some of the most beautiful night skies around.

The event is free, but you must still pay to enter the park. The park fee is valid for the North and South rims for seven days. 

The event starts at sunset although the best viewing time is after 9 pm. Most telescopes are taken down at 11 pm although some folks still share theirs after that when the skies are crisp and clear.  

Check this out to learn more: The Grand Canyon Is Hosting a Star Party This Week—and It’s Totally Free

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bryce Canyon Astronomy Festval, June 14-17 (Check in a few months for 2024 dates)

Bryce Canyon National Park is located in southern Utah. This park has such excellent night sky viewing that it earned its dark-sky designation in 2019.

Come view the reddish-colored hoodoos during the day and then return for its spectacular nighttime views.

Their annual stargazing event includes lectures, star stories presentations, and guided stargazing sessions. They also have a performance by an Arizona string quartet called Dry Sky Quartet and other family-friendly activities. 

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Annual Badlands Astronomy Festival, July 14-16

South Dakota is home to Badlands National Park which boasts exciting fossil beds and unique geologic formations. In partnership with NASA South Dakota Grant Consortium, the festival typically includes guest speakers, telescopes, sky viewing, and a guided The annual Astronomy Festival partners with walk through a scaled solar system model.

Badlands is an amazing National Park. That’s why I wrote these articles:

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shenandoah Night Sky Festival, August 11-13

Shenandoah National Park is a gorgeous gem in the Blue Ridge Mountains in north-central Virginia. In fact, this almost 200,000-acre park is so breathtaking that I have done several posts about it! 

The other great thing about this park is its location. It is only a 75-mile drive from Washington, D.C. So if you will be checking out the nation’s capitol, it’s an easy trip to make.

You can view its cascading waterfalls, wildflower fields, and quiet woods daily and then stay for its spectacular nighttime views.

Their annual stargazing event hosts public stargazing sessions, ranger talks and other lectures and presentations, and family-friendly activities. The guest presentations will include a span of topics including space travel, space weather, and our future in space. 

The event is free with park admission.

Check this out to learn more: Shenandoah National Park is Hosting a Night Sky Festival This Weekend—and It’s Free

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

 Great Basin Astronomy Festival, September 14-16

The Great Basin National Park might be for you if you prefer to avoid crowds. It is one of the least crowded national parks. The 77,000-acre park in eastern Nevada also has a research-grade observatory.

This fall, you can attend their stargazing event which usually includes constellation talks, guest speakers, and observatory tours. They also have a photography workshop for all you photo bugs out there.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree Night Sky Festival, October 13-14

Joshua Tree National Park is designated as an International Dark Sky Park by the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA). That means it is the perfect spot to stargaze all year!

Every year, the park and non-profit organizations Joshua Tree Educational Experience (JTREE) and Sky’s the Limit. Observatory and Nature Center partner to bring this incredible stargazing event. 

The Night Sky Festival is a ticketed event and has a limited capacity. It is usually located just outside the park limits at the Sky’s The Limit Nature Observatory and Nature Center. Tickets go on sale in early summer. 

Daytime can be pretty incredible, too, in Joshua Tree.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

More Night!

National Park Observatories

Chaco Culture National Historical Park Observatory

The Chaco Culture National Historical Park Observatory gives the public exceptional views of the night sky from its New Mexico location. Astronomy is an integral part of the park’s interpretive programming that connects park resources to the celestial knowledge of the ancient Anasazi people who settled the area. Park lighting is retrofitted to keep skies dark and reduce light pollution, and star programs are anticipated attractions.

El Morro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Great Basin Observatory

Did you know that NPS has its own astronomical research observatory? Inaugurated in 2016, the Great Basin Observatory is the first NPS research-grade observatory to be based in a national park. Located in one of the darkest areas of the country at the border of Utah and Nevada, the observatory offers near pristine, unpolluted views of the night sky. The NPS observatory works with astronomy researchers across the country to advance our understanding of cosmic phenomena. Its telescopes can be remotely programmed to focus on any cosmic body or event from little known debris clouds and planets to the Milky Way and solar eclipse.

Rock Creek Park Planetarium

The NPS Rock Creek Park Planetarium in Washington, DC is another park venue that educates people about night sky phenomena and light pollution issues. Located within the Nature Center, it uses high-tech Spitz software to project the image of the night sky onto a large, dome-shaped ceiling. Rangers lead visitors on a journey of exploration into the solar system, galaxy, and beyond. Monthly, evening stargazing programs are also offered and give information about the seasonal night sky.

Worth Pondering…

I have long thought that anyone who does not regularly—or ever—gaze up and see the wonder and glory of a dark night sky filled with countless stars loses a sense of their fundamental connectedness to the universe.

—Brian Greene