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

Stargazing in Arizona’s Dark Skies: Best Night Sky Places

Why is Arizona such a wonderful place for stargazing? Clear skies and diverse geography set the stage and many communities provide sound stewardship for Dark Skies.

Why is Arizona such a wonderful place for stargazing? The simple answer: is good weather, mountainous geography, and sound stewardship. You can see Mercury, Mars, Jupiter, and the Andromeda galaxy on a clear night. The sky is awash in stars, double stars, and star clusters.

Mountains also shield dark-sky oases from urban skyglow. In the case of Oracle State Park which is only 20 miles from Tucson, the Santa Catalina Mountains block out the city lights. Likewise, Fountain Hills, an exurb on the northern flank of metro Phoenix enjoys surprising nights thanks to the rocky veil provided by McDowell Mountains.

The International Dark Sky Places program was created in 2001 by DarkSky International to encourage the preservation of the nighttime environment, educate the public, and reduce light pollution.

Since Flagstaff was named the first International Dark Sky City in 2001, over 200 Dark Sky Places have been certified in 22 countries on six continents. These places including dark sky parks, sanctuaries, reserves, and urban night sky places aim to connect people with the importance of darkness and the conservation of ecologically sensitive areas.

Arizona has over 20 dark sky locations encompassing cities, communities, national parks, and urban night skies.

Here is everything you need to know about the Dark Sky Places and where you can find them in Arizona.

Saguaro National Park, a Dark Sky Place © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What is the International Dark Sky Program?

Receiving dark-sky certification involves a variety of measures that may include using outdoor lighting that minimizes light pollution, community outreach and education, and working to affect public policy. It demonstrates the location’s commitment to preserving the nocturnal environment.

International Dark Sky Places in Arizona

An International Dark Sky Place is a publicly or privately owned conservation area that protects its night skies through responsible lighting policies and public education.

Petrified Forest National Park, a Dark Sky Place © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

These are Arizona’s Dark Sky Places:

International Dark Sky Sanctuaries

International Dark Sky Sanctuaries are the most remote and often darkest places. The designation underscores the significance of safeguarding nocturnal environments and protecting them from artificial light.

There are no International Dark Sky Sanctuaries in Arizona. New Mexico has the Cosmic Campground International Dark Sky Sanctuary, a 3.5-acre site in the Gila National Forest in western New Mexico.

The Campground is located in an exceptionally dark part of the Southwest with the nearest significant source of artificial light more than 40 miles away across the state line in Arizona. The Campground features a very basic infrastructure to support campers and offers a 360-degree, unobstructed, view of the night sky.

Chiricahua National Monument, a Dark Sky Place © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

International Dark Sky Reserves

International Dark Sky Reserves are dark zones surrounded by a populated periphery where strict policy controls safeguard the darkness of the core. These reserves conserve natural nightscapes and promote responsible outdoor lighting practices for the well-being of the ecosystem.

There are no International Dark Sky Reserves in Arizona. The Greater Big Bend International Dark Sky Reserve encompasses west Texas and northern Mexico.

Urban Night Sky Places in Arizona

An Urban Night Sky Place is one that fosters an authentic nighttime experience despite being in an area with significant artificial light.

Arizona has one Urban Night Sky Place and its Saguaro National Park in Tucson which received the designation in November 2023.

Check this out to learn more: Saguaro National Park is Arizona’s First Urban Night Sky Place and Why It Is a Big Deal

International Dark Sky Communities in Arizona

An International Dark Sky Community is a city or town recognized for its commitment to outdoor lighting ordinances and educating residents on the significance of dark skies. These communities implement measures to reduce light pollution and promote responsible outdoor lighting practices. This designation aims to balance the needs of urban life with the protection of the night sky.

Fountain Hills, a Dark Sky Community © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Here are Arizona’s International Dark Sky Communities:

Thunder Mountain Pootsee Nightsky on the Kaibab Paiute Indian Reservation on the Arizona-Utah state line

Across Arizona, on rugged public lands and inside scenic city limits, the visitor experience doesn’t end at sunset. Because this state so synonymous with sunshine and blue sky is equally spectacular when the stars come out.

Sedona, a Dark Sky Community © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

DIG DEEPER: Best things to see and do

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

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

These National Parks Are Hosting Free Stargazing Festivals This Summer

Here’s what you need to know about visiting the parks after dark

As magnificent as the United States’ 63 national parks are during daylight hours, after the sun sinks beyond the horizon these beautiful expanses (often far from city lights and carefully managed as dark-sky preserves) take on a stellar new look. In celebration of the constellations, various national parks hold festivals and evening events to teach visitors about the night sky.

Here’s what you need to know about four of the biggest astronomy parties in the United States national parks.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon Star Party

Each summer, Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona invites visitors to watch “an assortment of planets, double stars, star clusters, nebulae, and distant galaxies” dance above some of the oldest exposed rock on Earth during its Star Party which will take place from June 10 through June 17 in 2023.

Events begin on both the North and South Rims at 8 p.m. but according to the National Park Service (NPS) the best viewing is after 9 p.m.

“Skies will be starry and dark until the moon rises the first night. It rises progressively later throughout the week of the Star Party,” the NPS said on its website.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Each night of the event, park rangers on the South Rim will lead tours of the constellations at 9, 9:30, and 10 p.m. and will host a night sky photography workshop at 9:30 p.m. Throughout the week, various speakers are slated to hold nightly presentations at 8 p.m. starting with park ranger Ravis Henry who will discuss how the stars are seen through the Navajo culture lens. Other speakers include NASA scientist Julie McEnery who will speak about the next NASA flagship telescope, the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope which is scheduled to launch in May 2027 and Dr. Vishnu Reedy, professor of planetary sciences at the University of Arizona will lecture about how astronomers mitigate the threats of meteor impacts.

On the North Rim, the Saguaro Astronomy Club of Phoenix, Arizona will set up telescopes on the porch of the Grand Canyon Lodge and guide visitors in identifying constellations.

The 2023 Star Party is a free and open to the general public. The park entrance fee is good on both South and North rims for 7 days. No additional tickets or sign-up is required.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The event begins at sunset although the best viewing is after 9 pm and many telescopes come down after 11 pm; however, on nights with clear, calm skies, some astronomers continue sharing their telescopes into the night.

Dress warmly. Temperatures drop quickly after sunset—even during summer months.

Related article: 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 Festival

Taking place from June 14 through June 17 this year, Bryce Canyon’s Astronomy Festival in southern Utah happens to fall during the new moon when stars, planets, and meteorites are most visible.

Each night, volunteers from the Salt Lake Astronomical Society will bring their telescopes to share during the nightly stargazing sessions which will start at 10 p.m. across the road from the Bryce Canyon Visitor Center.

According to the park, the festival will also “include nightly lectures from leading academics in astronomy as well as park staff and planetarium educators who will share their expertise and research delving into the origin of stars and the universe itself.” Some of those lecturers will include Planetarium Educator Dr. Amy Sayle who will teach about legends surrounding the stars, former Northern Arizona University professor Dr. David W. Koerner whose presentation will focus on cultural astronomy and the arts, and astronomer Dr. Tyler Nordgren who will explain the magic of eclipses.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

All the sessions are free but some talks require reservations which can be made at the visitor center any time during the days preceding the festival. It’s worth signing up early as this year’s festival is happening in conjunction with Bryce Canyon’s centennial celebration, a time that is expected to be busier than usual in the park.

Each night of the festival, shuttle service will continue to limited locations between 8 p.m. and 12:15 a.m. Parking will be limited at Evening Program and Telescope locations so the park strongly recommend parking at the Shuttle Station in Bryce Canyon City (2 miles north of park entrance) and riding the Star Shuttle into the park. Shuttles arrive at each stop every 15 minutes. Use of the Star Shuttle is free with park admission.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As always, attending the festival is free with park admission.

Overnight temperatures are typically in the 40s Fahrenheit. A light jacket is a good idea if you plan to be outside for awhile after dark. While red light flashlights are okay, no white light flashlights be used due to their negative effect on night vision. After using a white light, it can take well over thirty minutes for your eyes to begin to readjust to the profound darkness of Bryce Canyon.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Badlands Astronomy Festival

In 2023, the Badlands National Park’s annual Astronomy Festival which is held in partnership with the NASA South Dakota Space Grant Consortium will take place from July 14 through July 16 in the South Dakota park.

Per the National Park Service, “Novices and experts alike will enjoy the spectacular dark night skies of Badlands National Park at public star parties each evening. During the afternoon each day, a variety of family-friendly activities will provide opportunities for visitors to learn about the night sky, the sun, and space exploration.”

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Astronomers (and their telescopes) from the Black Hills Astronomical Society, Badlands National Park, Dark Ranger Telescope Tours, and the University of Utah will be on hand throughout the festival to lead guests in for day and night observations.

Lectures will be held each night at 9 p.m. starting with a deep-dive on NASA’s space telescopes with NASA scientists Tom Durkin on the 29th, an explainer on Lakota Tribal beliefs around stars with Megan Ostrenga of The Journey Museum in Rapid City on the 30th, and a family-friendly show about the universe with Kevin Poe of Dark Ranger Telescope Tours on the 31st.

Additional events will be announced closer to the festival.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This free event is made possible through funding and support from the Badlands Natural History Association, NASA South Dakota Space Grant Consortium, Dark Ranger Telescope Tours, Black Hills Astronomical Society, The Journey Museum and Learning Center, International Dark Sky Association, University of Utah, Badlands National Park Conservancy, Minuteman Missile National Historic Site, and Badlands National Park.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shenandoah Night Sky Festival

Discover the Park after dark during the 2023 Night Sky Festival!

So far, only the dates for Shenandoah’s Night Sky Festival in Virginia have been announced: August 11 through August 13. But according to the National Park Service, the three-day event will include “stargazing, Ranger talks, kids’ activities, and guest presentations ranging from topics such as space weather, space travel, and our future in space.”

If you plan on attending one of the outdoor evening activities, be sure to be prepared for the weather and bring a flashlight with a red filter. All events are free with park admission.

Related article: Shenandoah National Park is Hosting a Night Sky Festival This Weekend—and It’s Free

Other Dark Sky Festivals

Great Basin National Park:

Great Basin Astronomy Festival will host its event September 14-16. Check back for more details closer to the event.

Glacier National Park:

Glacier National Park plans to offer Logan Pass Star Parties for the 2023 season. Check back for the exact dates and more details closer to the summer season. If you plan to attend it is important to come prepared. Wear warm clothing and be prepared for wind in St. Mary. Bring a headlamp or flashlight so you can safely move around in the dark. Seating is not provided at the Dusty Star Observatory so bring a chair for a more comfortable viewing experience.

How to attend the national park astronomy festivals?

Tickets to all the astronomy festival events are free though attendees still need to pay the park entrance fee. At Grand Canyon and Bryce Canyon, that’s $35 per vehicle, $30 per motorcycle, or $20 per person entering by foot, bicycle, or park shuttle bus. And for Badlands and Shenandoah, it’s $30, $25, and $15, respectively. Entrance passes can be purchased online or at the park entrance.

Related articles:

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

The Mighty Five: Ranger-Led Programs That Are Absolutely Free

The Mighty Five!

It sounds like the name of a John Wayne western but the term refers to Utah’s five magnificent national parks. Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands, and Arches stretch from west to east across southern Utah’s high desert. Each park boasts unique and jaw-dropping geological features and captivating landscapes. From towering rock walls, natural arches, and distinct stone pillars—all decorated in otherworldly colors from earthy reds to shining pinks to deep purples—these parks have inspired countless geologists, artists, and explorers.  

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tourists from across the globe descend upon Utah’s parks, many only spending a day or two. However, these natural wonders are worthy of longer visits to further explore, experience, and enjoy these special places. Regardless of the length of time available the park service offers numerous educational programs to do just that. These programs provide visitors with in-depth knowledge and a broader context of aspects of each park from wildlife to geological makeup to human history. These programs are free and often don’t require reservations. Here’s a look at some of the best.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Ride with a ranger in Zion

Zion National Park draws the most visitors to Utah’s parks. When you’re standing in the middle of the park’s eponymous canyon fixated on the sheer sandstone walls towering 2,000 feet above you seemingly painted in shades of dusty brown, rusty red, and smokey white, it’s easy to understand why.

If these canyon walls could talk, they would spin wonderful tales of the region’s past but another option is to sign up for the popular Ride with A Ranger Program (typically runs late spring through early fall). On this two-hour tour, you’ll take a bus into Zion Canyon with a park ranger providing detailed stories and fun facts about the park’s many wonders.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Each tour covers a particular subject. For instance, you may learn about the humans who have passed through this region over the millennia. According to park service historians, evidence of human activity in Zion dates back to 6,000 BC. Ancestral Puebloans later developed societies in the region, cultivating both squash and corn—no small feat in this desert climate. By the time Mormon settlers arrived in the mid-1800s, Paiute Indians had called the canyon home for more than 700 years. 

Pro tip: Check in at the visitor center for updated information on this program. Also, sign up early as the tour fills up fast.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Geology at Sunset Point

The scenic drive through Bryce Canyon National Park entices visitors with its bountiful overlooks but perhaps none as sweeping or breathtaking as Sunset Point. From here, the park’s mesmerizing geologic features, hoodoos, fins, and rock walls stretch out for miles. In the sunlight they glow like embers of a fire. As enchanting as the view is, it’s hard not to wonder how this strange, magical scene came to be.

Fortunately, the park holds daily Geologic Talks from the overlook where tourists learn about the park’s fascinating history. Park staff explains that oxidized iron deposits laid down tens of millions of years ago lend Bryce’s sandstone features their glorious red and pink hues.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Speaking of those features, the hoodoos, those stone pillars the park is known for are formed as a result of water seeping into the sandstone walls. Due to Bryce’s higher elevation, it experiences wide temperature swings. When the water freezes, it expands causing the sandstone to fracture. As this process repeats itself over millennia, you get one of the most memorable landscapes on earth.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Why Capitol Reef is worth the visit

It’s hard to imagine given how arid Capitol Reef National Park’s rocky, dusty landscape appears today but 280 million years ago the park was underwater. Indeed, the region has undergone many transformations over the eons from a beach-like environment to a swampy rainforest. This geologic backstory and much more are covered in the daily Geology Talk which serves as an excellent introduction to a park visit. Check with the park for time and location.

Capitol Reef is the least-visited of Utah’s national parks, but, in fairness, the competition is stiff. Those that do visit are rewarded for their effort. As explained during the 30-minute talk the park owes its name to white dome-shaped rock formations that early pioneers thought resembled the Capitol Dome in Washington, D.C.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park is also part of a 100-mile-long ridgeline that proved a significant impediment to travelers in the 1800s. So, the area was dubbed a reef for being an obstacle to land travel in the way that coral reefs are to ships. Today it is a destination, not an obstacle.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Caves and cowboys at Canyonlands

Of Utah’s Mighty Five, Canyonlands National Park reigns as the mightiest—in terms of acreage anyway. Canyonlands is the state’s largest and most remote national park. Divided up into four districts most visitors tour the park’s northern district, Island in the Sky. Perched on a plateau this region boasts viewpoints where you can gaze into the endless canyons.

The less-visited Needles District has its own set of attractions and ranger programs including the Cave Spring Guided Walk. On this 60-minute ranger-led hike participants gain a deeper understanding of the area particularly human history. As its name suggests, the Cave Spring Trail sports both a reliable water source—rare in these parts—and a natural shelter from those scorching midday rays.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Along the moderately easy 0.6-mile loop trail, hikers find the remnants of a cowboy camp dating back to the late 1890s. Indeed, ranchers used camps like this into the 1970s. The ranger guide will point out evidence of human activity in this area that is far, far older though. Near the small spring that has been a lifeline for centuries, pictographs decorate the rock walls made by distant ancestors of today’s Native Americans.   

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Windows and Mazes at Arches

Just 5 miles outside Moab sits the entrance to Arches National Park. Home to the largest concentration of natural arches in the world the park also houses other geological formations including balanced rocks and petrified dunes. But, nothing beats standing beneath the park’s namesake geological features.

From spring to fall, rangers lead guided walks through the Windows section of the park. This section of the park is popular because several awe-inspiring formations are situated near each other. The one-mile loop trail passes the North and South Windows as well as Turret Arch. Rangers go into detail about the geological history of the area uncovering the mystery of how these rock formations came to be and how the power of erosion continues to shape the landscape.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

More adventurous and experienced hikers will want to sign up for the guided Fiery Furnace Hikes (there is a charge for these). Rangers lead visitors through the maze that is the Fiery Furnace area of the park. Since this hike is more challenging, do your research before committing to it.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. The stars come out at night

When the sun goes down on the Mighty Five, the southwest landscape may disappear but a whole new spectacle unfolds. The night sky sparkles as far as the eye can see an increasingly rare phenomenon in the developed world. Utah’s national parks are all designated International Dark Sky Parks and Sanctuaries—perfect destinations for the budding astronomer.

All five parks offer astronomy or night sky programs at varying times throughout the year. Check each park’s website or visitor center for an updated schedule.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pro Tip: If you’re visiting in the summer but plan to participate in an astronomical ranger program, don’t forget to pack some warmer clothes. Utah’s canyons can get chilly in the evenings.

For more information on traveling to Utah, check out these articles:

Worth Pondering…

Landscape is what becomes us. If we see our natural heritage only as a quarry of building block instead of the bedrock of our integrity, we will indeed find ourselves not only homeless but rootless by the impoverishment of our own imagination. At a time when we hardly know what we can count on in a country of shifting values and priorities, Canyonlands is our bedrock, a geologic truth that we all share, the eyes of the future are looking back at us, praying that we may see beyond our own time.

—Terry Tempest Williams

Best National Parks for Stargazing

National parks offer some of the darkest skies in the country

From Arches National Park in Utah to Joshua Tree in California, I’ve compiled a list of the best Dark Sky Parks where you can gaze up at the heavens. So grab your binoculars, get to know your constellation, and get ready to feel the vastness of it all.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Stargazing at Arches National Park, Utah

Known for its more than 2,000 delicate sandstone arches that tower toward the sky like magical red rock doorways, this park offers an abundance of easy to moderate hikes that visitors can explore by day—and a glorious sea of stars to gaze upon by night. 

By day: Scramble across the rocky and sandy terrain but make sure you’ve got sturdy sneakers or hiking boots. Many of the best hikes are relatively easy and the best trails include the Balanced Rock Hike (0.3 miles round trip), Sand Dune Arch Hike (0.3 miles round trip), and the Double Arch Hike (1.2 miles round trip). 

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

By night: Since it has minimal artificial lighting (there’s light at one administrative area by the highway and sky-friendly lighting for safety at a few spots around the park), Arches offers some of the darkest skies in the contiguous 48 United States. According to the National Park Service (NPS) a pair of simple binoculars on a moonless night may be enough to see even the rings around Saturn. Arches occasionally offers ranger-led stargazing events so keep an eye on the website to find out when one might be planned. Otherwise, the best spots to see the stars include: 

  • Balanced Rock Picnic Area
  • The Windows Section
  • Garden of Eden Viewpoint 
  • Panorama Point

Each of these spots offers a parking area so you don’t have to be camping to enjoy the views. Just pull up, turn off your lights, and look up. You can stay by your car or walk a short distance into the park to get a more isolated view.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Best time of year to go: Spring or fall.

Note: You’ll see the most stars during the new moon or when the moon is below the horizon. Check sunrise and sunset times and moon phases at discovermoab.com.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Stargazing at Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

Famous for its thousands of pointed spires called hoodoos Bryce Canyon is part of a geologic spectacle known as the Grand Staircase layered over millions of years. While it is known as a hiking mecca by day it’s also firmly dedicated to its night skies with what the NPS calls a “special force of park rangers and volunteer astronomers” keeping its skies dark. On a good night you can see the Milky Way extending from horizon to horizon with a sea of stars and planets glowing all around.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

By day: Don’t miss the most iconic section of the park, the Bryce Amphitheater which is home to the greatest concentration of hoodoos on the planet. This otherworldly vista is viewable from the main road from various overlooks where you can get out of your car and take it all in. Of course the best way to see the park is by hiking and there are plenty of day hikes that promise amazing views—from the Rim Trail, an easy walk along the edge of Bryce Amphitheater to the Queen’s Garden Trail which leads hikers on a moderately-easy hike through rock arches and inclines to a sweeping view of the hoodoos.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

By night: Bryce Canyon’s astronomy program is considered the longest active astronomy program in the NPS with dark night tours and telescope viewings offered on weekends in the summer. On a clear night, spectators can see between 7,500-10,000 stars including a jaw-dropping view of the Milky Way. Check out the park’s Astronomy Programs page to find out more.  

Best time of year to go: May through September.  

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Stargazing at Joshua Tree National Park, California

Located a short drive from Los Angeles, this urban escape offers hikers a vast array of rocks to scramble across as well as desert trails that go on for miles. By night, it has some of the darkest skies in Southern California.

By day: Rock climbers will love climbing the boulders as they traverse the trails throughout the park. I recommend Hidden Valley Trail, a one-mile hike that takes you past many Joshua trees and through a massive rock valley where you can climb and while keeping a lookout for chipmunks, lizards, roadrunners, and cacti. 

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

By night: If you visit April through October you’ll be able to see the Milky Way twinkling across the sky. The park offers regular ranger-led star programs; check the calendar to find more.

And while you don’t need to spend the night at the park to enjoy the night skies you can choose from nine campgrounds. According to the NPS website, Cottonwood Campground has the darkest skies. If you’re just doing a drive-in, NPS recommends parking at any of the roadside pullouts and setting up chairs within 20 feet of your vehicle. Skull Rock is an imposing rock formation near the road that’s a great spot for stargazing. 

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Best time of year to go: Fall to spring.

Note: Stargazing is great year-round here but if you also want to spend your days on the trails the summers are too hot to enjoy the park safely. 

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Stargazing at Badlands National Park, South Dakota

Known for its otherworldy mountains and canyons of layered rock as well as the grassy prairies surrounding them, this 244,000-acre park is home to bison, bighorn sheep, pronghorns, burros, prairie dogs, and black-footed ferrets. Located about an hour east of Rapid City, it is also a rich fossil site. 

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

By day: Take a drive on Badlands Loop Road which takes you past 15 scenic overlooks to see the park’s majestic views. As for hikes, I recommend the easy 0.25-mile Fossil Exhibit Trail, a lazy walk where you can learn about the different fossils found in the area. 

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Note: Badlands has an “open hike” policy which means hikers are allowed to go off the trail. This means rock scrambling is totally OK.

By night: The national park offers special Night Sky Viewings every night in August and September. At these viewings, park rangers and volunteers use laser pointers to show and describe different constellations, planets, and other objects in the night sky. Spectators are also welcome to use the park’s 11-inch Celestron telescopes to get an even better look at the night sky. 

Best time to go: Late spring and early fall (summers can get hot and crowded) 

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Stargazing at Big Bend National Park, Texas

This expansive stretch of desert—the 12th largest national park in the country—is located on the southwestern border between Texas and Mexico. Despite the fact that it is the largest of North America’s four deserts it is brimming with life due to being carved out by the big bend of the Rio Grande river that gives the park its name. The park’s menagerie of animals includes more than 450 species of birds, 75 species of mammals, 56 species of reptiles, and 11 species of amphibians. But all that’s nothing to the number of stars visible on a clear, moonless night. 

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

By day: Hikes around the nearby canyons and within the Chisos basin range from very easy to challenging. Since the park is known to have an active bear and mountain lion population use extra caution if hiking up into the mountains and foothills where these animals tend to live. I recommend the 0.3-mile paved Window View trail around the Basin store.  

Note: Be sure to stop at the Panther Junction visitor center when you arrive at the park where rangers can help you plan your day and tell you about any road closures. 

By night: This international dark-sky park has the least light pollution of any park in the lower 48 states. On a clear night, visitors can see the Andromeda Galaxy, two million light years away. Consequently, the park offers several types of night sky programs throughout the year with dedicated “night sky rangers” there to teach visitors about all things far, far away. 

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Note: Since it takes a long time to reach the park—and then once there, you can spend a considerable amount of time just getting around within the park—you’ll want to book a camping site in advance. 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. 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.

Best time of year to go: Late fall through early spring (the rainy season is June through October and summer days can be too scorching hot for safe hikes).

Other articles on stargazing you may want to read:

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

The Ultimate Guide to Mesa Verde National Park

At over 52,000 acres in size, Mesa Verde preserves more than 4,300 archeological sites and over 600 cliff dwellings

During our stay at Farmington, New Mexico, we did day trips to Aztec National Monument and Mesa Verde National Park in the southern portion of Colorado.

We had high expectations for the first visit to Mesa Verde National Park, which was far exceeded. Mesa Verde in Spanish means green table, a high, broad Mesa averaging about 18 inches of precipitation each year between winter and spring snows and summer thunderstorms. Ancestral Puebloan peoples had discovered it hundreds of years before European explorers visited the area. 

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are 63 national parks in the United States and Mesa Verde in southwest Colorado is the only one that was created to safeguard the history of a people and a cultural resource. When Teddy Roosevelt signed the bill into law establishing Mesa Verde as a national park in 1906, his remarks were clear: the park would ‘preserve the works of man.’ The works he was referring to were, most notably, ancient villages built upon sandstone ledges on cliffs perched 2,000 feet above the Montezuma Valley.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mesa Verde is Spanish for “green table”—named for the pinyon pine and juniper forests that blanket the ceiling of the Navajo Canyon—where nearly 5,000 archeological sites and 600 cliff dwellings built by the ancestral Puebloan people between 550-1300 A.D. remain today.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The sophistication of the dwellings is notable as only sticks, stones, and bones were used to create all of the sites; the tools evolved to advance the architectural methods of the day. Some of the sites are small, containing one-room units found atop the high surfaces of the canyon walls (the green table) and others are multi-story palaces (some with up to 200 rooms) found nestled in the steep rock faces somewhere between the mesa and the canyon floor.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The location of the dwellings was strategically chosen and served multi-functional purposes—positioned far enough from the flat-top above that they protected from invading groups while enclosed enough that they maintained solar warmth and energy within the enclosures. To navigate between the mesa, the dwellings, and the canyon floors, the ancestral Puebloans would climb (they are arguably among the first free-climbers in North America) while also making use of hand-made ladders that allowed them to travel to and fro. The structures were also used for ceremonial purposes.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The end of an era…

For seven centuries, the ancestral Puebloans thrived until they abandoned their homes around 1300 A.D. Archeologists have multiple theories as to why they left the area, the most likely determination being that drought wiped out their crops while impending war with invaders subsequently drove them south to the area that now belongs to the state of New Mexico. Another contributing factor to their departure was possible because they over-hunted and overused natural resources in the area.

Related article: Mesa Verde National Park: Look Back In Time 1,000 Years

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Whatever the reasons for their complete departure, by 1300 the natives had moved on from their dwellings, never to return. After that, what was once a bustling community and home to tens of thousands of people fell into silence where their homes remained undiscovered for nearly 600 years.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Exploring today…

One of the coolest aspects of Mesa Verde is the sheer volume of cliff dwellings that are preserved inside the park. There are also thousands of archeological sites on record and there are certainly more that are yet to be found. For this reason, Mesa Verde is one of the most highly restricted parks in the entire system (walking off of established trails is entirely prohibited.) The beauty of such restriction is two-fold: 1.) you are blessed with the knowledge of impassioned rangers who seem to know everything about the past, present, and near-future of the park; and 2.) you know that this lone cultural resource is being fiercely protected—as we want all of the parks to be!

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The archeological sites can be found on two mesas: Chapin and Wetherill Mesas are separated by the Navajo Canyon where dwellings line the walls. Access to the best-known dwellings is by ranger-led tours where visitors enter the ruins by ascending and descending ladders and stone-made steps. Some of the most popular guided tours include the Balcony House, Long House, and of course, the Cliff Palace. To go to any of them you will want to get tickets at the Mesa Verde Visitor and Research Center in advance. The Spruce Tree and Step Houses can be explored freely.

Far View Sites Complex, Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Other cool areas include the Far View Sites Complex where visitors can wander among archeological sites to survey well-preserved kivas and their inner workings and catch a glimpse of a petroglyph of a sundial.

Spend a night or two in Morefield Campground just four miles from the park entrance. With 267 sites there’s always plenty of space and the campground rarely fills. Each site has a table, bench, and grill. Camping is open to tents, trailers, and RVs including 15 full-hookup RV sites.

Related article: Mesa Verde National Park: 14 Centuries of History

The campsites are located within a high grassy canyon filled with Gambel oak, native flowers, deer, and wild turkeys. A camp store offers registration, food, and camp supplies. Firewood, gasoline, showers, a coin-operated laundromat, and a kennel are located nearby.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fact Box

Size: 52,074 acres

Date established: June 29, 1906

Location: Southwest Colorado in the Four Corners area where Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah meet

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Designations: UNESCO World Heritage Site, U.S. National Register of Historic Places, and International Dark Sky Park

Park Elevation: 6,015 feet to 8,571 feet

Park entrance fee: $30 per private vehicle, valid for 7 days ($20 in winter)

Park camping fee: $36 (dry camping), $50 (full-hookups)

Recreational visits (2021): 548,477

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How the park got its name: Mesa Verde is Spanish for the green table which refers to the green blanket of vegetation, pinyon, and juniper that lies across the top of the Navajo Canyon. The name was given by Spanish explorers. 

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Iconic site in the park: The best-known cliff dwelling in the park is Cliff Palace, the largest of all of the dwellings and the crown jewel of the national park. The first stone was mortared in 1200 A.D. and over 20 years the settlement would grow to include 150 rooms and 23 kivas that would house an estimated 100 people until the site was abandoned in 1300 A.D. Among the most celebrated structures in the palace is the 26-foot Square Tower House, the tallest internal structure found in any of the dwellings at Mesa Verde. The natural sandstone that the village was carved out of is believed to have once been painted in bright colors.

Related article: The Ultimate Guide to Aztec Ruins National Monument

On the 30-minute ranger-assisted tour, you will descend uneven stone steps and climb four ladders with an elevation change of 100 feet. The total walking distance is ¼ mile.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Accessible adventure: There are two different auto tours in the park that follow roads along mesas on either side of the Navajo Canyon. The most popular of the two is the 6-mile route on Mesa Top Loop Road which offers stops at accessible sites throughout where you can join park-led tours and step onto overlooks that peer onto ancient villages of the ancestral Puebloan people (including the Sun Point Overlook from where you can see Cliff Palace in a distance.)

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The 12-mile Wetherill Mesa Road on the other side of the canyon is a wild ride bringing visitors from Far View to many scenic views that overlook four states. Wetherill is open only from May through October and vehicle size and weight restrictions are in effect on both park roads so check National Park Service access areas on the official website to get more info before heading out.

Both roads have steep grades, and sharp turns, and offer great opportunities to see wildlife. Approximately 40 cliff dwellings can be seen from national park roads and overlooks.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big adventure: The ranger-led Balcony House tour brings visitors through a variety of strenuous sections—down a 32-foot ladder, through a 12-foot tunnel on hands-and-knees, and on a crawl up a 60-foot open rock scramble before exiting a 10-foot ladder climb. The tour is only one hour long but it is the most adventurous dwelling tour available and allows visitors to explore kivas and plazas in one of the best-preserved sites in the park while breaking a sweat at the same time.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Did you know?

President Roosevelt established Mesa Verde National Park in 1906, the first park of its kind established to protect cultural artifacts and preserve Native American Indian history in North America.  

It is estimated that 30,000 people lived in the area before it was abandoned around 1300 A.D.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mesa Verde has the largest collection of ancestral Puebloan artifacts ever found—there are more than 5,000 archaeological sites and over 600 cliff dwellings documented in the park.

Related article: Imagine Life in a Hovenweep Village

Common sites in dwellings and in archeological sites include terraces, kivas, farming terraces, field houses, reservoirs, ditches, shrines, ceremonial features, and rock art. Kivas are keyhole-shaped rooms used for ritual purposes rather than for daily activity.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Kiva is Hopi for “room underneath,” adapted by anthropologists and archeologists to refer to ceremonial rooms. They are found throughout Mesa Verde. Kivas are well engineered with ventilation systems to bring fresh air into the structures where ceremonial fires once burned in the center—also in the center is a small hole called a sipapu which represents an opening to the otherworld. Some kivas have underground passageways leading to other areas in the settlements.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hopi Indians in Arizona and New Mexico are descendants of the Mesa Verde Ancestral Pueblo peoples.

There is more to this park than archeological sites and dwellings. Forested areas are made up of Utah juniper, pinyon pine, and scrub oak and provide a healthy habitat for a variety of wildlife species including deer, elk, bobcat, mountain lion, skunk, and badger, and the birdlife in Mesa Verde is teeming (more than 200 species have been documented in the park.)

Worth Pondering…

The falling snowflakes sprinkling the piñons gave it a special kind of solemnity. It was more like sculpture than anything else … preserved … like a fly in amber.

—Novelist Willa Cather, describing the rediscovery of Cliff Palace

Shenandoah National Park is Hosting a Night Sky Festival This Weekend—and It’s Free

The annual festival takes place from July 19 to July 21

When you come home at night and flip on the lamp switch, do you ever stop to think about what you might be missing?

In 1880, less than 150 years ago, electric light first came to American cities.
In 2017, roughly 80 percent of people in North America cannot see the Milky Way due to electric lights at night. In other words, our dark night skies often really aren’t all that dark. When was the last time you were able to experience the awe of seeing a sky full of stars? It can be easy to feel disconnected from or simply forget about the beauty and sheer vastness of the cosmos.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

National parks are some of the best places to appreciate night skies because the National Park Service works to protect these places from the increasingly prevalent effects of light pollution. The National Park Service recognizes dark night skies as a valuable resource that needs to be protected.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

National Parks are becoming a refuge for people from city light pollution. Dozens of national parks around the country have earned designations such as International Dark Sky Parks and Sanctuaries. These distinctions recognize “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,” according to the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA).

Many of these parks have astronomy programs where people of all ages can learn more about the wonders of the night sky—and all of them have places to lay out a blanket and simply enjoy the darkness. Grand Canyon National Parks hosts an annual Star Party in June.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Under the stars at Shenandoah National Park

The crisp, clear Blue Ridge Mountains air in Shenandoah National Park makes everything brighter in the night sky. Stars sparkle with more intensity and constellations come into clearer view.

Related article: Where to Stargaze

While Shenandoah National Park may not get as dark as some of the Parks in the West, its high elevation combined with its relative remoteness from dense urban areas makes the Park a great place to engage in stargazing on the east coast.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

On moonless and cloud-free nights it is a wonderful spot to view the Milky Way or some of the 2,500 stars visible to the unaided eye that make up one of the 88 official constellations. Finding and observing constellations, phases of the moon, meteor showers, and eclipses can provide a sense of wonder about our place in the universe.

Starting in 2016 Shenandoah National Park began a Night Sky Festival, full of ranger programs and activities to help celebrate our disappearing dark skies.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tips for Stargazing

A good place for stargazing in Shenandoah National Park is by the Big Meadows area near the Rapidan Fire Road. The amphitheater in the Skyland area is also appropriate.

Related article: The Grand Canyon Is Hosting a Star Party This Week—and It’s Totally Free

Most people are a bit uncomfortable in the dark. Try getting used to it by walking outside in a dark area while keeping your flashlight in your pocket.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Allow your eyes time to adjust; it takes about twenty minutes for your eyes to become accustomed to the nighttime darkness. You may be surprised how well you can see by starlight.

Make a red flashlight or use one with a red LED. To make your own, use red paper or cellophane to cover the white light of the flashlight. Red light allows your eyes to adapt better to the darkness than white light while still providing visibility for safety.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Enjoying the night skies is for everyone, you don’t need expensive equipment. If you don’t have a telescope, grab your binoculars to get a better look at the fuzzy spots in the sky overhead. Also, use the binoculars to gaze upon the Milky Way.

Educate yourself on the constellations overhead with the use of a star chart or a star-finding app downloadable for your smartphone or tablet.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When venturing out to stargaze in the park make sure to bring a red flashlight to journey from your car to your destination. Be sure to dress in layers, as summer nights are often cool on the mountain ridge. Bring a blanket or a set of chairs to sit on.

Related article: Ride the Sky along Skyline Drive

Shenandoah National Park will conduct its sixth annual Night Sky Festival from August 19-21. Rangers and guest speakers will present a variety of programs at sites throughout the park focusing on space, celestial objects, nocturnal residents, and the importance of dark night skies. 

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Guest speakers presenting will include NASA Solar System Ambassador Greg Redfern and amateur astronomer Rich Drumm. These programs are sponsored by Delaware North, the park concessioner.  

Other activities include special ranger-led talks, discussions, children’s activities, and telescope/night sky viewings. Programs will take place at Dickey Ridge Visitor Center (Milepost 4.6), Mathews Arm Campground (Milepost 22.1), Skyland Amphitheater (Milepost 42.5), Byrd Visitor Center (Milepost 51), Big Meadows (Milepost 51), and Loft Mountain Amphitheater (Milepost 79.5). 

Related article: Shenandoah National Park: Daughter of the Stars

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

All programs are free. No reservations are needed. However, park entrance fees apply ($30/vehicle, valid for 7 days). Participants should be weather-prepared and bring a flashlight with a red filter. The complete program schedule can be found on the park’s website.  

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

Where to Stargaze

Planning a camping trip? Consider these starlit gems.

Imagine being able to see billions of stars in the Milky Way just with your naked eye from your backyard. It was once a common reality until artificial lights from our growing cities started encroaching upon the night sky. Today, to see the Milky Way—and most constellations other than, say, the Big Dipper—you have to trek far, far away from humanity. The darker the sky, the better the view!

The ultimate stargazing spots are fittingly called Dark Sky Places, designated pockets where light pollution is at a minimum and the stars can shine in all their glory. And the keeper of those Dark Sky Places is the International Dark Sky Association (IDA). 

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What began in 1988 as a grassroots movement among astronomers in Tucson is now international with 196 certified Dark Sky Places spanning 21 countries. Its mission is to protect natural landscapes, educate the public, and counteract the harmful effects of excessive light pollution linked to everything from insomnia to obesity to cancer.

“It messes with our circadian rhythms,” says Ryan Parker, secretary of the IDA’s Colorado chapter. “Our body naturally needs to sleep and rest and rebuild. And, when we don’t allow that to happen it interferes with our natural homeostasis.”

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

When the 24-hour cycle of light and dark is interrupted for wildlife the consequences can be dire. Nocturnal animals confuse night and day and become easy prey. Birds that migrate or hunt by moonlight get thrown off course by artificial light migrating too early or colliding into buildings. Baby sea turtles that hatch on the beach and find their way to the ocean by the light of the moon can be lured in the opposite direction by urban glow.

Related: Explore the Funky Art Towns and Desert Beauty of West Texas

Beyond that, the impetus to preserve our dark skies should be pretty obvious: Just look up. An unpolluted sky is glorious, awe-inspiring even. And more and more communities are working to get officially certified by the IDA’s standards—a process that can take up to three years. 

Borrego Springs, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Dark Sky Places fall under five designations: 

  • International Dark Sky Communities: Communities are legally organized cities and towns that adopt quality outdoor lighting ordinances and undertake efforts to educate residents about the importance of dark skies. Certified IDA International Dark Sky Communities include Borrego Springs (California), Sedona (Arizona), and Fredericksburg (Texas).
  • International Dark Sky Parks: Parks are public- or privately-owned spaces protected for natural conservation that implement good outdoor lighting and provide dark sky programs for visitors. Certified IDA International Dark Sky Parks include Anza-Borrego Desert State Park (California), Arches National Park (Utah), Lyndon B. Johnson National Historic Park (Texas), El Moro National Monument (New Mexico), Mesa Verde National Park (Colorado), and Stephen C. Foster State Park (Georgia).
  • International Dark Sky Reserves: Reserves consist of a dark “core” zone surrounded by a populated periphery where policy controls are enacted to protect the darkness of the core. Certified IDA International Dark Sky Reserves include Central Idaho and Greater Big Bend International Dark Sky Reserve (Texas and Mexico).
  • International Dark Sky Sanctuaries: Sanctuaries are the most remote (and often darkest) places in the world whose conservation state is most fragile. Certified IDA International Dark Sky Sanctuaries include Black Gap Wildlife Management Area (Texas), Cosmic Campground (New Mexico), and Medicine Rocks State Park (Montana).
  • Urban Night Sky Places: Urban Night Sky Places are sites near or surrounded by large urban environs whose planning and design actively promote an authentic nighttime experience amid significant artificial light night and that otherwise do not qualify for designation within any other International Dark Sky Places category. Certified IDA Urban Night Sky Places include Fry Family Park (Ohio), Stacy Park (Missouri), and Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge (New Mexico).
Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In addition to certifying Dark Sky Places, the 50 IDA chapters also run star parties like June’s Rocky Mountain Star Share, an annual extravaganza in Colorado on 35 acres of land with speakers, camping, and massive telescopes. The Premier Star Party of the Rocky Mountains was held June 22–26, 2022.

Related: The Grand Canyon Is Hosting a Star Party This Week—and It’s Totally Free

There’s also International Dark Sky Week in April and both Utah and Colorado host Dark Sky Months with events and extra outreach to inspire visitors to make changes in their own homes and communities. Utah’s 23 accredited International Dark-Sky Association places include four of Utah’s Mighty Five national parks, 10 state parks, and two towns. Colorado currently claims 15 of the world’s 196 International Dark Sky Places.

Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The coolest Dark Sky Places in the US

Across the 94 Dark Sky Places in the United States, you’ll find friendly amateur astronomers and ample opportunities to gaze uninterrupted into the heavens. Consider picking up a red light headlamp—a hands-free way to illuminate your path but not obstruct the experience. Check the weather forecast, bring layers and plenty of water, tell someone where you’re going, and don’t forget to look down every once in a while. You can fall off a cliff if you’re not paying attention.

West Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Bend National Park, Texas

The bend isn’t the only thing that’s big in one of America’s most underrated national parks—the number of stars you can see here is massive. Big Bend is an ultra-remote superstar. Located in far West Texas, you’ll find yourself with plenty of peace and quiet as you hike through desert canyons, marvel at the Chisos Mountains, or kayak down the Rio Grande. But don’t forget to save some energy for after dark: Big Bend’s extreme isolation makes it the least light-polluted of all the national parks in the lower 48 so that as the sun goes down the heavens explode with stars. Park yourself anywhere beneath its 1,112,000 acres of dark skies for a night and take it all in.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

The Grand Canyon may be the best national park in America! That’s debatable. But it is the most recognizable and extraordinary place to stargaze. A few years ago, the Grand Canyon Village began retrofitting its lighting to be more dark sky-friendly and in 2016 was rewarded with Provisional Dark Sky status. Between that effort and its accessibility, Grand Canyon’s allure for the astronomically inclined is not up for debate.

Related: Exploring a State Park or National Park this Summer! How to Choose?

There’s an annual Grand Canyon Star Party held each June and the Desert View Watchtower is a popular spot for capturing the Milky Way with astrophotography. On a full moon night, take a ranger-led hike along the rim, or on other nights a ranger-led constellation tour. Here’s how to plan your visit.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah

Like its state parks, Utah’s national monuments often hide in the shadows of its big five national parks. As such, only about 100,000 people visit Natural Bridges each year and most of those folks don’t stick around once the sun goes down. This is unfortunate—Natural Bridges became the first international Dark Sky Park back in 2007 owing to it having some of the absolute darkest skies in the country and countless astronomy events held through the summer. At night, the sky positively explodes with stars and celestial bodies and the canyon walls are pitch black in contrast to the celestial river that is the Milky Way rising over Owachomo Bridge. Let your gaze drift through the arch, upward and uninterrupted.

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