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

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

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

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

The annual party takes place from June 18 to June 25

Imagine being able to see billions of stars in the Milky Way just with your naked eye from your own 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 ultimate stargazing spots are fittingly called Dark Sky Places: designated pockets where light pollution is at a minimum and the stars are out in all their glory. And the keepers of those Dark Sky Places are the International Dark Sky Association (IDA). 

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What began in 1988 as a grassroots movement among astronomers in Tucson is now international with 170 certified Dark Sky Places in 21 countries. Its mission is to protect natural landscapes, educate, 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, Chair of the Colorado chapter of the IDA. “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.”

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon National Park was designated as an International Dark Sky Park in 2016. Many of the best protected night skies in the country are found within national park boundaries.

Grand Canyon joined eleven other national park sites certified by IDA. Including Grand Canyon, eight of the national park sites with IDA Dark Sky Park status are located on the Colorado Plateau. The NPS especially focuses on sustainable outdoor lighting because it combines technology, design, and practice in a way that allows parks to increase energy efficiency and enhance visitor experiences.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Between its Dark Sky status and its ease of accessibility, the Grand Canyon attracts the astronomically inclined. There’s an annual Grand Canyon Star Party held in June and the Desert View Watchtower is a popular spot for capturing the Milky Way with astrophotography.

For over 30 years, the Grand Canyon National Park and Grand Canyon Conservancy have hosted a week-long June stargazing party with free entrance to the park and a multi-day program. And while during the COVID-19 pandemic the annual event went viral, the in-real-life celebration runs between June 18 and June 25 this year. 

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

According to the National Park Service (NPS), the event kicks off Saturday after sunset. So, 9 p.m. is reportedly the best time for viewing and visitors are encouraged to bring a red flashlight rather than a white one as that can interfere with the viewing.

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

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

On the South Rim, the seven-day event kicks off with a Mars Perseverance presentation on June 18 where visitors can learn about the Red Planet rover from the person who built it followed by presentations throughout the week on everything from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope to learning how astronauts trained in northern Arizona in the 1960s and 1970s.

Each evening, the NPS will also host a telescope viewing behind the Grand Canyon Visitor Center while park rangers will offer constellation tours. Night sky photography workshops will also be available.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

On the North Rim, an astronomy-related evening program will be offered at 8 p.m. in the auditorium of the Grand Canyon Lodge and constellation talks will also be given throughout the night. During the day, solar telescopes will also be set up at the lodge.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Things to Know about the 2022 Star Party

  • Attend this free, open-to-the-general public, event. The park entrance fee ($35/vehicle) is valid on both South and North rims for 7 days. No additional tickets or sign-up is required.
  • The event begins at sunset although the best viewing is after 9 p.m. and many telescopes come down after 11 p.m.; however, on nights with clear and calm skies, some astronomers continue sharing their telescopes into the night.
  • Campground or lodging reservations are recommended.
  • Dress warmly. Temperatures drop quickly after sunset—even during summer months.
  • View an assortment of planets, double stars, star clusters, nebulae, and distant galaxies by night and perhaps the Sun or Venus by day.
  • Skies will be starry and dark until the moon rises the first night. It rises progressively later throughout the week of the Star Party.
Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

South Rim Star Party 2022

  • Events include an outdoor evening program nightly just outside Grand Canyon Visitor Center at 8 p.m. followed by telescope viewing in the large lot behind the Visitor Center. To attend the evening programs arrive before 8 p.m. to be sure of getting a good view of the screen or arrive after dark and head straight to the telescope lot.
  • Park rangers offer constellation tours at 9, 9:30, and 10 p.m. The slide show, constellation tours, and at least one telescope are wheelchair accessible. The closest accessible parking is in lot 4. Lots 1 through 3 offer additional parking. During the Star Party, the Village Route (blue) shuttle bus runs every half-hour until 11 p.m. sharp.
  • The South Rim Star Party is sponsored by the Tucson Amateur Astronomy Association. Amateur astronomers from across the country volunteer their expertise and offer free nightly astronomy programs and telescope viewing.
Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

North Rim Star Party 2022

  • Telescopes are set up on the porch of the Grand Canyon Lodge every evening. An astronomy-related evening program will be presented at 8 p.m. in the auditorium of Grand Canyon Lodge. Check park bulletin boards for the evening program schedule. Constellation talks are also given, throughout the evening.
  • By day, solar telescopes are set up at the lodge, the Visitor Center, and the general store (by the campground.)
  • The North Rim Star Party is sponsored by the Saguaro Astronomy Club of Phoenix, Arizona.

Park Alerts in Effect

  • Alert 1, Severity danger, Inner Canyon High Temp of 100 °F (38 °C) Excessive Heat Warning – Saturday, June 18, 2022; hiking into Grand Canyon is not advised this week. If you do, don’t hike between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Bring water and electrolytes, food and salty snacks, sunscreen, sunglasses, a water spray bottle, loose/protective Clothing, wide-brimmed hat.
  • Alert 2, Severity danger, Grand Canyon National Park is in STAGE 2 FIRE RESTRICTIONS. Campfires are prohibited. Wood burning and charcoal fires including campfires and warming fires are prohibited.

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