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

Beautifully Bizarre Joshua Tree Has Springtime Written All Over it

Camp, hike, and rock climb your way through California’s High Desert

California’s Mojave Desert has inspired a number of monumental artistic endeavors including the fictional planet Tatooine in Star Wars and the iconic U2 album The Joshua Tree. But Joshua Tree National Park which lies within the boundaries of the Mojave has a landscape and special magnetism all its own. People come to Joshua Tree for their own special reasons. Sometimes it’s wilderness. Other times people come here for the music history, the diversity of raptors, or the epic landscapes. People come to Joshua Tree to find themselves. And find yourself you will—whether you’re hiking, biking, rock climbing, camping, stargazing, or daydreaming about selling all your stuff to move to the desert. Here’s how to do it all on your next trip.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The best time to visit Joshua Tree National Park 

Joshua Tree is open (and beautiful!) year round. Come in the spring or fall for the best weather (but keep in mind, the park gets extra busy January through April). If you visit in the hot summer months, plan outdoor activities early in the morning or later in the day when the air is cooler just to be safe. Most people spend four hours in the park according to park rangers. But Joshua Tree’s abundance of jaw-dropping geological and ecological sights mean one could spend days exploring the otherworldly landscape.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fuel up in the funky artist towns nearby

There are over 100 miles of roads within the park and not a gas station in sight so fill up beforehand. The quirky towns surrounding the park—especially Joshua Tree, Twentynine Palms, and Yucca Valley—are also your best bet for grabbing a bite and a beer after a long day in the park. Populated by UFOlogists, solitude seekers, antique dealers, and offbeat creatives drawn to the desert, there are plenty of unusual adventures to be had in town. Definitely swing by Pioneertown which served as a film set for Old Westerns in a past life and today houses the area’s most famous bar and music venue, Pappy & Harriet’s.

Joshua Tree National Park Cottonwood entrance © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Getting into Joshua Tree National Park

The park’s larger than Rhode Island which means there’s a lot of ground to cover. Of the three main entrances, the Joshua Tree entrance (known as the West Entrance) is often the busiest. The North and South Entrances near Twentynine Palms and the Cottonwood Visitors Center, respectively, are less crowded. Get there early; parking lots often fill up by mid-morning.

Just drive up to one of the park’s entrances and pay at the booth. A seven-day vehicle permit runs $30. Alternatively, $55 gets you a pass valid for a full year—OR, if you think you’ll visit more than one national park in the next 12 months (and you should!), NPS offers an $80 pass that buys you entry to any park for a year.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hit Joshua Tree’s best hiking trails 

Once you’re all geared up with hiking boots and as much water as you can carry (seriously, it’s hot, especially in summer), it’s time to hit the trails. Skull Rock Nature Trail is one of the most popular in the park. From the Jumbo Rocks Campground, it’ll take you winding through about 1.7 miles of desert until you arrive at Skull Rock, an enormous boulder with two eye sockets carved into it by years of water erosion. It’s a pretty mild route and great for beginners. 

The second trail you should hit is the Wonderland of Rocks which lives up to its name. Pebbles, stones, and giant boulders are yours to traverse for 5.5 wonderful miles. Given the terrain, it’s considered a difficult trail so be sure you’re up to the task.

Keys View, Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Around sunrise or sunset, wander over to Keys View, the highest lookout point in Joshua Tree at 5,187 feet. You can look out across the Coachella Valley and see as far as the Salton Sea and Palm Springs on clear days.

Check out the unparalleled plant and animal life 

I’ll assume you know the park’s tall and spiky namesake: the Yucca brevifolia, more commonly known as the “Joshua Tree.” In Spanish, the tree is known as izote de desierto, or desert dagger, which pretty much sums it up. It’s important to remember that since these trees are native to this 1,235-square mile expanse of desert, they’re strictly protected—aka, no touchy!

Cholla Cactus Garden, Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visit the Cholla Cactus Garden to walk amongst hundreds of beautiful cholla. This flat loop leads hikers through nearly 10 acres of landscape dominated by the teddybear cholla. Swaying in the desert breeze they almost resemble coral (and, much like coral, should be left alone). A word of advice: do not attempt to pet this teddybear. The stem-joints can easily detach and hitch a ride due to the miniscule barbs on the spines giving it the nickname “jumping cholla.” Once they’ve latched on the spines are very painful to remove.

You’ll also spot the ocotillo (pronounced oh-koh-TEE-yoh), one of the most curious and unique plants of the southwestern United States. Ocotillos produce clusters of bright red flowers at their stem tips which explain the plant’s name. Ocotillo means “little torch” in Spanish.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park is known more for its flora than fauna but there’s also plenty of wildlife in and around the park. Birding is especially popular with native species like roadrunners, raptors, and migratory flocks as well. Predators like bobcats, coyotes, and snakes also roam these parts, and—lest we forget—keep an eye out for our adorable friend, the desert tortoise!

Wonderland of Rocks, Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree is a rock climber’s paradise

Whether you’re brand new to climbing or navigate cliffs like a baby mountain goat, Joshua Tree’s 9,000+ climbing routes means that everyone’s welcome to give it a go. I also feel the need to note that most of the routes have truly creative names; take, for example, Yabba Dabba Don’t (15-foot climb), Breakfast of Champions (170-foot climb with 2 pitches), Room to Shroom (80-foot climb), Dangling Woo Li Master (100-foot climb), and so on. 

For a route best suited to beginner and moderate climbers, head over to the Quail Springs area, home to the ever-charming Trashcan Rock, one of the most popular climbing spots due to its relative ease and the cool shade that covers it during the afternoon. Intersection Rock also makes a great spot for novices and The Eye ends with a tunnel that opens up onto excellent views across the desert.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Look up at the stars

Joshua Tree National Park is a Silver Tier International Dark Sky Park which means nighttime can be pretty extraordinary.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to bed down at night

Of the 520 campsites in Joshua Tree National Park about half are first-come, first-serve. The others accept reservations through Recreation.gov.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What to bring and other essential tips

Sunscreen and water are must-haves year-round. The National Park Service stresses that there are no water sources inside the park, so again, pack a lot of water… and then pack even more. Binoculars, sturdy hiking shoes, snacks, a flashlight, a camera, and wide-brimmed hat (I recommend a Tilley) are also suggested.

To avoid being one of the approximately 60 search-and-rescue operations Joshua Tree sees every year, explore the park with a buddy and always let people know where you’re going. Cell phones don’t work in most of the park so if communication is crucial bring a satellite phone and a printed map to get around.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Over 80 percent of Joshua Tree is officially designated wilderness—emphasis on wild. Be respectful of wildlife to avoid tangling with an angry critter. And if you remember one thing about your visit to Joshua Tree National Park, it should be “leave no trace.” Be sure to leave the park as pristine as you found it to help preserve its natural beauty for generations to come.

Worth Pondering…

Trampled in dust I’ll show you a place high on the desert plain where the streets have no

name, where the streets have no name …

— Joshua Tree, sung by U2, 1987