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!
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.
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:
- Arches National Park, Utah
- Badlands National Park, South Dakota
- Big Bend National Park, Texas
- Big Cypress National Preserve, Florida
- Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah
- Canyonlands National Park, Utah
- Capitol Reef National Park, Utah
- Cedar Breaks National Monument, Utah
- Death Valley National Park, California
- El Moro National Monument, New Mexico
- Hovenweep National Monument, Colorado and Utah
- Joshua Tree National Park, California
- Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado
- Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona
- Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota
- Zion National Park, Utah
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 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 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.
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:
- Doorway to Forever: Badlands National Park
- The Ultimate Guide to Badlands National Park
- Badlands National Park: Place of Otherworldly Beauty
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
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 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.
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.
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.
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.