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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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:
- Where to Stargaze
- The Grand Canyon Is Hosting a Star Party This Week—and It’s Totally Free
- Shenandoah National Park is Hosting a Night Sky Festival This Weekend—and It’s Free
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.