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

Look to the Stars! National Parks Stargazing Festivals (2024)

Stargazing season is amazing! Enjoy the night skies at their brightest at National Parks stargazing festivals.

National parks are helping visitors make the most of their dark skies by hosting stargazing festivals. The festivals include various night-time events in addition to stargazing. 

These events are right around the corner so bust out your stargazing kit and get going!

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Dark Sky National Parks

National parks are becoming night sky havens since they have less exposure to light pollution. Dozens of national parks are even designated Dark Sky Parks because of their “exceptional or distinguished quality of starry nights…”

Some national parks with the official Dark Sky Park classification are:

You’ll notice Utah is a big hitter when it comes to stargazing. There are so many incredible places to not only see during the day but also to be mesmerized by at night!

That’s why it’s no surprise that my posts on Southern Utah are some of my most popular posts. Here’s a sampling:

I also have an article on the Best National Parks for Stargazing.

National Parks Stargazing Festivals (2024)

These annual events are held at similar times annually so if you’ve missed one you can start planning for next year. 

National parks often host many stargazing activities and events throughout the year so check for those whenever you plan to visit.

Pro tip: If you plan on visiting multiple national parks, you can save a lot of money by getting an America the Beautiful Pass.

Alrighty, let’s take a look at the national parks stargazing festivals 2024.

Death Valley Dark Sky Festival, March 1-3

Death Valley is known for some of the best stargazing in America. It’s even designated a Gold Tier Dark Sky Park, the highest rating of darkness.

During the Death Valley Dark Sky Festival visitors can enjoy the stunning night sky as well as special events like the Exploration Fair, auditorium talks, astrophotography meetups, and more.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon Star Party, June 1-8

Grand Canyon National Park is known for its breathtakingly beautiful rugged terrain. But did you know it also hosts some of the most beautiful night skies around? 

You can take in those skies in early June at their annual Star Party. The event is free but you must still pay to enter the park. The park fee is good for the North and South rims for seven days. 

The event starts at sunset and the best viewing time is after 9 pm. Most telescopes will be taken down at 11 pm although some folks still share theirs after that when the skies are crisp and clear.  

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bryce Canyon Astronomy Festival, June 5-8

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 Astronomy Festival includes lectures, star stories presentations, and guided stargazing sessions. Last year, they had a performance by an Arizona string quartet called Dry Sky Quartet and other family-friendly activities. 

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Annual Badlands Astronomy Festival, July 5-7

South Dakota is home to Badlands National Park which boasts exciting fossil beds and unique geologic formations. You can see things like sod tables and clastic dikes during the day then stay to take advantage of their dark night skies. 

The Badlands Astronomy Festival partners with the NASA South Dakota Grant Consortium. Their festival typically includes guest speakers, telescopes, sky viewing, and a guided walk through a scaled solar system model!

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shenandoah Night Sky Festival, August 11-13

Shenandoah National Park is a gorgeous gem in the Blue Ridge Mountains in north-central Virginia. In fact, this almost 200,000-acre park is so breathtaking that I have done several posts about it:

You can view its cascading waterfalls, wildflower fields, and quiet woods daily then stay for its spectacular nighttime views.  

The other great thing about this park is its location. It is only a 75-mile drive from Washington, D.C. So, you’re close to many historical sites and museums as well.

Their annual stargazing event hosts public stargazing sessions.

The event includes ranger talks, other lectures and presentations, and family-friendly activities. The guest presentations include a span of topics, including space travel, space weather, and our future in space. 

The event is free with park admission. 

Great Basin Astronomy Festival, September 5-7

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 15th annual stargazing event. This year’s festival will have many of the same events as 2023 with new guest speakers, ranger programs, and art projects.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree Night Sky Festival, October (Dates TBA)

Joshua Tree National Park is designated as an International Dark Sky Park by the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA).

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. They haven’t announced the 2024 dates yet, but it’s typically held around the second weekend of October. You can click that link to see if they’ve updated their website with dates and ticket information.

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. 

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

The Complete Guide to Canyonlands National Park

Hiking, camping, and biking are among the many outdoor activities at Canyonlands National Park

Nowhere are the shape-shifting powers of water, wind, and rock more dramatically on display than in Canyonlands National Park in southeast Utah. This immense expanse of the Colorado Plateau has been etched by the Green and Colorado Rivers into a relief panel of chiseled buttes, twisted rock spires, and deeply incised canyons.

Here, millions of years of geologic upheaval, compression, and erosion have left behind a magical landscape where you can peek into caves; wander between rock formations resembling castles, towers, and fantastical creatures; and slip through canyons narrow enough to touch both sides.

Island in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Human history also comes alive in Canyonlands National Park with archaeological evidence of human habitation dating back more than 10,000 years. Native tribes, pueblos, and communities are associated with the land in a region that served as hunting grounds for early hunter-gatherers and then home to the Ancestral Puebloan people. This heritage is still apparent in the park with ancient cliff dwellings, petroglyphs and pictographs, and trails that have been traveled for centuries.

Canyonlands was established as a national park in 1964. It owes much of its more recent history to the role of mining in this part of the American West.

But uranium, not gold or silver, lured fortune-seekers to this isolated and intimidating region—the chemical element was in high demand during the 1950s and early ’60s.  Ultimately, however, little uranium was mined here although the 1,000 miles of roads funded by the Atomic Energy Commission opened up the inner canyons to exploration and convinced locals that this geological wonderland deserved protection and preservation. 

Island in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The largest of Utah’s five red rock national parks at 337,598 acres, Canyonlands is essentially three parks in one separated by the Green and Colorado rivers which come together in a confluence near the center of the park.

No roads connect the sections of the park (each has its own entrance) and no bridges span the rivers. 

Depending on your time and how much you want to explore on foot or by driving, you may do as most visitors do and limit your experience to just two sections: Island in the Sky, a high mesa that comprises the park’s northern end and The Needles on the park’s southeast side, named for its impossibly spindly rock spires.

The third area, the rugged and remote labyrinth of canyons on the park’s southwestern side deservedly called The Maze requires four-wheel-drive to go beyond the ranger station and is a favorite among advanced hikers (steep and unmarked trails) and backcountry campers.

Within the park boundaries, the Colorado River shoots through the sheer-sided chasm of Cataract Canyon creating Class V rapids. While Big Drops and Satan’s Gut challenge even the most experienced rafters, quieter stretches provide plenty of fun for families and novice rafters.

Island in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Plan your trip

Moab is the closest big town to the park. 

Sitting atop a mesa more than 1,000 feet above the surrounding lands, the Island in the Sky district is one of the most popular of Canyonland’s sections. There, a scenic drive zigzags around the rim providing one dramatic canyon view after another. When arriving from Moab in the north many visitors start at the Island in the Sky Visitor Center just inside the park. There you can see fauna, flora, and geology exhibits; watch an introductory video to the park; and check out the schedule of ranger programming.

The Needles, named for its layers of spiky sandstone striped in gold and ocher, has its visitor center inside the entrance to this section about 74 miles southeast of Moab. The Maze, on the park’s western side, is served by the Hans Flat Ranger Station where you’ll find a small selection of books and maps, a vault toilet, and a picnic table. There are no paved roads there although the unpaved path to the station is navigable with two-wheel drive; its other roads require a four-wheel-drive, high-clearance vehicle.

As a high-desert region of the Colorado Plateau, Canyonlands National Park experiences extreme climate and weather fluctuations. It’s not uncommon for days to top 100 degrees in summer with nighttime temperatures dropping into the 40s and 50s. Spring (April and May) and fall (September and October) are temperate and pleasant with daytime temperatures ranging from 60 to 80 and nights dipping from the 50s down to the 30s. 

Island in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In the winter, daytime temperatures average 30 to 50 degrees while temperatures at night average 20 to zero. The region also experiences a monsoon in late summer and early fall with sudden heavy rains and possible flash floods. 

Winter is an overlooked opportunity to visit Canyonlands and not just because you’ll share the landscape with fewer people. Take that beautiful red rock and the gorgeous blue sky, put a dusting of powder white snow on it, and you’ll see it’s even more stunning. The park is an all-season hiking destination since snow accumulation rarely exceeds more than a few inches deep but the park recommends winter hikers use traction devices on their shoes since trails can be slippery.

There is some cellphone coverage along the Island in the Sky scenic drive depending on carrier but cell service is limited to nonexistent in the canyons and on remote trails. There is little to no service in the Needles and almost none in The Maze except at the ranger station. Wi-Fi is available at the Island in the Sky Visitor Center.

Island in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Things to do

Take a driving tour

You’ll find the park’s top views strung along Island in the Sky scenic drive which makes a Y shape with access to Whale Rock. Because the shapes and perspectives shift so much as you move around the mesa you won’t want to skip any of the main overlooks which include Green River, Buck Canyon, and Grand View Point.

Island in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Go hiking

Hundreds of miles of trails varying in length and difficulty thread through Canyonland’s diverse terrain. The most-visited are in Island in the Sky including the Mesa Arch Trail, a 0.6-mile easy hike round trip leading to the park’s iconic photo op as the cliff-side arch frames the canyon below.

Another hike in this section is the moderately challenging, 1.4-mile Aztec Butte Trail which traverses a flat and sandy wash before ascending around 200 feet to reach an Ancestral Puebloan archaeological site.

At Grand View Point, the southernmost end and turnaround point of the Island in the Sky scenic drive, the level and comfortable 1.8-mile Grand View Trail winds along the mesa rim between expanses of slick rock and stands of gnarled and stunted piñon. Thanks to the elevation, this is one of the best views in the park. 

In Needles district, trails spiderweb among the spindly rock towers and gnarled outcrops. When you’re in The Needles, you’re down in the canyon walking among all these otherworldly landforms and sculptural formations instead of looking down on them from the mesa. This also means many of the trails are easier because there’s less elevation change since you don’t have to hike down into the canyon and back up.

A top pick for a shorter hike is the Cave Spring Trail, a 0.6-mile round trip past a natural underground spring with prehistoric rock markings and the remnants of a historic cowboy camp. Other favorites include the Chesler Park Trail, a 5.4-mile loop through knobby sherbet-colored hoodoos, and the 8.6-mile Lost Canyon Trail which loops among eerily twisted formations.

Island in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Watch sunset or sunrise

The park’s two popular spots for sunrise and sunset viewing are Grand View Point Overlook and White Rim Overlook, the last two stops on the Island in the Sky scenic drive. The Grand View Point Overlook has great views just steps from its parking lot but it’s an easy 1.8-mile hike to White Rim’s overlook where fewer people interrupt the peace of the dusk. 

Go stargazing

Designated an International Dark Sky Park from DarkSky International, formerly the International Dark-Sky Association, in 2015, Canyonlands National Park goes a level beyond with a Gold-Tier designation reserved for the parks with the darkest skies. The park stays open all night so stargazers can see the spectacle with stargazing programs scheduled during summer. Some are listed in the park calendar but it’s best to check at the Island in the Sky Visitor Center for updated activities. 

Visitors are encouraged to take a DIY approach to stargazing. Every night that isn’t cloudy there is a dark-sky show in the park whether there is a ranger there or not. On a moonless night, all you have to do is pull off the road, turn your back to the direction of Moab where there’s a little glow, and you’ll see stars and constellations you’ve never seen before.

Island in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Go cycling

An ever-expanding network of mountain bike trails has turned the area into a bucket-list destination for riders. You’re surrounded by trails everywhere you look and there is so much to do at every skill level. A favorite ride is the Dead Horse Point Singletrack Loop trail which starts in Dead Horse Point State Park north of Canyonlands and continues into the park winding over terraced buttes that afford dramatic views of the valley spreading below.

Experienced mountain bikers come to the park specifically to ride all or part of Island in the Sky’s White Rim Road which drops into the canyon and traces a 100-mile loop along the mesa, its ragged red cliffs towering above.

Island in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Go river rafting

Some visitors choose to see Canyonlands National Park and its iconic Cataract Canyon on rafting trips. Accessing Canyonlands by river is a way to get down in the heart of the canyon and see some things in the park that you wouldn’t see otherwise. Wildlife sightings are common with bighorn sheep frequenting the slopes above the river and bald eagles soaring overhead.

Western River Expeditions offers two- and four-day trips to the canyon both traversing the stretch of the Colorado River from Moab. Shorter rafting experiences that explore stretches of the Colorado River outside the park are available from Moab Adventure Center and other Moab-based outfitters such as Mild to Wild Rafting and Adrift Adventures.

Older adults and those who prefer tamer rafting could check out J-Rig trips. The J-Rigs are really big rafts with a lot of different seating flexibility and people can sit 20 feet back in the raft if they want a quieter experience,

Island in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Camping options

With numerous camping options, an RV trip to Canyonlands is a breeze.

Let’s start with identifying the best time to plan your Canyonlands camping trip.

Winter can be challenging due to low temperatures that could harm an RV’s water system. Additionally, snow and ice can make travel difficult and potentially dangerous.

Summer camping in Canyonlands is a popular choice. However, Utah’s summer heat requires ample water and cooling methods. Note that in-park campgrounds do not offer hookups so if you need to run your RV air conditioner, consider staying outside the park.

I recommend spring and fall for Canyonlands camping. During these seasons, you’ll experience sunny days and cool nights, perfect for dry camping. If possible, plan your visit in April, May, October, or November.

Now that you know the best times for your Canyonlands camping adventure, let’s explore the best places to camp. The area offers a variety of options including in-park campgrounds, boondocking, and full-service RV parks.

Island in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Here are my top picks:

Island in the Sky Campground

Island in the Sky Campground is a small in-park campground near the visitor center. It offers 12 first-come, first-served campsites at $15 per night. While there are no hookups, you’ll find potable water outside the visitor center and amenities like toilets, picnic tables, and fire rings in the campground. This is really not a big rig-friendly campground but it is easy to maneuver and there are a couple spots that will accommodate a big rig.

Needles, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Needles Campground

The Needles Campground, another in-park option, offers 26 individual campsites and three group sites. Reservations are accepted from spring through fall with first-come, first-served availability during the rest of the year. The camping fee is $20 per night and amenities include toilets, picnic tables, and fire rings.

Gemini Bridges Road Designated Dispersed Campsites

For free camping on government-owned land just a few minutes outside of Canyonlands National Park, consider Gemini Bridges Road Designated Dispersed Campsites. While amenities are non-existent, the location between two national parks and proximity to Moab makes it a fantastic choice for boondocking.

Needles, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sun Outdoors Moab Downtown

If you prefer a full-service camping experience, Sun Outdoors Downtown Moab is an excellent choice. Located in the heart of Moab, you can easily access shopping and dining. The campground offers full-hookup sites, a swimming pool, and clean restrooms with showers, ensuring a comfortable stay.

Needles, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Gateway town

Most visitors to Canyonlands National Park base their stay in the lively outdoor adventure hub of Moab, the largest town (population 5,321) near the park. Once a ranching community and later a base of uranium mining, Moab has transformed into a hipster hangout with the arrival of mountain bikers and outdoor adventurers. It now buzzes with lively brewpubs and a constant stream of festivals and events such as the Moab Folk Festival in early November. 

Never gone mountain biking before and want to try it? Rent a bike from one of Moab’s many cycle shops and ask directions to the Courthouse Wash Loop, an easy seven- to 10-mile (depending on preference) circuit around a wide-open bluff northwest of Moab. It’s gentle terrain with a little bit of singletrack, a little bit of slickrock, and a little bit of everything, so you can experience what riding here is all about.

Moab offers a wide range of camping and lodging options as well as an up-and-coming food scene for some creative dining.

Come morning, before heading into the park fuel up on pastries, huevos rancheros, or a sunrise panini at Love Muffin Café. After your exploring, quench your thirst with ales, IPAs, and stouts, and savor flavorful burgers in the capacious dining room at Moab Brewery or line up for crispy fried chicken and waffle fries at Doughbird.

If you’re planning to focus most of your time in the Needles District, the quiet mountain town of Monticello, 49 miles southeast of the Needles Park entrance offers several quality RV parks including Mountain View RV Park and Campground and Devil’s Canyon Campground.

En route

Dead Horse Point State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Dead Horse Point State Park

Take a slight detour on the way to Island in the Sky from Moab to Dead Horse Point State Park. The park provides one of the best views in the area from a peninsula like spur that sticks out over a branch of the same Colorado River canyon country as Canyonlands National Park.

Upper Colorado River Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Drive the Upper Colorado River Scenic Byway

When traveling to Canyonlands from the north replace the more direct U.S. Highway 191 with a tour down State Route 128, the Upper Colorado River Scenic Byway. The route traverses broad valleys that may look familiar from starring roles in numerous Western films and presents a stunning photo op at a red rock Fisher Towers silhouetted against the La Sal Mountains. 

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visit Arches National Park

Most people traveling to Canyonlands National Park combine their visit with Arches National Park, 26 miles to the northeast. The two parks make a perfect complement, doubling the fantastical appeal of water-carved, wind-burnished, and ice-chiseled rock markings.

Canyonlands National Park offers a unique and unforgettable experience. I hope this guide helps you plan your adventure and that you’ll soon discover the magic of this park.

Here are a few more articles to help you do just that:

Needles, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fact Box

Location: Southeast Utah

Acreage: 337,598 acres

Highest point: 7,180 feet (above Big Pocket in the Needles District)

Lowest point: 3,900 feet (on the Colorado River)

Main attraction: Stunning canyon views and unusual rock formations

Entry fee: $30

Best way to see it: By car

When to go: April through early June and late August through Novemer, for more temperate weather

Worth Pondering…

…the most weird, wonderful, magical place on earth—there is nothing else like it anywhere.

—Edward Abbey, American author and former ranger at Arches National Park, on Canyonlands

Outdoor Activities Bucket List: 18 Fun Things to do Outdoors

From chasing fireflies to floating down a river, this list can break you out of a summer rut

I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order.

—John Burroughs

Not only can heading outside inject excitement into a blah-feeling day, but it can also deliver serious health benefits: Exposure to greenspace is linked to a whole slew of physical perks including reduced blood pressure, heart rate, and levels of stress hormone cortisol, according to a 2018 meta-analysis of 143 studies published in the journal, Environmental Research

Separate research supports the outdoors for your mental health too. Time in nature can decrease mental distress while boosting happiness, subjective well-being, cognitive functioning, memory, attention, imagination, and creativity, a 2019 review in Science Advances concluded.

In short, there’s a lot to gain from stepping out of doors. And with a handy list of outdoor activities at your fingertips, you can soak up all the awesomeness of nature.

From chasing fireflies to birdwatching, here are some pretty amazing things to do outside. Let this article be your outdoor activities inspiration guide.

Hiking Catalina State Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Lace up for a mindful nature walk

Feeling on edge or unfocused? Slip on your sneakers, head outside, and get in some steps. Not only is walking an excellent form of exercise but intentionally strolling through a natural setting can help you chill out.

When people with chronic stress walked outdoors for 40 minutes, they decreased their cortisol levels more than those who did likewise on a treadmill or who watched nature programming on TV for the same amount of time, a 2020 study published in Environment and Behavior found. They also experienced more a mood improvement afterward. 

To make the most of your stroll, tune into the present moment including what you see and hear around you. Mindful hiking is the perfect way to explore how being present in nature can transform how you feel. For more on mindful hiking you can read these two articles:

2. Gaze at the night sky

Stargazing, one of the most underrated outdoor activities has much to offer: It’s free, accessible, and can be incredibly calming. For an optimal experience, try to get as far away from city lights as possible and turn off all sources of manmade light.

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). 

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.

For more on stargazing and Dark Sky Parks check out these posts:

3. Chase fireflies

Remember how magical the outdoors felt when you were little? Recreate some of that wonder on a summer night by catching fireflies in a jar and briefly observing them before setting them free. 

There are a number of different species of fireflies, none of which are actually flies—they’re beetles. They get the names firefly and lightning bug because of the flashes of light they naturally produce. This phenomenon is called bioluminescence and the bioluminescent organs in fireflies are found on the underside of the abdomen.

A similar group of organisms are glowworms. The term glowworm can refer to firefly larva or wingless adult females—some of which are not in the firefly family lampyridae.

Both glowworms and fireflies are bioluminescent. The important distinction is that fireflies have wings and glowworms do not. Fireflies can reach up to one inch in length.

Biking the Blue Ridge Parkway, Virginia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Dust off your bike and go for a ride

Cycling is a healthy exercise that can be enjoyed by people of all ages from young children to older adults. Cycling strengthens your heart muscles, lowers resting pulse, and reduces blood fat levels. A Danish study conducted over 14 years with 30,000 people aged 20 to 93 years found that regular cycling protected people from heart disease.

If you want to blend low-impact exercise with quality time outdoors, make biking one of your go-to outdoor activities.

5. Be a tourist in your town

Can you confidently say that you know your city in and out? Take the time to visit more than just your usual hangout places. 

Be a tourist in your city, go someplace new and you may be surprised by just how wonderful that old town can be. Most cities have free tours too. You could discover streets, shops, and landmarks that you never knew existed. 

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

6. Go camping

Camping could mean different things to different people. It can be a chance to bond with family or friends, rediscover yourself, or take a break from regular routines and away from distractions. Nevertheless, it is one of those outdoor activities that could spark that adventurous spirit within you.

You may be wondering, “What are the best places to camp near me?” One of the greatest things about traveling around the U.S. and Canada is that from coast to coast there’s no shortage of beautiful places to camp. Nature lovers can enjoy fresh air, glorious mountains, and clear lakes and streams during a weekend (or longer) camping trip.

Not only can you set up an RV or tent at these picturesque locations, but they also come with plenty of picnic areas, hiking trails, and ample opportunities for fishing, swimming, and other outdoor activities. From scenic forests in New Hampshire to peaceful beaches in Florida and majestic Rocky Mountains in Alberta, there amazing places to camp in the U.S. and Canada.

For more on camping, check out my other posts:

Exploring Enchanted Rock State Park, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. Explore a state park

If you are interested in the outdoors, being active, or exploring something new, or the combination of all three, perhaps it’s time to take your day exploring the nearest state park. Whether you are looking to explore the mountains, woodlands, or prairies, hike, mountain bike, or horse ride there’s a state park for you. 

From my many articles on state parks here are a few to get you started:

Birdwatching at Bisque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

8. Go Birdwatching

You could go birding right now—this very moment—no matter who you are, where you are, or what stuff you do or don’t own. The most important thing—and really the only thing—you must have as a birder is yourself and your awareness.

There are certain tools that you’re going to want to enhance the experience although the list is short. You don’t need to start out birding by splurging on binoculars that run well above $2,000. Quality binoculars for birding cost between $100 and $400. You’ll also need a bird book (it can be an app as well) and a good amount of patience. You can also connect with any local birders in your area for tips and more.

Here’s more on birding:

9. Float down a river

For super-adventurous folks, whitewater rafting may make the list of ideal outdoor activities. But for people seeking chill time on the water, a gentle river float may be just the ticket. And don’t forget to grab life jackets and tie a whole bunch of inner tubes together and then float on them down a river.  

Rivers are trails. They invite a visitor to put in and travel a distance to a destination or simply float to another landing upstream or downstream. 

The National Water Trails System is a network of water trails open to the public to explore and enjoy. National Water Trails are a sub-set of the National Recreation Trails Program. National Water Trails have been established to protect and restore America’s rivers, shorelines, and waterways; conserve natural areas along waterways, and increase access to outdoor recreation on shorelines and waterways. The Trails are a distinctive national network of exemplary water trails that are cooperatively supported and sustained.

I have an entire article on river trails. You can read it at National Fishing and Boating Week: Exploring National Water Trails

You’re bringing sunscreen, right? Okay, good. Just checking! Additionally, you should bring a hat. And although you may feel tempted to leave your shirt back in the car, take it. At some point, you may want to cover up.

Canoeing Stephen C. Foster State Park, Georgia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

10. Go Kayaking

Kayaking, as well as canoeing, is a physical outdoor activity you can do in any type of space with water, from a river to the sea. It’s a great way to exercise and improve your body’s strength, all the while being a low impact activity that can offer a whole lot of peace of mind. 

Kayaking can be a great way to get out on the water whether for a leisurely morning paddle or a more rigorous overnight adventure. When kayaking, it’s good to have clothing that you can easily move around in, dries quickly, and will help protect you from the sun. Since you’ll likely be getting wet, you want to stay away from anything cotton which will leave you dripping and soggy all day (and could cause chafing).

Zip line in the Smoky Mountains, Tennessee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

11. Go Ziplining

No outdoor activity bucket list is complete without zip lining included on it! This is an extreme sport where you are attached to cords that zip you from one tree to the next. It has grown so popular over the years it seems to be possible to do just about anywhere! And while it can get your nerves on overdrive before setting off, it’s usually totally safe to do.

Fishing Parker Canyon Lake, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

12. Go fishing

Another outdoor recreation idea is fishing. Regardless of whether you catch anything, it can be a fun and relaxing experience. There’s something about just being out there in nature and the feel of the cold water rushing by you and the sound of the river. Fishing can also be a great way to find a sliver of solitude especially if you go in the early morning when few other folks are out. 

Hiking Thumb Butte Trail, Prescott, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

13. Hike a new trail

Each season of the year offers something different for your hiking experiences from the nature around you to the trails that are best to be taken. Hiking offers amazing landscapes with the flowers and the returning greenery! This is your sign to hike a trail you’ve never tried before.

Check these out to learn more:

14. Journal

Journaling allows you to express your innermost feelings and ideas without fear of being criticized or seen by others. It may also assist you in better organizing and comprehending those items. It’s similar to maintaining a diary, except with more freedom. You are free to write (or even draw) whatever you like, so just scribble down any thoughts or emotions as they occur to you!

15. Take a bike ride

Biking is such a great outdoor activity, no wonder it’s so popular. Not only can the bike actually take you to the same places you might otherwise go by public transportation or a car but it’ll keep you fit as you do so. On top of which you might also get some great scenery to enjoy during your bike ride!

For many people, bicycling never stops and continues right into their 80s and 90s and has been an intricate part of their entire life.

Horseback riding Lost Dutchman State Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

16. Go horseback riding

Whether it’s a forested trail or along the beach, horseback riding is another amazing way to enjoy time outdoors and in nature. Horseback riding has an inherent relaxing effect. According to Certified Therapeutic Recreation Specialist, Rheta D. Connor, “The natural rhythm of the horse aids in circulation and relaxation while gently exercising and massaging the rider’s joints, muscles and spine”. These physical motions bring about feelings of relaxation naturally without any thought on behalf of the rider.

Wildlife World Zoo, Litchfield Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

17. Visit a zoo

What is your earliest recollection of going to the zoo? It’s likely that you were on a field trip with your class or your family, being fascinated by the many different creatures that make the place their home.

From thrilling encounters with lions to petting rabbits to holding a snake and more, a trip to the local zoo is an entertaining, educational experience for people of all ages.

Sunset Usery Mountain Regional Park, Mesa, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

18. Watch a sunrise or sunset

Whether you’re catching it from a mountain top, the beach, or someplace else, sunsets and sunrises are the days at their most beautiful. So find a spot from where you can clearly see it, preferably against nature’s beautiful backdrop, and perhaps bring along a picnic basket and a mat to fully immerse in enjoying the sight.

Worth Pondering…

There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,

There is a rapture on the lonely shore,

There is a society, where none intrudes,

By the deep sea, and music in its roar:

I love not Man the less, but Nature more

—Lord Byron, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage

Look to the Stars: How to Stargaze in National Parks This Summer

Stargazing season is here! Enjoy the night skies at their brightest at National Parks stargazing festivals.

When you look up at the night sky, what do you see? Innumerable stars, a planet or two, even a bright meteor? Depending on where you are, you may see greater or fewer celestial objects in the night sky because light pollution can drown out all but the brightest stars and satellites.

To really take in the beauty of our solar system, you’ll want to visit the darkest places in the U.S. for some truly unforgettable stargazing. Of course, you’ll want to plan to go on a clear night, so you have the best chance of seeing the stars.

National parks are helping visitors make the most of this time by hosting stargazing festivals. The festivals include various nightime events in addition to stargazing.

These events are happening now and in the weeks and months ahead so bust out your stargazing kit and get going!

Cedar Breaks National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Exploring night skies

Many of the last dark skies in the country lie over the national parks. As over-lit skies become the norm, the public is seeking out star-filled skies. Many park visitors have never experienced the unfettered views of a starry night sky and are surprised to witness such a beautiful sight. Others may come to parks specifically to enjoy stargazing through telescopes, walking among a natural nighttime scene, or camping beneath the stars. A park ranger can not only connect you to the plants, animals, and geology of a park but also guide you through the night sky.

Several national parks have regular stargazing programs or night appreciation events. Examples include the bat flight breakfast at Carlsbad Caverns National Park, star parties or moonlight hikes at Bryce Canyon, telescope viewing at Rocky Mountain National Park, and the observatory at Chaco Culture National Historic Park.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Dark Sky National Parks

National parks are becoming night sky havens since they have less exposure to light pollution. Dozens of national parks are designated Dark Sky Parks because of their “exceptional or distinguished quality of starry nights.”

National parks with the official Dark Sky Park classification include:

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You’ll notice Utah is a big hitter when it comes to stargazing. So many incredible places to not only see during the day but also to be mesmerized by at night!

That’s why I have articles on the Best National Parks for Stargazing and These National Parks Are Hosting Free Stargazing Festivals This Summer.

I’m a little late writing this article as the first two events have just passed. But these annual events are held at similar times annually so you can start planning those for next year. 

In the meantime, there are four amazing stargazing festivals at national parks in the near future. And, national parks often host many stargazing activities and events throughout the year so check for those whenever you plan to visit.

Let’s take a look at the national parks stargazing festivals 2023.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon Star Party, June 10-17 (Check in a few months for 2024 dates)

Grand Canyon National Park is known for its breathtakingly beautiful rugged terrain. But it also hosts some of the most beautiful night skies around.

The event is free, but you must still pay to enter the park. The park fee is valid for the North and South rims for seven days. 

The event starts at sunset although the best viewing time is after 9 pm. Most telescopes are taken down at 11 pm although some folks still share theirs after that when the skies are crisp and clear.  

Check this out to learn more: The Grand Canyon Is Hosting a Star Party This Week—and It’s Totally Free

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bryce Canyon Astronomy Festval, June 14-17 (Check in a few months for 2024 dates)

Bryce Canyon National Park is located in southern Utah. This park has such excellent night sky viewing that it earned its dark-sky designation in 2019.

Come view the reddish-colored hoodoos during the day and then return for its spectacular nighttime views.

Their annual stargazing event includes lectures, star stories presentations, and guided stargazing sessions. They also have a performance by an Arizona string quartet called Dry Sky Quartet and other family-friendly activities. 

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Annual Badlands Astronomy Festival, July 14-16

South Dakota is home to Badlands National Park which boasts exciting fossil beds and unique geologic formations. In partnership with NASA South Dakota Grant Consortium, the festival typically includes guest speakers, telescopes, sky viewing, and a guided The annual Astronomy Festival partners with walk through a scaled solar system model.

Badlands is an amazing National Park. That’s why I wrote these articles:

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shenandoah Night Sky Festival, August 11-13

Shenandoah National Park is a gorgeous gem in the Blue Ridge Mountains in north-central Virginia. In fact, this almost 200,000-acre park is so breathtaking that I have done several posts about it! 

The other great thing about this park is its location. It is only a 75-mile drive from Washington, D.C. So if you will be checking out the nation’s capitol, it’s an easy trip to make.

You can view its cascading waterfalls, wildflower fields, and quiet woods daily and then stay for its spectacular nighttime views.

Their annual stargazing event hosts public stargazing sessions, ranger talks and other lectures and presentations, and family-friendly activities. The guest presentations will include a span of topics including space travel, space weather, and our future in space. 

The event is free with park admission.

Check this out to learn more: Shenandoah National Park is Hosting a Night Sky Festival This Weekend—and It’s Free

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

 Great Basin Astronomy Festival, September 14-16

The Great Basin National Park might be for you if you prefer to avoid crowds. It is one of the least crowded national parks. The 77,000-acre park in eastern Nevada also has a research-grade observatory.

This fall, you can attend their stargazing event which usually includes constellation talks, guest speakers, and observatory tours. They also have a photography workshop for all you photo bugs out there.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree Night Sky Festival, October 13-14

Joshua Tree National Park is designated as an International Dark Sky Park by the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA). That means it is the perfect spot to stargaze all year!

Every year, the park and non-profit organizations Joshua Tree Educational Experience (JTREE) and Sky’s the Limit. Observatory and Nature Center partner to bring this incredible stargazing event. 

The Night Sky Festival is a ticketed event and has a limited capacity. It is usually located just outside the park limits at the Sky’s The Limit Nature Observatory and Nature Center. Tickets go on sale in early summer. 

Daytime can be pretty incredible, too, in Joshua Tree.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

More Night!

National Park Observatories

Chaco Culture National Historical Park Observatory

The Chaco Culture National Historical Park Observatory gives the public exceptional views of the night sky from its New Mexico location. Astronomy is an integral part of the park’s interpretive programming that connects park resources to the celestial knowledge of the ancient Anasazi people who settled the area. Park lighting is retrofitted to keep skies dark and reduce light pollution, and star programs are anticipated attractions.

El Morro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Great Basin Observatory

Did you know that NPS has its own astronomical research observatory? Inaugurated in 2016, the Great Basin Observatory is the first NPS research-grade observatory to be based in a national park. Located in one of the darkest areas of the country at the border of Utah and Nevada, the observatory offers near pristine, unpolluted views of the night sky. The NPS observatory works with astronomy researchers across the country to advance our understanding of cosmic phenomena. Its telescopes can be remotely programmed to focus on any cosmic body or event from little known debris clouds and planets to the Milky Way and solar eclipse.

Rock Creek Park Planetarium

The NPS Rock Creek Park Planetarium in Washington, DC is another park venue that educates people about night sky phenomena and light pollution issues. Located within the Nature Center, it uses high-tech Spitz software to project the image of the night sky onto a large, dome-shaped ceiling. Rangers lead visitors on a journey of exploration into the solar system, galaxy, and beyond. Monthly, evening stargazing programs are also offered and give information about the seasonal night sky.

Worth Pondering…

I have long thought that anyone who does not regularly—or ever—gaze up and see the wonder and glory of a dark night sky filled with countless stars loses a sense of their fundamental connectedness to the universe.

—Brian Greene

These National Parks Are Hosting Free Stargazing Festivals This Summer

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

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

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

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon Star Party

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

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

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

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

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

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

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

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bryce Canyon Astronomy Festival

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

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

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

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Badlands Astronomy Festival

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

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

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

Additional events will be announced closer to the festival.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shenandoah Night Sky Festival

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

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

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

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

Other Dark Sky Festivals

Great Basin National Park:

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

Glacier National Park:

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

How to attend the national park astronomy festivals?

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

Related articles:

Worth Pondering…

I have long thought that anyone who does not regularly—or ever—gaze up and see the wonder and glory of a dark night sky filled with countless stars loses a sense of their fundamental connectedness to the universe.

—Brian Greene

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

Camping Activities Guide

Fun things to do while camping

It doesn’t matter how you camp—in a tent or an RV. Camping is an opportunity for serious fun and activities. Moreover, it’s an experience that you can customize for your family’s interests based on the season and where you’re camping.

You don’t have to pack to the hilt to stay entertained. In fact, there are plenty of simple activities for your next family vacation by the lake or in the mountains. 

Here’s my super RVing with Rex Checklist of Camping Activities.

Fishing is a favorite camping activity © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Camping activities: Water-based activities

There are tons of exciting things you can do in the water if your campsite is near a lake, seashore, river, pool, or other body of water. Some are very active; others are for lazy relaxing days. Slip on your bathing suit and have some fun in the water—here’s how:

  • Fishing
  • Swimming
  • Floating or lounging
  • Canoeing or kayaking
  • Boating
  • Water skiing
  • Tubing
  • Water volleyball or basketball
  • Diving
  • Snorkeling
  • Water balloon fight
Hiking is a favorite camping activity © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Camping activities: Sports-related activities

Not all camping and RV resorts have a full list of amenities. If you’re rustic camping in the wild or you’re somewhere with limited amenities—or maybe just want some more variety—here are some great ideas to stay active with your family:

  • Disc golf (Frisbee golf)
  • Horseshoes
  • Ringtoss
  • Corn Hole
  • Lawn bowling
  • Soccer
  • Football
  • Kickball
  • Baseball
  • Biking
  • Hiking
  • Nature walks
  • Spelunking/caving (make sure you have an experienced guide with you)
  • Capture the Flag
  • Hide and Seek
  • Tag (there are dozens of variations)
  • Red Rover
Combining photography with birdwatching © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Camping activities: Nature-related activities

Part of the joy of camping is being closer to nature. Explore the great outdoors more with these activities. Be sure to respect the area where you are. Don’t disturb or damage the wildlife.

  • Birding (bird watching)
  • Animal watching
  • Photography
  • Sketching
  • Catching fireflies
  • Collecting leaves
  • Cataloging rocks
  • Fossil hunting
  • Exploring
  • Search for wild berries, nuts, and other edible plants
  • Watch the sunrise/sunset
  • Camping scavenger hunt
  • Geocaching
Canoeing is a favorite camping activity © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Camping activities: Winding down activities

Staying active and enjoying the day is an important part of every camping trip. But you also need to embrace the down time and give your mind and body a rest. Camping to relax and get away from daily stress? Here are some great ways to relax and enjoy the family camping trip:

  • Swing in a hammock
  • Watch the trees blowing in the breeze
  • Listen to nature
  • Take lots of naps
  • Daydream and let your mind wander
  • Float on the water
  • Stargaze
Fishing is a favorite camping activity © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Camping activities: Downtime activities

Maybe the kids need some downtime in the tent. Or perhaps someone isn’t feeling well. There could be some unexpected weather that is keeping you indoors.  Of course, you could just be relaxing under the protection of your tent to escape the bugs. There are plenty of things you can do inside the tent or RV either alone or with friends and family:

  • Read books and magazines
  • Read aloud to each other
  • Card games
  • Board games
  • Crafting (knitting, sewing, drawing)
  • Watch movies on portable devices
  • Play on other electronic devices (iPods, iPads, Gameboys, etc.)
  • Make up stories to tell each other
  • Snuggle
Enjoying nature is a favorite camping activity © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Camping activities: Evening activities

The camping trip doesn’t end when the sun sets. A whole slew of activities become available when evening comes and dark settles on the campground. The darkness is a thrilling time while family camping because you’re not dealing with the lights and commotion of the city. Check out these awesome evening activities:

  • Sit around the campfire
  • Sing campfire songs
  • Play a guitar or other instrument
  • Dance around the fire
  • Try out new varieties of s’mores
  • Make colored fire (packages of colored fire crystals or pine cones are sold at many camping supply stores)
  • Make shadow puppets
  • Go for a nighttime walk (with a flashlight, of course)
  • Stargaze
  • Play flashlight tag
  • Play hide and seek in the dark
  • Go for a midnight swim
  • Play glow in the dark bowling. Put glow sticks in 2-liter bottles filled with water. Use a ball to knock them down.
  • Tell ghost stories
  • Play Truth or Dare

Now that you have great ideas for things to do while camping, it’s time to get out there and try them.

Enjoying nature while camping © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Related Posts:

Worth Pondering…

I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order.

—John Burroughs

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