Truly dark sky (of the Hubble-space-telescope quality) is rare nowadays. Have you noticed? It’s almost like finding a vein of gold. Or maybe closer to seeing a wolf in the wild. Both seem to be elusive and endangered. Really untouched night sky even more so – because all it takes are a couple bright lights to ruin it.
Unfortunately not every open-space is created equal in the world of dark skies. Yes, they each provide a pocket of darkness after sundown. However, you have to be very well isolated from light pollution to enjoy the bounty of the night sky. There are a few specific places in the US where you can do so entirely.
The International Dark-Sky Association is the antithesis of light pollution. That is to say, they’re not thrilled about it and put a lot of effort “combating” it. Good for them. And they have identified locations across the world where the night sky is still untouched. Luckily there’s probably one pretty close to you. We put together our top picks:
Darkest Skies in the US
Capitol Reef National Park
Little infrastructure and lots of wild lands are just part of the reason the night sky experience is incredible here. We love this location because of it’s mild night-time temperatures in the summer and great Ranger led programs. Not to mention a spectacular red-rock backdrop. The park is incredibly enjoyable any time of day. And the night sky is the obvious cherry-on-top.
source: Andrew Marjama
Chaco Culture National Historic Park is fantastic for a couple reasons. For starters, it’s in a remote pocket of the Western US, giving it vivid night skies. It’s also the ancient homelands of the Pueblo. Take it or leave it, we wonder if they blessed the land with unending wonder and beauty. You’ll understand when you visit. On top of the magic of the park, the Rangers also lead really great programs.
source: dark sky photography
Death Valley National Park
You might truly feel like you’re in space when you visit Death Valley at night. It’s baren like a Martian landscape and the stars burn through the dark above. We love all of the mystical landscapes to do some serious stargazing: from the super-reflective shallow water of the salt flats, enormous dunes, or the Racetrack (home of the famous slithering stones). The park hosts moon and star programs for the astrophiles among us ( AKA you!).
Get ready to look into the depths of space with the added power of knowledge. The observatory holds events where you’ll learn about more than just stars. This is an awesome place to visit during celestial events – where you can geek over the exciting things happening beyond the scope of our planet. Also, it’s about two hours from Portland – an easy weekend getaway.
Big Bend National Park
They say everything’s bigger in Texas. And they mean it when you gaze up at the night sky. Take refuge in this wild park after dark. You’ll enjoy the least light pollution of any National Park in the lower 48. Enjoy a starlit hike to the hot springs near the Rio Grande and soak while you marvel at the most stars you’ve likely ever seen.
Blue Ridge Observatory
It’s a star park! It’s an observatory… on the way. Mayland Community College is still building their facility (to be equipped with a telescope and other cool features). But visitors are more than welcome to feast their eyes on the skies atop these lovely mountains. Take a break from a bland night-scape and enjoy some real stargazing in this quiet forested area.
This far north you might catch a rare glimpse of the Aurora Borealis – the Northern Lights. All the while you’ll be dazzled by starlight storytelling or music and festivals. The sky is expansive and purposefully protected from light pollution. We love the celebration of untouched dark sky that can be felt in the events hosted here. A magical experience for sure!
source: Rob Yoder Photography
Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park
Arguably the darkest place in Florida – in a good way. Cozy up at your campsite and marvel at the heavens. The park is large, untamed, and a wonderful break from the business that abounds elsewhere. Not only will you be spotting star’s you’ve never seen, you’ll probably pick up on animal calls you’ve never heard. Prepare to experience new things.
Cherry Springs State Park
We especially love Cherry Springs! It’s a the dark sky sanctuary of the upper East Coast, and boy do they love their stars! Join the huge star parties to mingle with astronomers. If you can’t make the big party, there are plenty of smaller events running all summer. Luckily, you also have a decent chance at perfect weather for spectacular viewing.
Tricks of the Trade for Night Sky Viewing
Don’t be that novice astronomer than shines light in everybody’s face and breaks telescopes. Ok, you probably won’t break a telescope unless you’re trying. But you know who I’m talking about.
1. Dim the lights…
Bright white photons constrict your pupils – thus letting less light in. Solution? Always use dim light whenever you need some illumination. Red is the most popular choice, but any really dim light will do. Note: this includes your phone. Download a red-light filter app to work around this. (Also, if you’re serious don’t have a fire burning. Just bring warm drinks and blankets.)
2. Take time to adjust
Yes, stargazing is emotionally challenging so adjust slowly. Kidding, but your eyes disagree. They need a good 5-10 minutes to dilate and remember how to be sensitive in the dark. No lights during this period. Enjoy complete darkness.
3.You don’t need a telescope
So much is visible with the naked eye! And until you know what you want to look for, telescopes just seem to complicate things. You can start with binoculars if you’re so inclined.
4. Grab a star chart
There are plenty of resources in this department. From books to apps, we recommend you come equipped with with some sort of celestial guide. Of course, you could always make up constellations and stars’ names too!
5. Don’t invite the full moon
Sorry, but big round full moon is a party pooper and always outshines the little stars. Use a moon-phase calendar to plan viewing at a time when the moon is mostly new and mostly set.
6. Watch the weather
Clouds and inclement weather don’t make for great stargazing. We’re not used to guessing weather past bed-time, so I like to use weather.gov to get the night’s play-by-play.
7. Try to catch celestial events!
You’re always invited to meteor showers and eclipses. They may be stars, but they don’t hide from their audiences. Space.com keeps track of these happenings.
8. On that note, be dark sky paparazzi
No flashes please. Night-sky photography takes a little know how. We recommend using the most sophisticated camera you have. Tip: set the focus before sunset because it becomes mystifyingly impossible after dark. Also, bring or rig a tripod as any movement will blur your long-exposure pictures.
9. Quiet, please
We wish you could hear stars and that sound could wiggle through vacuums. But since stars are silent so are we. Not because we have to, but because it just seems like the polite thing to do. Besides, you should put that energy into your eyes as you decipher the skies.
10. Go to star parties! (Most National Parks throw these!)
Don’t these sound fun? That’s because they are! They’re nerdy gatherings of astronomers and enthusiasts. Typically the event organizers will bring a bunch of telescopes and want to show you everything invisible to your admittedly weaker-than-telescope eyes. Pack some space-inspired snacks, blankets, and your sky-chart. But don’t limit your exploration to star parties. Try observatories and museums next!