From the deserts of California to the swamps of Florida, and the great natural monuments of the Southwest, America is filled with heavenly places to gaze at the night skies. Let your travels take you to new destinations, where your eyes can carry you billions of miles away.

Exchanging the glare of the city lights for flickering star light has long been part of the allure of RVing and camping, but those ready for the full spectacle of starry nights, can look for destinations with scant “light pollution” and unobstructed views of the night sky.

Take note, first-time stargazers and amateur astronomers, many of the best views are found far from the distracting glow of city lights – and some of the very best viewing locales may even have rules limiting how you can use lights around your site.  But, the remote locations and inconveniences will be worth it, because, under the right conditions, a galaxy of stars and planets become visible with the naked eye.

In a world that worships light, one group promotes the preservation of dark skies. The International Dark Sky Association bestows the designation of International Dark Sky Place on destinations that have exceptional starry nights and “a nocturnal environment that is specifically protected for its scientific, natural, educational, cultural heritage, and/or public enjoyment.”  There are 11 IDSP designated places across the U.S, and while you can still enjoy great star gazing in other parks, the dark sky parks are a great place to start.

 

Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah

Night sky at Owachomo Bridge. Credit: NPS/Jacob W. Frank

Natural Bridges National Monument in Utah was the first place to receive the IDSP designation and remains a favorite destination of stargazers, with ample opportunities to explore the ancient river-carved bridges and Anasazi ruins by day and be awed by the sight of 15,000 stars by night.

According to the National Park Service, “National parks preserve some of the darkest skies in the country. In some areas, it’s possible to see up to 15,000 stars throughout the night. By contrast, fewer than 500 stars may be visible from more urban environments.”

For truly spectacular stargazing in Natural Bridges National Monument follow the Owachomo Bridge trailhead and sit on the mesa to watch the Milky Way rise over the bridge, just as the ancient Puebloans did hundreds of years ago.

There are 13 primitive campsites available at the park that can accommodate RVs up to 26-feet and overflow camping at adjacent Bureau of Land Management property. More accommodation is available in nearby Blanding, UT.

 

Big Bend National Park, Texas

Lost Mine Trail, Big Bend

The darkest and one of the least visited national park in the continental 48 states, Big Bend National Park along the Rio Grande River in southwestern Texas, on the border with Mexico, may be the best stargazing site in the county. While it’s isolation and vastness – the park is more than 1,200 square miles — may keep crowds down, the lack of development, vast swaths of Chihuahuan Desert topography, and the park’s commitment to preserving its dark skies, make it a prime destination for stargazers.

In recent years, Big Bend National Park has begun the process of eliminating all “forms of light pollution to help visitors experience the wonders of a night sky free from modern intrusion.” The park has installed LED and shielded lighting as part of its efforts to “ensure that Big Bend National Park continues to be the best example of primeval night skies available today and for future generations,” helping it earn its IDSP designation.

Enjoy the park’s backpacking and hiking trails, plan a river trip on the Rio Grande, or enjoy border culture, then take in the breathtaking view of the Milky Way in all its glory once night falls. Rangers at the park say visitors can expect to see thousands of starts on a clear night.

The park has a lodge as well as campgrounds that can accommodate RVs, and additional lodging is available in surrounding communities. Camping in Big Bend National Park is limited to 14 consecutive nights – and 28 total nights for the year.

 

Death Valley National Park, California and Nevada

Death Valley under the Milky Way

For a surreal and extreme stargazing experience, consider Death Valley National Park in California. More famous for its extreme heat, Death Valley is the third, and largest IDSP, National Park in the United States.

According to the Dark Sky website, the park is “distant enough from the large cities of the southwest so that much of the night sky above the desert floor is near pristine and, in many places, offers views close to what could be seen before the rise of cities.” The organization says the near-pristine darkness and dry environment of the vast park puts Death Valley in the top tier of stargazing sites. Here visitors can see astronomical objects that can only be viewed at some of the darkest locations across the globe.

Use the miles of paved roads and trails to explore the lowest point in North America, the vast salt flats of Badwater Basin, 282 feet below sea level, and scale Dante’s View at 5,475 feet for a stunning view of the park, visit the Furnace Creek visitor’s center and Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes — where R2-D2 and C-3PO cross the desert on their way to a fateful meeting with Luke Skywalker in “Star Wars” — before pondering a round of golf at Devil’s Golf Course. The surreal landscapes in the park’s more than 5,000 square miles are stunning by day, but form an awe-inspiring foreground to huge skies at night.

“At Death Valley, the sky literally begins at your feet,” said Tyler Nordgren, Associate Professor of Physics at the University of Redlands (Calif.) and International Dark-Sky Association board member, on the National Park Service website.

There are nine Death Valley camping facilities as well as inns, lodges, and resorts to accommodate visitors that come to Death Valley National Park, but reserve early during the peak winter and spring seasons. In the winter and spring seasons, park rangers offer night sky programs and hold stargazing events with astronomy organizations, according to the park service.

 

Staunton River State Park, Va.

Skywatchers await the end of dusk at Staunton River State Park, Virginia. Photo by Steve Andrews.

A park doesn’t need to be vast or extremely remote to offer splendid stargazing. Staunton River State Park, a mere 2 hours from Raleigh, N.C. and Richmond, Va. is a 2,400-acre property that has also received the IDSP designation for its clear night skies and attention to controlling light pollution.

Tucked into the heart of Virginia, Staunton River offers woodlands, meadows, and shoreline along the Dan and Staunton rivers. By day, the park offers trails for hikers and equestrians as well as boating, fishing, swimming, sports fields and picnic areas. The park offers accommodations in campgrounds and vintage lodges. By night, the park hosts star parties organized by local astronomy groups as well as interpretive programs by park staff.

To encourage budding astronomers, the park has a “lending library” of telescopes available for families to check out and use during their stay. Special stargazing programs are offered throughout the year.

 

Cherry Springs State Park, Pa.

Camping under the Stars at Cherry Springs State Park

Cherry Springs State Park is small on land, but big on sky. Located in the northeast part of Pennsylvania, Cherry Springs State Park offers some of the darkest skies east of the Mississippi. The 82-acre park carved out of the Susquehannock State Forest sits at an altitude of 2,300 and when conditions are perfect, the Milky Way shines so brightly it casts a shadow.

The park’s astronomy field offers an unobstructed 360-degree view of the skies that attract astronomers for twice-yearly star parties that last for several nights. The park welcomes professional astronomers who can rent viewing domes to study the stars, as well as families who make the trek to enjoy the spectacle of the Milky Way. From May to October, park staff and volunteers offer free programs on Friday and Saturday nights to help the public enjoy the views.

Cherry Springs State Park was the second U.S. park to earn a IDSP designation.

The park has 30 primitive campsites available. Sites with electricity are available at nearby Lyman Run State Park.

 

Big Cypress Preserve, Fl.

The winter Milky Way rises over Burns Lake in Big Cypress National Preserve. Photo by Aaron Umpierre.

Get swamped by stars at Big Cypress National Preserve in South Florida.  With deep, dark skies and unobstructed view of the heavens, Big Cypress Preserve earned in IDSP designation in 2016.

Just north of the Florida Everglades in the center of South Florida, rainwater first flows through the preserve, then south into the park, and eventually into Florida Bay. Big Cypress is a watery wilderness devoted to recreation, research and preservation. The preserve allows hiking, hunting, and off-road vehicle use, in designated areas. Big Cypress is far less developed than its neighbor, Everglades National Park, and hosts fewer visitors, making it ideal for naturalists, birders, hikers, and stargazers.

So dark is the sky over the swamp that it’s possible to see far beyond the Milky Way, and pick out faint objects in the Andromeda Galaxy two and a half million light years away.

Big Cypress offers some of the darkest skies in the eastern U.S, atop the unique Florida topography. View one of the darkest night skies in the eastern United States by attending ranger-led astronomy programs at Big Cypress National Preserve. The National Park Service, along with partners, conducts night sky outings to help introduce families to the wonders above.

The park has many RV-friendly campgrounds and tent locations that offer spectacular views of the night skies.

 

Dark Skies

Across America are many locations that offer clear views of the night skies. The International Dark Sky Association offers a list of best dark sky sites to visit as well as information about the impact of light pollution on wildlife and the environment.

Hit the road for the best stargazing!

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