The majority of North Americans live under light-polluted skies, which means, unless they travel to areas that are far from city lights, they never get the opportunity to see a true dazzling night’s sky. If you’re fascinated by the idea of faraway galaxies, you may want to consider planning a trip to one of these destinations. They offer some of the darkest, clearest, light pollution-free skies in North America, making for some especially unforgettable stargazing.
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Jasper National Park, Alberta, Canada
The western Canadian province of Alberta is renowned for its dark night’s skies, and Jasper National Park is arguably the best of the best for stargazing thanks to its remote location, far from city lights. From September through April, the sky bursts into a blaze of color after dark, with dazzling red, purple, green and white rays of light. On a clear night here, you’re pretty much guaranteed to enjoy a stellar show, that often includes the appearance of the Northern Lights. In 2011, 97 percent of the 4,200-square-mile park was officially designated light-pollution free, as the second largest sky preserve in the world.
Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Tree National Park is just a couple of hours east of busy Los Angeles, but it’s the ultimate playground for stargazers, and the closest opportunity for Southern Californians to enjoy some of the darkest skies with clear nights nearly every day of the year thanks to the low desert humidity and absence of light pollution. Visitors have described the experience as absolutely “mind-blowing” after getting a glimpse of what the night sky actually looks like in such an unpolluted state. The National Park has known this for many years and recognizes it by offering frequent stargazing events that are hosted throughout the year. Telescope manufacturer, Celestron occasionally sends some of their professionals out to help “demystify the technology” behind the instruments and to help users get familiar with using them on their own. Of course, you can head out and enjoy the show on your own, just bring a pair of binoculars and a star chart to help you identify what you’re seeing.
Odds are, you’ve never even heard of Tonopah, but it was named the No. 1 place for stargazing in the U.S. by USA Today. Located 215 miles north of Las Vegas, the town has mapped out roads known as “star trails,” from which you can see more than 7,000 of the sparkling lights in the dark night skies, including the Milky Way on a clear, moonless night. Travel the star trails after the moon sets, allow your eyes to adjust and then gaze up and lose yourself in the darkest skies you’ve probably ever seen. If you live in a big city, you probably only see around 25 to 50 stars because of light pollution, so seeing the skies here is an incomparable experience. Those with good eyes will be able to see stars as faint as visual magnitude +7.0, which is the faintest of stars visible to the unaided eye.
Haleakala National Park, Maui
Haleakala National Park and the Haleakala Crater sit at more than 10,000 feet above sea level on the island of Maui. Driving to the summit, you’ll pass through as many different ecological zones as you would making a drive from Canada to Mexico. Not only can some of the most dramatic sunrises and sunsets be enjoyed here, but it’s one of the best places in the world for stargazing. Rangers lead guided walks from May through October, or you can pick up a star map at the park headquarters. Due to the high elevation, it’s usually quite cold at the top, and sometimes even snows, so be sure to bring something warm to wear, preparing for unpredictable weather.
Tucson is famous for its outdoor adventure opportunities that include hiking and mountain biking, rock climbing and caving. It’s also one of the best spots on Earth for stargazing. The Kitt Peak National Observatory, known for possessing one of the most extensive collections of research telescopes on the planet, sits high above the Sonoran Desert, offering visitors the chance to view some of the most incredible night skies through its Nightly Observing Program at the visitor center.
Death Valley National Park, California
While you might want to avoid Death Valley in the summer, with temperatures that rise to 120 degrees or even hotter, the rest of the year can be a pleasant time to visit and experience the world’s largest dark sky reserve. As the sun sets here in the California desert, the dark night reveals the massive expanse of the Milky Way at its finest. If you arrive in springtime, during the day you may be able to take in one of the most spectacular displays of colorful wildflowers too. With the right conditions, the desert will be filled with a sea of gold, purple, pink or white flowers.
Yosemite National Park, California
Yosemite National Park offers lots of breathtaking scenery and outdoor activities to enjoy during the day, and it also offers the ideal backdrop for stargazing after dark. High above the towering ancient sequoias, and miles away from city lights, the sky here is known as one of the best places in the world for watching Perseid meteor showers. Glacier Point is a popular spot for taking in the show, and throughout the summer, amateur astronomers an often be seen setting up their telescopes on Saturdays. You’ll also get an unforgettable look at faraway galaxies and the twinkling stars of the Milky Way. Over at Wawona, Yosemite Valley and Tuolumne Meadows you can enjoy an astronomy walk or talk too. Many of the park’s onsite accommodations, including Tenaya Lodge, offer packages that include an astronomer, telescope, and transportation to an ideal viewing spot as well as hot beverages and snacks.
Cherry Springs State Park, Pennsylvania
Cherry Springs State Park in Pennsylvania offers some of the darkest night skies east of the Mississippi. It was named a Gold-Certified International Dark Sky Park in 2008, one of only a few in the entire country. Despite its proximity to urban areas, as the park sits atop a hill surrounded by the 262,000-acre Susquehannock State Forest, you’ll find a 360-degree view of the night sky, totally free of light pollution. In the summer, sky tours are offered on Friday and Saturday nights, though the Night Sky Viewing area is always open.