10 Best National Parks in the U.S. for Stargazing
Editor's Note: Those who choose to travel are strongly encouraged to check local government restrictions, rules, and safety measures related to COVID-19 and take personal comfort levels and health conditions into consideration before departure.
Are you looking up more in 2020? With less air pollution and clearer skies — and with many of us having more free time on our hands as a result of the pandemic — stargazing is back in fashion. Under Lucky Stars, which creates personalized star maps based on coordinates and dates, has ranked all 62 national parks across America to determine the best ones for stargazing. They have also produced a stunning interactive tour.
Related: More nature travel ideas
The ranking was created using data on the number of park visitors, accessibility, and light pollution. Now you can take what you’ve learned by stargazing in your backyard and get out to some of North America’s darkest places to see the night sky at its brilliant best.
For prime stargazing, avoid the biggest light polluter of all — the moon — by only traveling to these sites in the week before the new moon and the first few days after it.
Note that some areas and campgrounds in these parks are closed due to COVID-19, so check the parks' websites before you plan your trip.
1. Great Basin National Park, Nevada
One of the least-visited national parks of all at only 131,802 visitors per year, Great Basin in Nevada is all about solitude and wilderness, which is partly why it ranks so highly. A certified International Dark Sky Park, its stargazing web page recommends visiting Mather Overlook on the scenic drive and the Baker Archaeological Site near the town of Baker. As a bonus, it will be possible to see a rare “ring of fire” annular solar eclipse here for 2 minutes 34 seconds on October 14, 2023.
2. Big Bend National Park, Texas
A huge expanse of mountains and desert close to the Mexican border in southwest Texas, Big Bend National Park is also an International Dark Sky Park (along with the adjacent Big Bend Ranch State Park). A total lack of light pollution makes this one of the very finest parks to stargaze from. There are several stargazing sites on its Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive and Panther Junction Road.
3. Redwood National and State Parks, California
Vast forests are among the darkest places in the U.S., but you'll need to find a clearing to actually see the night sky. You can do that in California’s Redwood National and State Parks, where there are many clearings between the groves. Made up of Redwood National Park, California’s Del Norte Coast, and Jedediah Smith and Prairie Creek Redwoods State Parks, the region spans 139,000 super-dark acres and boasts easy accessibility and very low light pollution.
4. North Cascades National Park, Washington
Three hours from Seattle is North Cascades National Park, another adventurer’s paradise with backcountry trails galore through an alpine-like wilderness of mountains, glaciers, and ancient forest. With just 38,208 yearly visitors to the vast land and low light pollution, it’s a haven for dark starry skies.
5. Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota
Close to the Canadian border in northern Minnesota, Voyageurs National Park is known for its forests and lakes, though few venture up here — just 232,974 people visited last year. Light pollution is very low, but there’s another reason to get yourself up to 48° north, and that’s a possibility of seeing the northern lights. Although the northern lights are typically seen further north, a particularly powerful solar storm can mean aurora borealis dancing in Voyageurs.
6. Lassen Volcanic National Park, California
“Half the park is after dark” says the official website of Lassen Volcanic National Park, an area of volcanoes, boiling mud pots, fumaroles, and hot springs in northeastern California. There’s even an annual Dark Sky Festival each August.
7. Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas
Guadalupe Mountains National Park is located in far west Texas, north of Big Bend National Park. Often overlooked, it’s best explored on foot, and its pristine night skies are best experienced by camping out in the wilderness.
8. Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, Colorado
A remote location in south-central Colorado with huge sand dunes and pristine night skies, Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is, not surprisingly, an official International Dark Sky Park, though only since 2019. Its giant sand dunes in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains make it an iconic place for stargazing and astrophotography, with its high altitude ensuring crisp and dark starry skies.
9. Crater Lake National Park, Oregon
A four-hour drive from Portland, Oregon, Crater Lake National Park is the result of a volcanic peak collapsing 7,700 years ago to create a vast lake. Although wildfires in southern Oregon make this a tricky visit this year, anywhere on the Rim Road around the caldera is usually perfect for night sky vistas. Be here on October 14, 2023 to witness the rare “ring of fire” annular solar eclipse, which will last for 4 minutes 18 seconds.
10. Canyonlands National Park, Utah
If there’s one U.S. state that stargazers should visit, it's Utah, though only one of its many national parks makes it on to this list. Whether you’re in the touristy Island in the Sky region or down in the empty Needles area, this International Dark Sky Park is one of the very best, with the iconic Mesa Arch a favorite location at night. Canyonlands National Park is yet another dark sky destination to watch the rare “ring of fire” annular solar eclipse on October 23, 2023, which from here will last for 1 minute 2 seconds.