Where to Find the Darkest Skies in the U.S. for Serious Stargazing
Timelapse filmmakers Harun Mehmedinovic and Gavin Heffernan have spent three years traveling to more than 500 locations to capture the magnificence of the last truly dark skies.
Before teaming up to shoot at night, the two had not realized how big of a problem light pollution was. They decided to use their narrative filmmaking and storytelling skills to raise awareness, teaming up with the International Dark Sky Association, and using data from amateur astronomers and light pollution metrics from the National Park Service. The pair also released a book with all the dark sky locations they visited.
“We found that in a lot of the towns and spaces we went to, the night sky is becoming a tourist attraction itself as it becomes more and more rare to see the Milky Way and these sights from the city,” Mehmedinovic told Travel + Leisure.
For those in search of galactic views, here are 13 destinations to add to your list.
Chemung Mine, California
The Chemung Mine operated from the early 1900s through 1938, and going there today feels like stepping back in time.
“When you get up there, the sky is incredible because you're so far removed from everything," Heffernan told T+L. “You're there in the middle of the night with these big metal sheets that just blow in the wind and it feels like the whole thing could just blow down at any second as it creaks, but it gives you a feeling of stepping into that world and being able to imagine the way things might have looked there in the '30s.”
Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah
“Given that there isn’t a whole lot of light, you get incredible night skies in all directions, and you can see from right above you all the way down to the edges of the horizon these beautiful views of stars,” Mehmedinovic said.
Death Valley National Park
Death Valley National Park has a gold tier standing with the International Dark Sky Association.
“One thing that makes this park so unique is that you can go below sea level and still great dark night skies because of how dry the air is,” Mehmedinovic said.
Heffernan recommends heading to the Eureka Dunes: “In 360-degree directions you don’t see any cities or any light and it fives you this incredible, peaceful, and deadly quiet feeling. You feel like you’re a million miles away from everything.”
Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
“This park is known more for its canyons and daytime tourist attractions, but a hidden secret is that it’s also one of the best dark sky preserves,” Heffernan said. “It’s this incredible place with big elks walking around you and it gives you this similar feeling of looking up and around you to be able to step back in time and see things how they were seen ages ago.”
Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah
Mono Lake, California
Mono Lake covers more than 70 square miles at the edge of the Great Basin and California’s Sierra Nevada mountains.
While it’s known for the millions of birds that migrate here each year, it's also a great place for stargazing. “It has these incredible calcified rock structures called tufa towers that rise from the lake giving it this amazing foreground quality,” Heffernan said. “You get this one-two punch as you get the foreground with these fascinating formations and the great night sky behind it,” he added.
Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida
Cosmic Campground, New Mexico
These campgrounds are ideal for anyone traveling to see the night skies: “It’s one of few places where I walked out of the car and didn’t need to have my eyes adjust (a process which can take up to 20 minutes),” Mehmedinovic said. “I just stepped out and could see the whole Milky Way, it was just beautiful.”
Recognized as the first International Dark Sky Sanctuary within the National Forest System, the campground is part of the Gila National Forest.
Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, California
“It’s a very bizarre but incredible look where you see these ancient trees growing out of the rock face, and then you look up at the sky and it looks the way you’d imagine it to have 1,000 years ago,” Heffernan said.
Crater Lake National Park, Oregon
Devil's Tower National Monument, Wyoming
This national monument towers into the sky. “It has that cinematic feel as though you could be walking through here in the 1700s or even earlier, and that’s one of the parts that makes all of that driving worthwhile, when you get to these places and can really feel like you’re going back in time,” Heffernan said.
Wupatki National Monument, Arizona
Although Wupatki National Monument is close to Flagstaff, it’s still a premiere dark sky spot.
In fact, Sunset Crater Volcano, Walnut Canyon, and Wupatki are all designated by the International Darky Sky Association, while Flagstaff was designated the first International Dark Sky City in 2011, according to the National Park Service.
Bodie State Historic Park, California
This former gold-mining town stands today as a preserved ghost town that remains in a state of “arrested decay.”
As visitors walk into the designated National Historic Site and State Historic Park, they’ll see details like pool tables inside of the buildings that remind of its past.
The park becomes studded with stars in the night, which is why astronomy-related walks are not out of the ordinary, though you’ll need to go through a foundation workshop with Bodie to be able to come into the park at night.