The darkest skies in the U.S. provide the best stargazing opportunities.

By Elizabeth Rhodes
September 11, 2020
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Editor’s Note: Travel might be complicated right now, but use our inspirational trip ideas to plan ahead for your next bucket list adventure.

When you look up at the night sky, what do you see? Innumerable stars, a planet or two, even a bright meteor? Depending on where you are in the world, you may see greater or fewer celestial objects in the night sky because light pollution can drown out all but the brightest stars and satellites. To really take in the beauty of our solar system, you’ll want to visit the darkest places in the U.S. for some truly unforgettable stargazing. Of course, you’ll want to plan to go on a clear night, so you have the best chance of seeing the stars.

The International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) is an Arizona-based nonprofit founded in 1988 with the mission "to protect and preserve the world's night skies for present and future generations." The organization is an authority on light pollution, and through its International Dark Sky Places program, the IDA recognizes places that preserve and protect the night sky as International Dark Sky Parks, Communities, Reserves, Sanctuaries, and Urban Night Sky Places.

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These sites were recognized because they took steps to “proactively reduce their impact on the night sky through adopting policy, conducting lighting retrofits, and undertaking outreach related to light pollution,” according to Adam Dalton, the International Dark Sky Places program manager at IDA. There are currently 150 certified Dark Sky Places in 21 countries around the world, so we asked Dalton about the best places to stargaze in the U.S. Here are 10 spots to find the darkest skies in the U.S., in no particular order.

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1. Big Bend National Park (International Dark Sky Park)

Known for its breathtaking vistas and hiking trails, Big Bend National Park in southwest Texas is a beautiful place to take in the night sky. Since it’s far away from major urban areas, you won’t have much light pollution obstructing the nighttime sky views.

2. Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve (International Dark Sky Park)

During the day, explore North America’s tallest sand dunes at this Colorado national park before turning your eyes to the sky after sunset for an exceptional nighttime view. The park’s dry air and high elevation combined with little light pollution make it an ideal place to see the stars.

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3. Glacier National Park (International Dark Sky Park)

Glacier National Park in Montana is one of the most beautiful national parks in the country, known for the rugged Rocky Mountains and pristine lakes. Stay overnight at one of the many Glacier National Park campgrounds and enjoy beautiful nighttime views.

4. Death Valley National Park (International Dark Sky Park)

See the universe stretch out above you from Death Valley National Park in California. Explore the extreme landscape during the day by going for a scenic drive before watching the stars at night.

5. Central Idaho Dark Sky Reserve (International Dark Sky Reserve)

The only International Dark Sky Reserve in the U.S., this reserve offers nearly 1,500 square miles of land in the picturesque Sawtooth Mountains, making it the perfect place for a stargazing road trip.

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6. Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument (International Dark Sky Sanctuary)

Located in Maine, this park offers opportunities for hiking, mountain biking, canoeing, kayaking, and more, as well as a scenic drive on the Katahdin Loop Road. Stay after sundown for great stargazing.

7. Grand Canyon National Park (International Dark Sky Park)

The Grand Canyon in Arizona is already a must-visit for its incredible vistas and stunning trails, but it should be on stargazers’ bucket lists, too — could there be a most picturesque place to take in views of the night sky? We don't think so.

8. Great Basin National Park (International Dark Sky Park)

One of the least-visited national parks in the country, Great Basin National Park in Nevada offers some of the darkest skies in the U.S. — Mather Overlook is a great place to stop to stargaze.

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9. Cherry Springs State Park (International Dark Sky Park)

This Pennsylvania state park is an ideal destination for northeastern stargazers — head to the Astronomy Observation Field for 360-degree views of the night sky. Lucky skywatchers might even spot the elusive northern lights during the fall and winter months.

10. Stephen C. Foster State Park (International Dark Sky Park)

Those in the southeast will want to head to this Georgia state park for an evening of stargazing. With few nearby cities and little on-property lighting, there’s not a lot of light pollution obstructing the night sky.

Elizabeth Rhodes is an associate digital editor at Travel + Leisure. Follow her adventures on Instagram.