Blogger Hannah Lehr shares the 5 Best National Parks to visit for Stargazing.
America’s National Park system has so much to offer when it comes to natural beauty. Taking a night to camp overnight in a park is a great way to turn a visit into a magical experience. Some parks are better than others when it comes to visibility when stargazing. These five parks are known for showcasing incredible illuminations at night.
Canyonlands National Park
Canyonlands National Park in Southeastern Utah is one of the best (if not the best) places in the country for stargazing. It was awarded the title of an International Dark Sky Park, and for good reasons. The naked eye is enough to see a wealth of stars. This desert along the Colorado Plateau is home to some of the darkest skies in the contiguous 48 United States. On a moonless night, plenty of constellations paint themselves across the sky.
Some of the best and most popular places to view the night sky in the park are Mesa Arch, Grand View Overlook, and Green River overlook. Mesa Arch requires a short hike, so be sure to bring a flashlight with you. All these spots are located within the Island of the Sky Mesa district of the park. They are much more accessible and closest to Moab.
If you’re willing to venture out into the Needles District, you’ll be rewarded with solitude, more campsite options, and incredible stargazing opportunities. The rock spires obstruct the view a bit, making the landscape more diverse and interesting. This is a popular spot for photographers willing to do a bit of hiking.
Check out the visitor center during the day and see if you can join a stargazing event. There are events held throughout the Summer at both Arches and Canyonlands National Park. Be prepared to miss out on some sleep, as many don’t begin until 9 P.M. and can last a few hours.
For great stargazing near Canyonlands, check out Arches National Park and Dead Horse Point State Park. Both parks are also allocated the title of “International Dark Sky Park.” Expect world-class stargazing in this area.
Want to do some camping? Island in the Sky only has 12 first come, first served campsites. Luckily, there are plenty of BLM sites to be found along the road just as you are leaving the park and headed towards Moab. Most of these sites are primitive and require a minimal fee which can be paid at recreation.gov.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
The Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, located in Southwest Colorado, is also an International Dark Sky Park. This incredible park is underrated as it is, but few think to visit at night. Such a shame, though, as this park is one of the best places in the country to view the Milky Way. It shines brightest during the Summer and rises higher and higher throughout the night, making this the perfect place for stargazing.
The best part about this park is the short .3-mile hikes to a few of the overlooks, allowing you to get an unobstructed view of the stars without the headlights from the road behind you. Check out Chasm View, Dragon Point, and Sunset View along the canyon’s South Rim for incredible views.
If you venture out to the more secluded North Rim, check out the stars from Kneeling Camel Viewpoint or from the Chasm View Nature Trail. Both spots are secluded from the road, and you’ll likely be alone as you view the stars. These are great spots for astro-photographers looking for peace while they shoot.
The Black Canyon of the Gunnison also hosts an astronomy festival every year during late September. Most activities are held in the South Rim, and there is plenty to do. During the day, you can attend lectures held by volunteer astrologists at the South Rim visitor center. At night, learn more about the night skies and get the opportunity to use a telescope.
There are campgrounds located on each rim with limited spots on a reservation basis. Reservations can be made online at recreation.gov. There are also campsites located in East Portal, which can be driven down to during the summer months. Temperatures drop significantly at night, so be sure to bring layers.
For great stargazing near the Black Canyon, check out the night sky at the Dominguez-Escalante Canyon, or at the campsites in the Curecanti National Forest.
Gates of the Arctic National Park
This park is difficult to get to but very well worth it, especially because of its stargazing opportunities. This park is in Northern Alaska past the Arctic circle. It is one of the best places to view stars in the United States because of its remoteness. Less than 1/20 of 1% of Alaska is inhabited, leaving so much untouched wilderness to be explored. There are no towns, roads, or buildings within the park, so the skies are bound to be unpolluted and dark.
Unfortunately, the best time to visit and see the stars is during the freezing winter! The dark mountains and cold, dry weather provide excellent stargazing opportunities. Also, during the Summer, the Gates of the Arctic experiences the midnight sun phenomenon. Though this is interesting to see, it’s not very great when you want to look at the stars.
Winter is also the best time to see the Northern Lights. Seeing the aurora borealis is a dream for many adventurers and photographers. The lights may make their appearance anytime from 9pm to 2am, but the best sightings often happen around midnight. Find a cozy outfit to keep you warm in the frigid temperatures as you await the lights. There are a few apps that predict auroral activity, but it is a phenomenon that is notoriously difficult to predict. Therefore, it’s best to camp out for a couple days and watch every night.
There are also tour groups you can follow if you’re looking for an informational experience, or if you only have one night in the Arctic. Though you aren’t guaranteed to see the Northern Lights, the rangers will be able to point out the signs and are more likely to find them. Tour groups such as Northern Lights and Arctic Circle Guides or the Alaskan Wilderness Guides are highly rated and recommended to stargazers.
There are no designated campgrounds in the park, yet overnight hikers can pitch their tent anywhere they’d like. It is required that you obtain a permit for your own safety. This landscape is very unforgiving and camping here requires a lot of planning and preparation. Be ready to be self-reliant in extremely cold temperatures. Also, bring bear spray, bearproof food containers, and learn about how to keep safe while camping in Polar Bear Country.
Voyageurs National Park
Located in Northern Minnesota and known for its vast forests and lakes, very few people make their way to this park. This park is far away from people and is committed to reducing light pollution. Due to the quality of the night skies and sheer remoteness, Voyageurs is one of the most incredible places to camp and stargaze.
There are many viewpoints that are popular among stargazers. These points at Voyageurs Forest, Beaver Pond Overlook, and Kettle Falls Dam provide vast, unobstructed views of the night sky. Viewing the stars at a lakeshore or campsite dock is another great alternative.
Clear, moonless nights are the best times to stargaze. During particularly strong solar storms, the Northern Lights can be seen at Voyageurs! This does not happen as often as it does further North, but many visitors get lucky. Chances of seeing them are highest during the Winter where it gets darker sooner.
Camping here can be a bit complicated, as all campsites except for the primitive sites require a watercraft to access. Sites can all be reserved online for a minimal fee. Backcountry camping in the primitive sites is another option and requires all campers to apply for a permit before doing so.
Be sure to bring layers to beat the chilly temperatures, and bug spray to beat the insane number of bugs in this park! 40% of the park is water, so mosquitos run rampant until the wintertime. A bug net for your tent may also be a worthwhile investment.
Crater Lake National Park
Southwestern Oregon’s gem Crater Lake is very secluded and hidden among the Cascade Mountains. It is the cleanest and largest lake in the country, only fed by rain and snow. This gives it an incredible, bright blue color mirroring the sky above it. Protected by the National Park Services Dark Sky Team, this park is free from light pollution, allowing you to see millions of stars.
Not only is the sky incredible, but it is also mesmerizing to view the way the lake reflects the night sky. Be sure to catch the sunset at the lake for a spectacular light show of pink, purple, and orange. Anywhere along Rim Road with a view of the caldera is a great place to view the sky.
Camping at Crater Lake is a popular activity in Oregon. Check out the Mazama Campground in the park for both walk-in and RV campsites. Spots can be reserved online. This is the only campground located within the park and is only open during the summer and early fall. Backcountry camping is also allowed within the park, so long as you are at least a mile from the road. If you don’t mind leaving the park, Huckleberry Mountain Campground is just 7 miles away from the park and is open until later October.
Be sure to dress accordingly and pack a winter tent with heavy duty sleeping bags. It gets very cold at Crater Lake and snow can linger until mid-June to July. Temperatures at night in July and August only get to around 40 degrees.
These are not the only national parks great for viewing the night sky. For more, check out Big Bend National Park in TX, Lassen Volcanic National Park in CA, Great Sand Dunes National Park in CO, and Great Basin National Park in NV. Visiting these parks at night is an entirely different experience that can be had with just a little extra planning. Get out of the light-polluted city and see what the world has to offer!
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