8 Spectacular National Parks That Are Even More Incredible on Starry Nights
Whether you’re looking to wish upon a star or simply to sit back and contemplate celestial bodies, our country’s national parks are ideal places to stargaze.
Death Valley National Park, California
Death Valley is an International Dark Sky Park, which means it restricts light pollution and can claim an exceptional number of starry nights. Death Valley also benefits from being the driest place in the country. “That means the chances of a cloud-free night are very good,” notes Abby Wines, park management assistant. “This is a great place to see the Milky Way, which most Americans have never seen.”
Wines also suggests taking in the full moon from the salt flats in Badwater Basin or Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, an experience she calls “otherworldly.” Plan to visit during the next few months—in summer, nighttime temperatures often top 100 degrees.
Here are some more of America’s national parks that will leave you awestruck.
Acadia National Park, Maine
Acadia is blessed with some of the most beautiful coastlines in the United States and, park Public Affairs Specialist Christie Anastasia says, “some of the last pristine, star-filled night skies in the eastern U.S. The combination of rocky coastline, ocean reflections, and star-filled skies is quite magical.” Anastasia says September is prime viewing time in the park, thanks to early nightfall and the annual Night Sky Festival. Find the best spots to view astronomical features like the Milky Way along the Park Loop Road, in particular Ocean Drive, which gives a glimpse of those magical reflections.
Great Basin National Park, Nevada
Great Basin’s dark skies really benefit from how seriously its few neighbors take the natural resource. “Nearby communities work with us to promote the dark skies here,” Astronomy Ranger Annie Gilliland says.
This cooperative effort earned Great Basin International Dark Sky Park status. Low humidity and high elevation also help make for good viewing of features like the Andromeda galaxy. Gilliland recommends taking a peek at the sky from Mather Overlook, and from April to October, the park hosts free astronomy programming at the Lehman Caves Visitor Center. In September, there’s an annual astronomy festival, and fun events like the Star Train rides, full-moon hikes and more are scattered throughout the year.
Badlands National Park, South Dakota
The stark beauty of Badlands has often been compared to a moonscape, but the park also provides optimal viewing of the moon’s features, along with the roughly 7,500 stars visible on any given night. With the closest major city more than 60 miles away, the park’s skies are plenty dark. Park employee Connie Wolf says the best place to take advantage of the darkness is the wilderness area of the park along Sage Creek Rim Road.
In summer, park rangers lead stargazing programs, and the Badlands Astronomy Festival held July 6-8 serves up some family-friendly activities and evening presentations.
These are the national parks to visit if you’re off the beaten path.
Big Bend National Park, Texas
Big Bend is not only remote, with grand sky vistas that reach the horizon. Its “nearest counties have light pollution restrictions to protect darkness for the world-class McDonald Observatory in Fort Davis,” Park Ranger Jennette Jurado says. She likes the Sotol Vista Overlook or the parking area at the Fossil Discovery Exhibit for stargazing, especially because Big Bend removed its floodlights to preserve night vision.
The Southern Star and most of the Southern Cross are visible at this International Dark Sky Park, along with planets. Winter’s low humidity makes for good viewing, but many astronomy programs are scheduled throughout the year.
Denali National Park and Preserve, Alaska
Stargazing at Denali is unlike anywhere else in the park system. In fall and winter, the northern lights can be seen with almost no interference from light pollution. And long hours of darkness mean you can see the stars during the day. However, snow closes the only road through the park by late fall, so the interior is off-limits—unless you plan on getting to it via dog sled, ski or snowshoe.
The good news is that the park keeps the entrance area and a small winter visitor center, the Murie Science and Learning Center, open year-round. The weather here can be unpredictable, so stargazing parties are only scheduled a few weeks in advance.
Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah
Bryce Canyon is high—its altitude ranges from 8,000 feet to more than 9,100 feet, and this feature, combined with its “clear air and distance from urban lighting,” makes it a prime area to observe the night sky, says park Chief of Interpretation Kathleen Gonder.
The park also has tall, thin rock spires, known as hoodoos, which frame the night sky to spectacular effect. Gonder finds winter the perfect time to peep at sights such as the Milky Way. Viewpoints along any park road are great spots to do so. Bryce Canyon’s annual Astronomy Festival is scheduled for June 13-16, though Gonder stresses that those dates are dependent on weather and staffing.
Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
With superb stargazing conditions, Grand Canyon is another certified International Dark Sky Park. Its skies are clear, its location remote, and then there are those stunning panoramic views. In summer, the park offers prime viewing of the Perseid meteor shower and plays host to events such as the Grand Canyon Star Party, this year held June 9-16. But park spokeswoman Vanessa Ceja-Cervantes, who suggests stargazing at Mather Point, prefers to look at the park’s night skies in winter when, she notes, “the park has the clearest dark skies.”
“As an added bonus, seeing the Grand Canyon covered in snow is a very unique experience.”
The Grand Canyon is also one of the pet-friendly national parks you should take your dog!