These places are real stars when it comes to viewing the night sky.
In 1988, two astronomers formed the International Dark-Sky Association with the goal "to preserve and protect the night time environment and our heritage of dark skies through quality outdoor lighting." Today 60 parks in the U.S. are officially designated as dark-sky destinations: places with exceptional starry nights and nocturnal viewing opportunities.
So where exactly should you set up your tripod and put your galaxy and constellation-spotting skills to work? Here are a few star-studded dark-sky parks to set your sights on this spring and summer.
Great Basin National Park, Nevada
About halfway between Las Vegas and Salt Lake City, this park offers fantastic views of the Andromeda Galaxy, Milky Way, star clusters and planets on moonless nights. Astronomy programs take place from May through September, culminating with the Annual Astronomy Festival at the end of September. The Nevada Northern Railway offers a train ride through the region's darkest sections to a viewing area with high-powered telescopes.
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California
This southern California park gets a lot of glory mostly for its Instagram-worthy show of spring wildflowers and towering palm oases, but the stargazing here is phenomenal. Stay in the town of Borrego Springs, the first International Dark-Sky Community in California, so designated for its efforts to reduce light pollution. Or, as it's one of the last parks in the country where open camping is allowed, pitch a tent anywhere you like and watch the stars between the palm trees while the coyotes sing.
Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park, Florida
You don't need to drive hundreds of miles into the desert for a dark-sky experience, because this park in central Florida is just a few hours' drive from the coast. Unless you have a state park pass, your only way in after dark is to camp at the Kilpatrick Hammock Campground. Reserve one of the five astronomy pads and you might get a glimpse of the International Space Station cruising around. Best of all, it's only a 2-1/2 hour drive to the Kennedy Space Center, if you're itching for more space stuff.
Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve, Idaho
It's easy to feel like you're on the moon at this rugged, aptly-named preserve about 65 miles away from Sun Valley. Go hiking and caving during the day and stargaze at night with the help of rangers who hold full-moon hikes throughout summer. In spring and fall the Idaho Falls Astronomical Society hosts its popular star parties here. Lava Flow Campground has first-come, first-serve sites from May-November.
Big Bend National Park, Texas
This desert park at the Texas-Mexico border has the least light pollution of any national park in the lower 48, which is why there are tons of night sky programs to enjoy. It has four campgrounds and a lodge, and the McDonald Observatory 116 miles north hosts star parties on weekends.
James River State Park, Virginia
Sometimes the mountains are just the place to stargaze. James River State Park is in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains and has everything from hiking to kayaking in the daytime. At night, local astronomy groups host special programs about the stars you're seeing (with glimpses of Jupiter, its moons, and Mars depending on the time of year). On-site cabins and lodging are available from Memorial Day to Labor Day.
Dinosaur National Monument, Colorado/Utah
Though remote, there's tons to do at this national monument, particularly if you have dinosaur lovers in your life. During the day, see (and touch) fossils in situ at Dinosaur Quarry. At night, rangers guide full-moon hikes and stargazing walks. In late August or early September, the Dark Skies Over Dinosaur astronomy festival takes place at Utah's Green River and Split Mountain campgrounds.
Cherry Springs State Park, Pennsylvania
With so many big cities in the eastern U.S., you wouldn't think there'd be good stargazing anywhere there. But about 180 miles north of Pittsburgh is a surprisingly dark area where you can see as many as 30,000 stars, astroids, the Omega Nebula, and Venus, among other noteworthy celestial bodies. Camping is first-come, first-serve at the Overnight Astronomy Observation Field.
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