For centuries, humans have been mesmerized by the stars in the night sky. From pondering the vastness of the universe to feeling connected to something cosmic, there’s a special feeling you get when you spy a shooting star or discover a new constellation — and it’s usually one of wonder and awe.
When you finally get the opportunity to see a “true night sky,” which is a sky completely unpolluted by light, it is unforgettable. I had one such experience when I was stargazing with friends on a camping trip less than four hours from my house. As the sky grew dark and the stars began to emerge, we settled into an open field to count shooting stars, which appeared every couple of minutes. By the time we had grown tired of counting, the sky had become so shrouded with celestial objects that we couldn’t pinpoint a single constellation. The Milky Way was a band of light that cut through the night sky, and its brightness was mind-boggling. We all agreed that these were the best stars we had ever seen, with one friend admitting that the night sky rivaled his experience atop Mount Kea in Hawaii, which is renowned as one of the best places to stargaze in the world. That is what happens when you visit a dark sky park.
Located around the globe, International Dark Sky Parks are preserves that are accredited with little light pollution, a healthy nocturnal environment, and brilliant night skies. These are some of the best places to witness the northern lights, marvel at the Milky Way, discover planets through a telescope, or watch meteors shoot across the sky. And since plenty of these parks are within the Lower 48, there’s no reason not to witness the beauty of a true night sky for yourself.
Katahdin Woods and Water Monument
Located within the confines of Baxter State Park, Katadhin Woods and Water Monument comprises 87,563 acres of Maine wilderness. This section of the park has also recently been named a dark sky sanctuary, with night skies that reveal the same stars that the Wabanaki People viewed 11,000 years ago. (These also happen to be the same unforgettable skies I saw on my camping trip.) The area’s night skies are rated as 2 on the Bortle Scale, which means that only Antarctica has darker skies. The park’s Dark Sky Guide also gives visitors tips on how to see meteor showers and site recommendations for the upcoming solar eclipse in 2024.
Headlands Dark Sky Park
Located along the Mackinac Straits in northern Michigan, Headlands Dark Sky Park is a county park that is highly recognized for its night sky visibility. Although no camping is allowed within the dark sky park, Headlands is open seven days a week, 24 hours a day, and 365 days a year, allowing visitors to stargaze well into the night. The park’s onsite event facility, observatory, and overnight property rentals make it a popular place for weddings and other celebrations that take place in the evening. It is also most notable for its visibility of the Northern Lights, which are commonly spotted in the spring and fall.
Dead Horse State Park
With miles of red rock trails and impressive vistas of staggering cliffs, Dead Horse State Park is a mecca for mountain bikers by day and stargazers by night. Situated nearly 2,000 feet above sea level, the plateau is the perfect vantage point for witnessing Utah’s luminous night sky. And since it’s only a short drive from Moab, it’s easy for visitors to southern Utah to gain access to these impressive sites. The park has telescopes for viewing the stars at night and also offers ranger tours during the full moon. In addition to two campgrounds, Dead Horse rents out comfortable yurts that sleep six and have direct access to the park’s wide-open skies.
Cherry Springs State Park
Cherry Springs State Park may be a lesser-known park, but it has much acclaim when it comes to the night sky. Awarded a “Gold Level Dark Sky Park” by the International Dark Sky Association, clear skies at Cherry Springs are some of the best in the world. It’s also a popular place for astronomers, with the park hosting two annual viewing events for the public to learn more about the night sky. Cherry Springs has a number of Astro Cabins available to rent, each with its own private field for viewing the starry skies above. Visitors are encouraged to check the park’s Clear Sky Chart prior to their visit for an optimal night sky experience.
Craters of the Moon National Monument
Although it’s under three hours from Boise, Craters of the Moon National Monument may as well be a world away. The national parkland was formed by a series of volcanic eruptions, the most recent taking place 2,000 years ago. As a result, the park has a desolate, otherworldly quality, with no vegetation taking root on the dried lava fields. By night, however, the sky comes alive with billions of stars, as it ideally situated in one the largest remaining “pools” of nighttime darkness in the U.S. In addition to two campgrounds, the state park allows wilderness and backcountry camping, as long as a permit is acquired first.
Located in the beautiful Gila National Forest, Cosmic Campground is special for a couple of reasons. For one, it’s the first dark sky park to be located in National Forest in North America. It also offers unfettered access to the night sky, with a 360-degree view of the starry heavens above. The primitive campsite has no fee and no reservation system, so it’s first-come, first-serve for stargazers. The campground also offers four concrete pads, each complete with a telescope for a closer look at the sky’s meteors, planets, and constellations. Visitors to Cosmic Campground are asked to arrive during daylight hours, so the headlights of cars don’t affect fellow stargazers.
Located in northeastern Minnesota, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is every paddler/stargazer’s dream. With 15,000 miles of canoe routes close to the Canadian border, the Boundary Waters is far enough north that the Northern Lights will often make an appearance. It’s also so far from civilization that clear nights reveal billions of stars, planets, and the glorious Milky Way in its truest form. In addition to being one of the newest dark sky sanctuaries (it was named as recently as September 2020), it’s also the largest. With over one million acres of wilderness, there are enough stars to go around for any visitors to the remote park.