All Articles An abbreviated guide to national-parks stargazing

An abbreviated guide to national-parks stargazing

From the sand dunes of Colorado to the caves of Kentucky.

Sarah Kuta
By Sarah KutaAug 9, 2023 6 minutes read
Group of hikers sitting near campfire under a starry sky.
anatoliy_gleb/Getty Images

You already know—and love—the US national parks for hiking, camping, mountain biking, scenic drives, and stunning landscapes. But if you’re going to bed right after sunset, you’re really only experiencing half the park. At night, these huge swaths of remote, protected lands provide a front-row seat to meteorites, constellations, planets, and the Milky Way.

There’s never really a bad season for stargazing, but fall can be especially dazzling; it gets dark earlier, and cooler temps translate to very clear skies. Beyond that, fall also marks the transition between the summer and winter skies. As our planet’s positioning changes from season to season, so too do the stars we can see from the Northern Hemisphere. In fall, you can see a little of both.

Certain national parks have more incredible stargazing than others—the list below will help get you started. Just remember: No matter the where, try to time your trip to the new moon, when the moon is not visible to the naked eye, leaving the darkest skies. (The Old Farmer’s Almanac site can help with timing.)

Zion National Park in Utah

People huddle around three telescopes with the milky way lighting up the sky above them
Stargazers viewing sky through telescopes with Stargazing Zion
Image: Management/Tripadvisor

As soon as the sun dips below the Navajo sandstone canyon walls of Zion National Park, the entire region plunges into near-pitch-black darkness. That’s because, although there are a handful of small communities around Zion, there’s very little light pollution here. (The closest “big” city is Las Vegas, which is roughly 150 miles away—more than enough distance to keep Zion’s skies dark.)

The 229-square-mile park became an official International Dark Sky Park in 2021, and the nearby town of Springdale followed suit this summer. Though you can easily go stargazing on your own, we recommend letting the guides at Stargazing Zion show you around the night sky. Their two-hour tours are led by professional astronomers who share their expertise on constellations and the solar system. They give every guest a pair of stargazing binoculars to use during the outing, and point several of their high-powered telescopes at unique cosmological phenomena, like far-away galaxies or nebulae.

Travelers say: “Make a trip into the park at night. Park near the Canyon Junction and then walk down [the] canyon a little way on the Pa'rus trail. You will see the Milky Way and more stars than you can imagine.”—@SonofAslan

Where to stay in Zion: Spend the night at a glamping resort, like Open Sky Zion, Autocamp Zion, Under Canvas Zion, or Zion Wildflower Resort. While there are plenty of great hotels in the area, you’ll be more inclined to stay up late to watch for meteors while sitting around a campfire, soaking in your private cedar hot tub, or just hanging out on the front “porch” of your tent.

Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky

As the name suggests, Mammoth Cave National Park is famous for what it protects underground: the longest cave system in the world. But this easy-to-reach area, located about a 1.5-hour drive from Louisville, KY, is starting to gain recognition for what’s above the surface—way, way above, in the night sky.

The 52,830-acre park became certified as an International Dark Sky Park two years ago, thanks to its natural darkness and its retrofitted, stargazing-friendly light fixtures. Today, rangers host star parties and guided hikes, so be sure to check the park’s official calendar as you plan your trip.

You can sleep under the stars at one of three developed campgrounds—Mammoth Cave, Maple Ferry, and Houchin Springs—or for an even bigger adventure, consider hoofing it to one of 13 designated backcountry sites. You’ll need a permit, which you can reserve online ahead of time. For a gentler stay, book one of the cute cottages at the Lodge at Mammoth Cave, which are nestled among the region’s hardwood forest.

Make the most of your time in Mammoth Cave: Book the star chamber lantern tour, where you'll be led by a ranger into a 198-foot-deep cave. You’ll spend 2.5 hours underground, where you may notice specks of light emanating from where sooted gypsum has broken off. They happen to look a lot like stars—hence the tour’s name.

Joshua Tree National Park in California

The milky way galaxy lights up the sky behind a rocky scape with trees in the foreground
Desert landscape at night with the Milky Way at Joshua Tree National Park, in California
Image: Schroptschop/Getty Images

Travelers looking to escape the bright lights of LA should head to Joshua Tree National Park, located around three hours west of the city. For Southern Californians, this 792,623-acre park is one of the easiest places to get unobstructed views of the night sky, which makes it perfect for a weekend getaway.

Joshua Tree has had the International Dark Sky Association’s stamp of approval since 2017. Whether you stay in nearby Palm Springs (about a 45-minute drive from the park’s entrance) or reserve one of the 500 campsites located inside the park, you’ll be able looking up at the cosmos without light pollution getting in the way. (And if you are determined to sleep under the stars, try to snag a spot at Cottonwood Campgrounds, which tends to have the darkest skies.)

For help getting the most out of your cosmological experience, book an outing with outfitters like Sky Watcher or Addicted2Wonder Stargazing Joshua Tree. If the timing of your trip aligns, also be sure to visit Sky’s The Limit Observatory and Nature Center, which runs public night sky events one Saturday a month around the time of the new moon.

How to time your Joshua Tree trip: Consider planning your trip for the middle of October. That’s when a rare annular solar eclipse—during which the moon covers up most of the sun, leaving only a thin ring of light visible—will be visible from Joshua Tree and the surrounding area. This year, the eclipse lines up with the park’s annual Night Sky Festival, slated for October 13–14.

Big Bend National Park in Texas

Located in the far southwest corner of Texas, Big Bend National Park is far from the big-city lights of Houston, Dallas, and Austin. This public land—which spans 801,163 acres—has the least light pollution of any national park in the contiguous United States and has been an International Dark Sky Park since 2012. And, as a result, rangers here take stargazing seriously. They organize an array of free programs, from guided moonlight walks to star parties—bookmark the calendar to circle back ahead of your trip.

For even more views of the Milky Way, head to nearby Big Bend Ranch State Park. It became an International Dark Sky Park in 2017 and offers 355,000 additional acres of light pollution-free wilderness to enjoy.

Find a creative way to bunk in Big Bend: Book a stargazing dome at the Summit at Big Bend glamping resort. The domes have glass ceilings for marveling at the cosmos from the king-sized bed, as well as a fire pit for staying warm if you prefer to be outdoors. If you’re traveling with a crew, the property also has other options—including luxury cave hotel rooms.

Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve in Colorado

Darkened sand dunes sit in the foreground of a starry night sky
The Milky Way above the dunes at Great Sand Dunes National Park, in Colorado
Image: Patrick Myers/Courtesy of NPS

Great Sand Dunes National Park may be best known for its massive, wind-swept dunes—which are the tallest in North America. But this public land, located in southern Colorado, is also one of the best places to see thousands of stars at once.

Why so dark? For starters, the park is far from big cities—Denver and Albuquerque are both approximately 230 miles away (in opposite directions). But the surrounding geography and climate also help. The nearby Sangre de Cristo and San Juan mountains block out any lingering light pollution from nearby towns. The park’s elevation—which ranges from 7,520 to 13,604 feet above sea level, coupled with its dry air, also helps make its night skies especially clear.

Wandering out onto the dunes under the cover of darkness by yourself is one of the most surreal ways to experience the night sky—just make sure you drop a pin on your phone’s map app where you parked your car, as it's easy to get turned around in this environment. If you prefer a little guidance, the folks at Kaiyote Tours can lead you out onto the sand and teach you about the constellations.

Travelers say: “I HIGHLY recommend coming here when there is supposed to [be] no moon and a clear night, because you can see the Milky Way. I'm no expert stargazer, but I went into the park at about 5:00 a.m. Sunday morning and you could see the bright galactic center of the Milky Way. I also saw three shooting stars.” —@ambowen720

Kick up your experience at Great Sand Dunes: Try to keep talking to a minimum at Great Sand Dunes. You’ll likely hear nocturnal animals such as owls, coyotes, crickets, and kangaroo rats. And don’t fret if it starts raining—look for salamanders, toads, and frogs, which tend to come out during downpours (as long as there’s no lightning, the dunes are safe in the rain).

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Sarah Kuta
Sarah Kuta is a writer and editor based in Colorado who specializes in travel, food and drink, science, history, and more. Her work has appeared in Conde Nast Traveler, Robb Report, Food & Wine, NBC News, Lonely Planet, Smithsonian Magazine, the Denver Post, 5280 Magazine, the Toronto Star, and many other publications. When she's not writing, she's probably skiing, birdwatching, road tripping in her converted camper van, hiking with her dog Daisy, mountain biking, or checking out craft breweries.