Six Great Stargazing Travel Destinations in the US

written by Julie Cohn

Looking for a unique travel experience for your family?   How about stargazing?  The very definition of travel is to explore new places, and what better place to explore than the stars and planets in our universe?  Here are six great stargazing travel destinations in the US, so you won’t need a rocket ship to travel to the stars! These beautiful state and national dark parks offer some of the darkest skies in the world, so your family can see the universe (including our Milky Way) in a whole new way.  Pack the kids in the car, grab a telescope and binoculars, and turn science into an adventure by going stargazing.

Photo by David Bradley

Photo by David Bradley M42 Orion Nebula

Six Great Stargazing Travel Destinations in the US

What do you see?

What do you see in your night sky?  If you live near a big city, probably not a lot.  Stargazing near cities can be difficult, as light pollution blocks out most of the night sky.  To truly see the night sky in all its glory, you need to be in an area with a 6.1 or greater on the Naked Eye Limiting Magnitude (NELM) scale, or a class 4 or lower on the Bortle scale, with 1 being the darkest you can find.   Large cities such as Los Angeles, New York City, and Chicago have Bortle scales of Class 9, but even smaller towns can have a lot of light pollution too, with Bortle scales of 5 or 6.  To get a true dark sky experience, you need to visit one of the parks that have been designated as dark sky parks by the International Dark Sky Association.  Experiencing the night sky from one of these parks with dark park stargazing will open your mind (and eyes) to a whole new world, where you may even be able to see the Milky Way, meteor showers, and other celestial events.
Photo by David Bradley Andromeda Galaxy

Photo by David Bradley Andromeda Galaxy

Where to See Dark Skies


 1. Cherry Springs State Park

One of the few places with dark park designation in eastern United States is Cherry Springs State Park in central Pennsylvania.  This park boasts no sky glow in any direction, so viewers can observe not only the moon and major constellations, but also many planets, stars, galaxies, and of course, the Milky Way.  The park offers astronomy programs several times a year, but you can visit the park on your own, with telescope in tow.
Photo by David Bradley California Nebula

Photo by David Bradley M33 Galaxy

2.  Headlands International Dark Park

The Headlands International Dark Park, in Mackinaw City, Michigan is one of the few dark parks in the Midwest.  It received a Silver Tier Dark Park rating in 2011, with an average Bortle scale of 3-5.  Although there is no camping allowed in the park, they do allow visitors to bring blankets and sleeping bags to sleep under the stars.  They offer dark park stargazing programs every month, with no cost to the public.

Photo by David Bradley California Nebula

Photo by David Bradley California Nebula

3. Big Bend National Park

Big Bend National Park, in western Texas, offers visitors spectacular views of the night sky.  With a Bortle scale of 1-2, it is one of the darkest areas of the United States.  In 2012, Big Bend received a Gold Tier Dark Park rating by the International Dark Sky Association, the second such rating in the whole country.   In addition to the gorgeous sky views, Big Bend is known for its geology and fossils, including some that date back 9,000 years.

Six Stargazing Travel Destinations in the US

Photo by David Bradley m45 Galaxy (The Pleiades)

4.  National Bridges National Monument

The first park to receive “dark park” designation (by the International Dark Sky Association) was the Natural Bridges National Monument, in southeastern Utah.  Natural Bridges is known for its colorful sandstone formations, including Sipapu, the second largest natural bridge in the world, so visitors get both gorgeous ground and sky views.  This park has a Bortle class of 1-2, making it the darkest park in the United States, with brilliant views of the Milky Way.

Six Stargazing Travel Destinations in the US 1

Photo by David Bradley The Milky Way

5. Death Valley National Park

Death Valley National Park in Nevada is the third darkest park in the United States.  Less than five hours from Los Angeles (Bortle class 9) star watchers have unlimited views of the night sky, boasting a Bortle class of 2-3.   The park offers sky programs and stargazing parties during the winter and spring, while the weather is still cool.  (Bonus: If you visit Death Valley in the early spring, you may also have a chance to see the rainbow of spring wildflowers that blanket the park.)

Six Stargazing Travel Destinations in the US 2

Photo by David Bradley M51 Galaxy

6. Goldendale Observatory

Goldendale Observatory Park in Washington State features one of the largest public telescopes in the country, a 24.5 inch custom-built Cassegrain-pattern reflector.  It is the only park in northwestern United States to receive a Dark Sky designation.  A silver rated dark park, viewers enjoy clear skies of 3-5 on the Bortle scale.  The park offers both day and evening telescope viewing programs.

Six Stargazing Travel Destinations in the US 3

Photo by David Bradley Aurora Borealis

There is always something happening in the sky above to show our children.  Super Novas, meteor showers, and other celestial events make stargazing fun and informative every time of year, and most of the dark sky parks offering stargazing parties, as do local astronomy clubs.

To find the light pollution level in your area, check out the Dark Sky Finder.   For up-to-date conditions by day, visit Clear Dark Sky.  For information on the International Dark Sky Association, visit their website.  Thank you to David Bradley of the Astronomy Section, Rochester Academy of Science (ASRAS) for the use of his gorgeous astrophotography.

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Tamara Gruber 10/20/2014 at 10:32 am

This has me rethinking where to go in UT when we head out west this summer as I have a budding astrophysicist! We were able to see the Milky Way when we were in Sunriver, OR last summer and it was an amazing experience.

Kelsey Apley 10/23/2014 at 9:55 am

Oh wow, these pictures are stunning! My sister loves stargazing, and I have went out and looked with her, and it is breathtaking when you get to take a closer look at the stars!

Kenin Bassart 10/25/2014 at 9:43 am

I just recently discovered the existence of “Dark Parks” and I can’t wait until we are close enough to check one out. Great Photos!


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