With over 60 international dark sky parks/sanctuaries/reserves in the United States, there’s not a lack of stargazing areas. The issue some may find is that many of these areas are located in the southwest region. The dark areas elsewhere are scattered throughout the country and none may be close to home. The good news is that if you’re looking for the best place to stargaze near you, the United States has a huge number of amazing places!
A large number of our National Parks have skies dark enough to see the Milky Way. If viewing our enormous galaxy is what you’re after, you’ll want seriously dark skies. The following places all offer conditions that favor viewing this spectacular sight.
Before we get to the list, let me answer a question many have about stargazing and seeing the Milky Way.
When is the best time to see the Milky Way?
The answer to this differs slightly based on where you are located in the United States. In the southern half, around a latitude of 40 degrees N, your best bet for seeing the Milky Way will be in the early morning from February to June, or in the evening from July to mid November.
Now if you’re North a bit, around a latitude of 50 degrees N (towards the border of the US and Canada), your viewing season gets a little complicated. Essentially, you have two viewing seasons, as the summer solstice creates light pollution that keeps the sky too light to view the Milky Way. The end of February to the start of June allows for early morning stargazing, ranging in times from 1 AM to 4:30 AM. Then from June to about the 1st week of July, your viewing season will be interrupted by the summer solstice. It’ll pick back up in mid July with early morning viewing again, and the end of July into early October with evening being the best times to spot it. In the North, the Milky Way is not visible from approximately the 2nd week of October to most of the way through February.
Any farther North than 50 degrees latitude, and the short nights become a viewing issue, and the Milky Way won’t even rise all the way above the horizon.
Best place to see the Milky Way?
The best places to see the Milky Way are areas with minimal light pollution. You can use a dark sky map, like Dark Site Finder, to check for dark places near you. The very darkest skies in the United States can be found in our dark sky parks, but these parks are not always conveniently located. The places in this list, which I will update regularly, are scattered across the country with the hopes of helping more and more people find viewing areas near them.
Best Places to Stargaze
Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Tree National Park in California has allowed many their first sighting of the Milky Way.
In December, the sun sets as early as 4:30PM with dark skies by 5. If you happen to be lucky enough to camp during the winter solstice, you’ll get the longest night of the year to stargaze!
According to the park, the absolute best stargazing is on a moonless summer night. They also offer some fun ranger led programs related to the night sky, check out their event calendar for upcoming opportunities
Stargaze at Crater Lake National Park
Along with it’s isolated location and surrounding wilderness, Crater Lake’s elevation lends a helping hand in creating the perfect landscape for stargazing. On a moonless night, you can see planets, satellites, and of course, the Milky Way.
The sunsets at Crater Lake, the deepest lake in the US, are magical. Spending an evening watching the sunset and the skies turn into a stargazers dream sounds like a great night doesn’t it?
Saguaro National Park
The Sonoran Desert. Over 100,000 square miles of the hottest and most bio-diverse desert in North America. This is only place in the world that the magnificent saguaro cactus grows. They can grow to about 40 feet tall and create an aesthetic foreground for stargazing.
You can walk or bike into the park at any time, but it only open to vehicles from sunrise to sunset in the west district, and from 6am to sunset in the east district. Aside from entering on bike or foot to stargaze, you can also wilderness camp. You’ll need to get a permit to camp in the backcountry here, but it’s super affordable at $8 per campsite per night.
Oracle State Park is a nearby alternative to Saguaro National Park.
Grand Canyon National Park
Thanks to low humidity and high elevation, the Grand Canyon has many clear, cloudless nights that make stargazing here a dream. The milky way seems so close here, and it’s so bright, it can cast your shadow onto the ground.
The south rim is a great spot to view the Milky Way, but almost anywhere in the park will grant you awesome sights of the night sky.
Big Bend National Park
Big Bend National Park in Texas is one of the countries dark sky parks. I had to include it in this list because of how stunning the scenery is, day or night! During the day, you can have views like this one, over the Rio Grande River. In some places in the park, you can see all the way to Mexico!
The beauty here doesn’t end when the sun goes down. In fact, some may argue that they get even better. Big Bend has the darkest skies of any of dark sky parks in the lower 48 states. Due in part to it’s isolated location away from cities, towns, and people, this is arguably one of the absolute best places to stargaze in the United States.
Hot tip, Winter is the best time to stargaze here!
Located at Natural Bridges National Monument in Utah, the Owachomo Bridge is a picturesque place to stargaze and photograph the night sky.
Natural Bridges has made it their mission to protect the dark sky and to educate others on light pollution and ways they can help to preserve our dark skies.
Fairyland Canyon Utah
The Fairylands offer not only a spectacular view of the night sky, but scenic surroundings to enjoy before the light disappears completely. You can access this area by hiking the Fairyland Loop Trail. This is the most quiet, under-used trail in Bryce Canyon National Park.
On a clear, moonless night, you can see up to 7,500 stars and view the Milky Way all the way across the sky. Here, even a couple planets are bright enough to cast a shadow.
Hovenweep National Monument
With open skies that remain almost as dark as they were 800 years ago, Hovenweep National Monument on the border of Colorada and Utah, is the perfect place to stargaze. In the right conditions, you can expect to see up to 15,000 stars!
Hovenweep trails are open from sunrise to sunset, but you can enjoy the stars from the visitor center area or from the campgrounds.
Almost anywhere along Lake Superior
The southern shore of Lake Superior has a never-ending list of great places to view the night sky. Miles of uninterrupted lake/sky view creates the perfect scene for sighting a sky full of stars.
Lake Shore Trail is a ~40 mile trail along the shore of the lake. Anywhere along this trail will provide you with the setting you need for a night of stargazing. Be sure to check out my post, Hikes to See the Northern Lights in Michigan, for more great locations.
Looking over the lake to the north east, or to Canada, you’ll be able to see thousands and thousands of stars, thanks to the far away cities. This area is also a place where you can spot the northern lights with some frequency.
Valentine Nebraska Star Party
Home of the scenic Niobrara River, Valentine, Nebraska hosts a star party each year for fellow stargazers to enjoy the night sky. Their ~20 acre viewing field has plenty of room to settle in for a long night of stargazing pleasure. The hosts have been doing this a long time, 2020 is the 28th year, so rest assured you’ll have a great time.
Dark and open skies give way to more stars than you’ll see in urban areas, the Milky Way is bright here. According to the Nebraska Star Party website, the Northern Lights have even been sighted here!
More of the Best Places to Stargaze
Cherry Springs State Park, Pennsylvania
Big Cyprus National Preserve, Florida
Stephen C Foster State Park, Georgia
Buffalo National River, Arkansas
Lake Sugema, Iowa
Black Mesa State Park, Oklahoma
Spruce Knob, West Virginia. The darkest site in the eastern most US
Brockway Mountain, Michigan
Assateague Island National Seashore, Maryland