If you’re an astronomy lover, or simply want to see the incredible beauty of a star-filled night, then it’s time to plan a trip to Dark Sky Places in the U.S.
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What Is an International Dark Sky Place?
International Dark Sky Places are nearly 200 locations across the globe that are recognized not only for their exceptionally clear skies—unfettered by artificial light pollution—but also as locations where community or park leaders are dedicated to “excellent stewardship of the night sky.”
Designated International Dark Sky Places include International Dark Sky Communities, Parks, Sanctuaries, Reserves, and Urban Night Sky Places. Don’t worry too much about the terminology, because in all Dark Sky Places, you’re going to see a lot—and we mean a lot—of stars.
You’re going to mean it when you say you’re “sleeping under the stars” in a Dark Sky Place. The sky over these locations, on a clear night, will be like nothing you’ve seen before.
Where Can I Find Dark Sky Places?
Dark Sky Places are “land possessing an exceptional or distinguished quality of starry nights,” according to the International Dark-Sky Association, and you’re unlikely to find them near big, bright cities. Most of these spots are a little bit off the beaten path—places where you’ll want to stock up on supplies, settle into your campsite, and spend a while.
Ready to get planning? Here’s where you’ll find the best of Dark Sky Park camping in the U.S.:
Dark Sky Camping in Utah
It should come as no surprise that southern Utah has a wealth of dark sky camping at designated locations. It’s hard to imagine anything more beautiful than watching the Milky Way rise over Delicate Arch in Arches National Park or gazing at your favorite constellation from the remote Natural Bridges National Monument.
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Utah has both state parks and national parks that are designated as International Dark Sky Parks. The state has the highest concentration of Dark Sky locations of anywhere in the world. Here’s where you can camp in the state for optimal nighttime views:
- Antelope Island State Park
- Arches National Park
- Bryce Canyon National Park
- Canyonlands National Park
- Capitol Reef National Park
- Cedar Breaks National Monument
- Dead Horse Point State Park
- Dinosaur Monument National Park
- East Canyon State Park
- Fremont Indian State Park
- Goblin Valley State Park
- Goosenecks State Park
- Hovenweep National Monument
- Jordanelle State Park
- Kodachrome Basin State Park
- Natural Bridges National Monument
- Rockport State Park
- Steinaker State Park
- Zion National Park
Best Utah Campgrounds for Dark Sky Camping
Dark Sky Camping in Colorado
You need to get a bit off Highways 25 and 70 in Colorado to get to those pitch-black skies, but it’s worth the journey. From the quiet Four Corners to the stunningly deep gorges in the Black Canyon, you’ll find a diverse mix of landscapes in Colorado.
- Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
- Curecanti National Recreation Area
- Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument
- Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve
- Hovenweep National Monument
- Jackson Lake State Park
- Mesa Verde National Park
- Top of the Pines (tent camping only)
Best Colorado Campgrounds for Dark Sky Camping
Dark Sky Camping in California
California has a high population, but it has a lot of wide-open spaces, too. Set up camp at one of these three parks, and you’ll be guaranteed a starry show so bright that you’ll forget all about those far-off city lights.
Best California Campgrounds for Dark Sky Camping
Dark Sky Camping in Texas
We all know that Texas has some serious sky that feels a little bit larger-than-life—just like everything in Texas. If you’re looking for that perfect spot to name every constellation above, look no further than these destinations.
- Big Bend National Park
- Big Bend Ranch State Park
- Copper Breaks State Park
- Devils River State Natural Area
- Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park
- South Llano River State Park
Best Texas Campgrounds for Dark Sky Camping
Dark Sky Camping in Arizona
When you’re at the Grand Canyon, it’s tempting to spend your time looking down into the canyon’s beautiful layers, but once the sun goes down, be sure to look up. Grand Canyon National Park is just one of Arizona’s many designated Dark Sky Parks.
- Chiricahua National Monument
- Flagstaff Area National Monument
- Grand Canyon National Park
- Kartchner Caverns State Park
- Parashant National Monument
- Petrified Forest National Park
- Pipe Spring National Monument
- Tonto National Monument
- Tumacácori National Historical Park
Best Arizona Campgrounds for Dark Sky Camping
Dark Sky Camping in New Mexico
If you’ve never spent a night viewing the night sky above Chaco Culture National Historical Park, make your reservation asap. Tricky to get to and absolutely worth the trip, Chaco is a special place not only for the night sky but for the well-preserved dwellings that the park protects. The visitor center even offers stargazing programs and star parties.
Another dark sky location in New Mexico is El Morro National Monument, a short drive off Highway 40 between Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Flagstaff, Arizona (also a Dark Sky Community), which offers unobstructed views of the sky.
The state is also home to the only Dark Sky Sanctuary located on national forest land, in the Gila National Forest, the aptly named Cosmic Campground. Spend the night here stargazing or join a “star party.”
Other dark sky designations in the Land of Enchantment include:
- Capulin Volcano National Monument
- Clayton Lake State Park
- Fort Union National Monument
- Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument
- Valles Caldera National Preserve
Best New Mexico Campgrounds for Dark Sky Camping
Dark Sky Camping in Idaho
Central Idaho was recently named an International Dark Sky Reserve, one of only 20 locations in the world. Make your way to the adventurous mountain town of Stanley to be in the center of one of the darkest skies in the country.
About 2 hours south of Stanley, you’ll find another Dark Sky Park, Craters of the Moon National Monument. This lava-filled landscape will have you not sure whether to look up or down. Also in Idaho is Harry L. Swartz Campground at the Middle Fork River Forest Preserve, a Dark Sky Park.
Dark Sky Camping in Nevada
You won’t drive past Great Basin National Park by accident; you’ll need to seek it out. During the day, you can explore the park’s ancient bristlecone pines and hike in the South Snake Mountains, and at night you can gaze up above. Massacre Rim is a wildlife study area located in Northwest Nevada and is designated as a Dark Sky Sanctuary—dispersed camping is allowed on adjacent Bureau of Land Management lands along Route 34 and 8A.
Dark Sky Camping in Oklahoma
Clayton Lake State Park is a Dark Sky Park located an easy drive from Dallas, Texas; Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; and Shreveport, Louisiana. This 500-acre state park has hardwood forests, an 80-acre lake, and plenty of camping for a weekend of dark skies.
Dark Sky Camping in the Midwest
See the northern lights at Headlands International Dark Sky Park or paddle under the stars at Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness—for camping head to Superior National Forest.
Other Midwestern Dark Sky Parks include the uncrowded Voyageurs National Park and lakeside Newport State Park (hike-in only) and Keweenaw Dark Sky Park. Ohio’s Geauga Observatory Park is worth a visit with nearby camping in the Cuyahoga River watershed.
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Dark Sky Camping on the East Coast
East Coasters, don’t you dare think that we forgot about you. Dark Sky Parks are a little harder to come by in the populated East, but they definitely exist and are worth checking out.
In Florida, make your way to Big Cypress National Preserve, just north of Everglades National Park, to get a different type of stargazing than watching for the glitterati on the Miami Beach boardwalk. In Southcentral Florida, Kissimmee Prairie Preserve Park is known for its spectacular stargazing and birdwatching.
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In Georgia, Stephen C. Foster State Park is an island park inside the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. Hike through trees laced with Spanish moss, paddle through the Okefenokee Swamp, and snag a campsite to watch the stars and planets blink to life at night.
In Tennessee, Pickett CCC Memorial State Park honors the history of the Civilian Conservation Corps and was the first park in the Southeast to be designated as a Dark Sky Park. Also in Tennessee is the Obed Wild and Scenic River (tent camping only).
North Carolina’s Cape Lookout National Seashore is a designated Dark Sky Park. Also in the state is the Mayland Earth to Sky Park & Bare Dark Sky Observatory in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Planning a Blue Ridge Parkway Road Trip
In central Virginia, both James River State Park and Staunton River State Park are a haven for dark skywatchers, and both offer on-site RV parks. About 1 hour from Washington, D.C., you’ll find a Dark Sky Park at Sky Meadows State Park (hike-in camping only).
Maine’s Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument is a Dark Sky Sanctuary offering activities in the forest, river, and trails.
Last, but most certainly not least, Cherry Springs State Park in Pennsylvania has earned a reputation as one of the darkest night skies on the Eastern Seaboard, so bring your telescope to check out planets, nebulae, and other astronomical wonders.
Want even more? To see a full list of Dark Sky Places and to learn more about Dark Sky Parks, Reserves, Communities, and International Dark Sky Sanctuaries in the U.S., visit the International Dark-Sky Association’s website.