Even non-outdoorsy types can appreciate the natural wonder of the night sky. Few experiences inspire the awe, humility, and spirituality of staring up into the Milky Way on a crisp, clear night. However, most of us in America have never — or, worse, may never — truly see the night sky in our lifetime. To see the stars as our ancestors did requires an escape to somewhere remote, somewhere untouched by light pollution and civilization. These are the best campgrounds in the United States for stargazing.
- Death Valley National Park: Nevada and California
- Big Bend National Park: Texas
- Great Sand Dunes National Park: Colorado
- Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park: Montana and Alberta, Canada
- Cherry Springs State Park: Pennsylvania
- Craters of the Moon: Idaho
- Headlands International Dark Sky Park: Michigan
Among the best campgrounds in the U.S. for stargazing, Death Valley National Park is an easy pick. It’s well situated far from any major urban center in Nevada and California. The remarkably dry climate — humidity levels rarely rise above 10% in the summer months — guarantees crisp, clear air with little light distortion. The conditions are so perfect that it’s been rated a Gold Tier dark sky location, the International Dark-Sky Association’s (IDA) highest designation. The park boasts several first-come, first-served campgrounds. Unless you’re a hardcore backpacker who knows how to prepare, it’s best to visit in an air-conditioned RV. The hottest months can prove downright deadly with daytime temperatures topping 110 degrees (even at midnight). In fact, last August, the thermometer hit 130 degrees Fahrenheit, making it the hottest place on Earth.
There are swaths of uninhabited land strewn across Texas. So, it’s no surprise that the state is home to one of the largest and best destinations for stargazing. Big Bend National Park sits along the Rio Grande River on the border between Mexico and Texas. The sheer size and extreme southerly location make it one of the least-visited national parks in the country. Finding a campsite all to yourself isn’t hard. The lack of population, distance from nearby cities, and remarkably dry air year-round mean Big Bend’s skies are “among the darkest in North America,” according to the IDSA. Summer can be unbearably hot, but the park and its campgrounds are surprisingly comfortable throughout the rest of the year.
Sand dunes are typically a coastal thing, but southern Colorado is surprisingly home to the country’s tallest. Like others on this list, Great Sand Dunes National Park promises some of the best conditions for stargazing. That includes high elevation, dry air, and near-zero light pollution. What makes the park unique, however, is that it’s also one of the quietest places in the United States. After dark, the crystal clear skies combined with a silence most people have never “heard” make watching the stars here a surreal, even spiritual, experience. For the best weather, head to the park in the spring or fall for tent camping at Piñon Flats Campground.
Straddling the U.S.-Canada border, Waterton Glacier International Peace Park is one of North America’s only parks to span two countries. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a certified dark sky destination, thanks mainly to its extremely remote location. The southerly portion of Glacier National Park on the U.S. side is among the top 10 most visited in the country. But, thanks to its massive size, campers will have no problem finding a patch of front- or backcountry all to themselves. Because of its extreme northern geography, the weather can be harsh and unpredictable in all but summer. June through August is the best time to visit.
Some of the best (read darkest) areas of the country are tiny patches of land right under our noses. Most people have never heard of Pennsylvania’s Cherry Springs State Park, and that’s a very good thing. Visit almost any day of the week, and you’ll find few other campers on site. Thanks to its unique geography, it’s not only one of the darkest places in the eastern United States, but in the entire country. It was certified as the world’s second official dark sky park by the IDA. It’s perfectly situated far enough from any urban center, but still a relatively short drive from Boston (7.5 hours) and just six hours from Philadelphia, Baltimore, New York City, and Washington, D.C.
Idaho doesn’t get nearly the love it deserves. For nature and outdoor lovers, it’s one of the United States’ best-kept secrets. The otherworldly landscape of the state’s Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve provides the perfect backdrop for a week’s worth of stargazing. Visibility is often so good and light pollution so minimal that the IDSA recently granted it silver tier status. For a truly unique experience, check out the campsites at the aptly named Lava Flow Campground, where every site is surrounded by a young lava flow.
There’s no shortage of amazing, in-the-middle-of-nowhere camping opportunities in Michigan. Situated along the Straits of Mackinac, Headlands International Dark Sky Park might be one of the state’s best. The 600-acre old-growth forest is a place of pristine beauty and, if you time it right, few crowds. It was one of the world’s first officially designated International Dark Sky Parks, and it also happens to be among the best for catching the Northern Lights. Head to Wilderness State Park for the best nearby
If a road trip isn’t in your immediate future, check out the best national park virtual tours available online right now.
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