Best Places to Stargaze in Our National Parks
Thanks to light pollution and smog, 90% of the world’s population can no longer see the Milky Way, making our national parks celestial preserves. Next time you go camping, pack a pair of binoculars and enjoy the greatest show on earth.
Photo By: BRYCE R. BRADFORD
Photo By: Diana Robinson
Photo By: Picasa
To the Bridge, Spock
Utah’s Natural Bridges National Monument already has a height advantage, rising 6,500 feet above sea level on Cedar Mesa. The rocky catwalks not only bring you closer to the stars, they carry the distinction of being in the first national monument to be certified by the International Dark-Sky Association, an organization that aims to curb light pollution and preserve our celestial views (sort of like a non-profit dimmer switch).
Park Rangers at Southern Utah’s Bryce Canyon take their stargazing seriously. They are tasked with protecting the area’s incredible natural darkness for the 100+ astronomy programs that operate every year within the park. How dark is it? It’s so dark that Venus and Jupiter are bright enough to cast your shadow on the canyon floor. For maximum cosmological majesty, plan your trip around the Annual Astronomy Festival in early June.
Just beyond the reach of L.A.’s ring of smog and neon, Joshua Tree National Park is Southern California’s personal planetarium. Winter solstice offers the longest night of the year and best star gawking opportunity. Weave your way through the desert hippie caravans and gaze deeply into the turquoise buckle of Orion’s belt.
Temple of Stars
While perhaps not an obvious choice, Zion National Park in Utah rewards the patient star seeker with some stellar views of the Milky Way. With its towering sandstone cliffs and peculiar rock formations, there’s always something to see in Zion if you look up, even on a moonlit night. Just stay to the paths.
The Western Sky
California’s Yosemite National Park is a popular destination for amateur astronomers who tend to gather at Glacier Point between June and August. Ask politely and they may let you peep through their impressively large telescopes. If you’re looking for a guided star voyage, astronomy walks are offered in Yosemite Valley, Tuolumne Meadows, and Wawona. DIY-ers can download an app like GoSkyWatch and plot their own trip through the night sky.
A Star is Born
Utah’s Arches National Park is one of the most arresting and photographed landscapes in the world, but at nightfall it becomes a darkened theater for the big cosmic revue overhead. Campers extinguish fires and recline their lawn chairs to take in the great celestial spray of the Milky Way as it bends from horizon to horizon, upstaged only by the occasional streaking meteor.
Sea of Darkness
If you really want to get away from the city lights, head for the improbably named Dry Tortugas National Park, which is actually a string of seven small islands in the Gulf of Mexico. Go native and camp on the beach for some all-night sky watching. The only non-celestial light you’ll see is the intermittent flashing from the lighthouse on Loggerhead Key.
Party With the Stars
Arizona’s Grand Canyon offers one of the best views of the night sky in the U.S. The Tucson Amateur Astronomy Association throws star parties on the canyon’s South Rim, while the Saguaro Astronomy Club of Phoenix hosts competing events on the North Rim. Whichever bash you choose, make sure you dress warmly and look down from time to time. That first step is a doozy.