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Where to see the Milky Way in the Southwest

Panorama Milky way at  Big Bend National park, Texas USA. Constellation and galaxy Texas' Big Bend National Park and Big Bend Ranch State Park are excellent places to see the Milky Way. | Photo by Wisanuboonrawd / Adobe Stock Photo

The Southwest is home to some of the darkest skies in the United States. How dark? To measure the quality of dark skies in a particular location, amateur astronomers often use the nine-level Bortle scale. Class 1 skies are darkest, while Class 9 are the most light-polluted. The Milky Way is generally visible in skies with a rating of 1, 2, or 3. Here are eight sites with Bortle ratings of 3 or less.

You can stargaze any time of the year, but views are best when there’s little or no moonlight. The Milky Way is best visible from late spring to early autumn; summer is ideal. Enjoy these eight great places to gaze up in wonder.

1. Big Bend National Park and Big Bend Ranch State Park, Texas.

These parks are home to some of the darkest skies in the continental U.S. At press time, overnight camping was prohibited due to the pandemic.

Bortle class:

2. Enchanted Rock State Natural Area, Texas 

Enjoy a day of hiking, rock climbing, or picnicking in the Hill Country, and then stay for one of Enchanted Rock’s star parties.

Bortle class:

3. South Llano River State Park, Texas

Spend the day floating the Llano River and the night gazing at stars.

Bortle class:

4. Devils River State Natural Area, Texas

The International Dark-Sky Association named this remote area the first International Dark Sky Sanctuary in the state and only the sixth in the world. Overnight stays require planning; campsites are primitive.

Bortle class:

5. Copper Breaks State Park, Texas

Along with Enchanted Rock, Copper Breaks was the first certified International Dark Sky Park in Texas.

Bortle class:

6. Gila National Forest, New Mexico

Cosmic Campground, is an International Dark Sky Sanctuary, designed for stargazers. Light pollution is strictly forbidden. The Cosmic Campground is currently closed due to Covid-19 safety measures. Check website for opening dates.

Bortle class: 1-2

A view of the Milky Way in Canyonlands National Park, Utah

A view of the Milky Way in Canyonlands National Park, Utah. | Photo by Kris Wiktor

7. Canyonlands National Park, Utah

One of three areas where scientists believe the Milky Way will still be visible by 2025. Canyonlands offers some of the darkest skies in the continental U.S., as well as regular stargazing events.

Bortle class: 1-3 

8. Cedar Breaks National Monument, Utah

A hub for astrotourism, Cedar Breaks is an International Dark Sky Park that emphasizes education and outreach.

Bortle class: 2-3 

Sivani Babu is an award-winning nature photographer and travel writer. She is the cofounder and creative director of digital travel magazine Hidden Compass.

AAA Travel Alert: Many travel destinations have implemented COVID-19–related restrictions. Before making travel plans, check to see if hotels, attractions, cruise lines, tour operators, restaurants, and local authorities have issued health and safety-related restrictions or entry requirements. The local tourism board is a good resource for updated information.

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