Travel

7 of the best places to stargaze in the U.S.

Couple stargazing under the Milky Way on a rock

This Halloween, don’t be afraid of the dark—embrace it. Whether you’re an amateur astronomer or just looking to get lost among the stars, these places let you peer deeper into the cosmos. (And what’s scarier than contemplating your place in the universe?)

A view of the Milky Way at night in Cherry Springs State Park

1. Cherry Springs State Park, Pennsylvania

Dark skies are harder to find in the densely populated East than the more open West. Cherry Springs State Park offers some of the best, surrounded by dense forest and located high on the Allegheny Plateau. The International Dark-Sky Association designated it an International Dark Sky Park in 2008, a distinction earned by places that have "an exceptional or distinguished quality of starry nights and a nocturnal environment that is specifically protected."

AAA Diamond hotel pick:
Sherwood Motel | More Diamond hotels near Cherry Springs State Park

A night view of the sky above Enchanted Rock State Natural Area in Texas, with a couple stargazers

2. Enchanted Rock State Natural Area, Texas

Right in the middle of Texas, this International Dark Sky Park is less than a 2-hour drive from both Austin and San Antonio. The pink granite dome of Enchanted Rock itself is visible for miles during the day. Trails on the rock and other elevated areas close at night, but the stars can be seen from the rest of the pitch-dark park. 

AAA Diamond hotel pick:
Inn on Barons Creek | More Diamond hotels near Enchanted Rock

A sunrise above Buffalo National River with clouds lit red

3. Buffalo National River, Arkansas

America's first national river is the closest International Dark Sky Park not just for Arkansans, but also many people in Missouri, Kansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi. Winding for 135 miles through the Ozarks, the river offers pristine skies for almost its entire length, with plenty of campgrounds and limestone bluffs to stargaze from. Tyler Bend, just off Highway 65, is a popular viewing spot, while the small town of Jasper to the west should be avoided since it introduces some light pollution.

AAA Diamond hotel pick:
Best Western Hillside Inn | More Diamond hotels near Enchanted Rock

The Milky Way seen at night from Zabriskie Point in Death Valley National Park

4. Death Valley National Park, California

Most of the spots on this list fall at Class 2 or 3 on the Bortle scale, which ranks the brightness of the night sky on a scale of 1 to 9. Class 1 is as dark as possible and Class 9 is heavily light-polluted. Class 2 and Class 3 skies are extremely dark, but much of Death Valley enjoys a true Class 1 sky, thanks to its remote location in the Mojave Desert. These skies are so dark that the Milky Way can cast shadows.

There's great stargazing all over the park, but if you're looking to ensure a Class 1 experience, consider heading to Ubehebe Crater in the park's northern reaches.

AAA Diamond hotel pick:
The Inn at Death Valley | More Diamond hotels near Death Valley

A view of the night sky from Mauna Kea on the Big Island of Hawai‘i

5. Mauna Kea, Hawai‘i

It's no secret that this dormant volcano on the Big Island has great night skies—that's why its 13,800-foot summit is home to 13 telescopes, including some of the largest in the world. Since the summit is closed to the public at night, stargazers should head to the parking lot at the Maunakea Visitor Information Station at 9,200 feet. (The center itself is closed as of Sept. 17.)  Nighttime temperatures at this elevation can fall below freezing, so dress warmly.

AAA Diamond hotel pick:
Castle Hilo Hawaiian Hotel | More Diamond hotels near Mauna Kea

A dock on a lake under the Milky Way in the White Mountains of New Hampshire

6. The White Mountains, New Hampshire

Class 2 and 3 dark skies abound in the White Mountains, including at the summit of Mount Washington, the highest peak in the Northeast United States. If the forecast there isn't good (and it usually isn't—the Mount Washington Observatory's slogan is "Home of the World's Worst Weather"), pretty much anywhere away from the region's towns will do. Popular options include Crawford Notch State Park and the Pemigewasset Overlook on the Kancamagus Highway.

AAA Diamond hotel pick:
Holiday Inn Express Lincoln East | More Diamond hotels in the White Mountains

A sunset at James River State Park in Virginia

7. James River State Park, Virginia

As with much of the East Coast, it's difficult to find truly dark skies in Virginia. James River State Park is an International Dark Sky Park with a Class 3 sky—one of the darkest places you can go without leaving the state. The park is open for day use from dawn to dusk; to see the stars, you'll need to reserve a campground or cabin. Visit the official James River State Park website for details.

AAA Diamond hotel pick:
The Virginian Hotel | More Diamond hotels near James River State Park

Tips for stargazing

1. Check the weather forecast

The darkest skies in the world won't show you anything if clouds are blocking your view. Make sure the weather at your destination will be clear when you plan to visit. A few clouds won't ruin the experience, but much more than that and you may end up more frustrated than inspired. Look for an hourly forecast—evening clouds may break up later in the night.

Also check nighttime temperatures and dress accordingly, especially if you're going to a mountaintop or desert where temperatures can drop quickly.

2. Plan around the moon's phases

In a dark sky, the moon is bright enough to spoil your night vision. Even a half moon can obscure thousands of stars. For ideal viewing conditions, time your visit between the waning half moon (what astronomers call the "last quarter moon") and the new moon. The last quarter moon stays below the horizon until after midnight, and the new moon casts no light.

3. Protect your night vision (and others')

It can take half an hour or more for the naked eye to fully adjust to the dark, but only a few seconds of an errant flashlight or smartphone screen to wipe that out. If possible, bring a red LED flashlight or tape red cellophane over your smartphone light—red light doesn't spoil night vision. Otherwise, bring the dimmest lights you can, and be careful not to shine them at other stargazers.

4. Bring a star map and/or stargazing apps

Stargazing is a lot more fun when you know what you're looking at. Physical star charts are a tried and true way to navigate the sky, and you can download a free one from Skymaps.com, which offers a new guide each month. Apps like Sky Guide, Sky Walk 2, and many others offer a more interactive experience, allowing you to easily find constellations and other points of interest. (Many apps have a red-light mode to preserve your night vision.)

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