Panorama Milky Way rises over the dam in Thailand.
Panorama Milky Way rises over the dam in Thailand. (GOLF3530/ThinkStock)

The Darkest Parks in the U.S.

Summer nights are worth staying up for at these 7 dark-sky parks

Panorama Milky Way rises over the dam in Thailand.

Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.

Just like clean air and water, dark night skies are a diminishing
resource. The culprits: unshielded, excessive, or poorly aimed outdoor
artificial lights. The good news is that the International Dark-Sky
(IDA), a nonprofit organization, has stepped in to boost
conservation efforts.

In 2007, the IDA began designating
International Dark Sky Parks, or exceptionally dark sites surrounded by
communities dedicated to preserving them. This makes for epic
stargazing. According to the IDA, while you may see around 500 stars in
your moderately light-polluted backyard, Dark Sky Parks often boast more
than 5,000. 

There are 11 Dark Sky Parks in the United
States; seven have been designated as “gold tier” parks, the
highest possible rating, based on a comprehensive technical scale that
considers things like artificial light, skyglow, and observable sky
phenomena. Best of all, each place stands alone, offering unique
opportunities for both daytime exploring and nighttime awe. So pack up
your car and head to one of these starry-skied destinations.

Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah

This monument was the first in the world to
receive Dark Sky Park status in 2007. Featuring three steam-carved
bridges and Anasazi ruins, it also boasts zero light pollution and so
many stars that it took one amateur astronomer more than two minutes to
find the Big Dipper when he first arrived on site.

For an ideal
viewing spot, head to the Owachomo Bridge trailhead—it’s the
easiest path to navigate in the dark—and sit on the mesa to watch
the Milky Way rise over the bridge. Or catch the Perseids meteor shower
in mid-August.

Stay: Pitch a
tent in one of the monument’s first-come, first-served campsites,
or head to Blanding, about 35 miles away, the nearest town with a
smattering of hotels and restaurants.

Cherry Springs State Park, Pennsylvania

(Cherry Springs State Park.

If you just want to
set up a blanket and ogle the stars for a couple hours, park in the
public night-sky viewing area and follow the footpath to the observation
field. Interested in an all-nighter? The Astronomy Field, for serious
stargazers, is an area to set up telescopes and camping gear. For a
party with hundreds of like-minded friends, register for the Cherry Springs Star
in late June, a multiday star

Stay: If
you’re not into sleeping under the stars in one of the
park’s primitive sites, head to nearby Coudersport, about 15 miles
away, for modern hotels and B&Bs.

Clayton Lake
State Park, New Mexico

Situated on the rolling prairie, this park offers the unique opportunity of gazing at
the stars on a “dinosaur freeway.” Trails lead to more than
500 dinosaur footprints dating back to the Cretaceous period. Everywhere
on the west side of the park has low light pollution, ideal for
stargazing. For a closer look at the night sky, check out the Star Point
Observatory, which features a roll-off roof and a 12-inch computerized

Stay: Camp in the
park (there are even hot showers), or head to nearby Clayton, 12 miles
south, which offers everything from mom-and-pop hotels to the historic

Big Bend National Park, Texas

(this park puts you that much closer to the Southern
Hemisphere. In excellent viewing conditions, you’re likely to see
two or three stars in the Southern Cross.

Visitors often make it a
joint affair: Before heading toward the park’s expansive night sky
and unique desert and mountain terrain, visit McDonald Observatory a
couple of hours north. There you’ll find one of the world’s
largest optical telescopes, which has revealed distant galaxies and
black holes.

Stay: The Chisos Mountains
, in the heart of the park, offers hotel rooms, cottages,
and a restaurant.  

Death Valley National
Park, California

This 3.4 million-acre park—the largest IDA
park in the United States—has drawn an increasing number of
stargazers in recent months thanks to its low, dry, and dark
location. Although the best conditions are in winter, when
there’s no haze seeping in from Los Angeles, the stargazing is
fantastic year-round. Ideal spots include the Racetrack or the Ubehebe
Crater. For a truly dazzling experience, head to the remote Saline
Valley Warm Springs, about five hours from the main part of the park
(check road conditions), where you can turn your eyes skyward while

Stay: No need to
leave the park for food or lodging—several campgrounds and lodges
offer a wide range of options.

Chaco Culture
National Historical Park, New Mexico

At the end of a dirt road, 90 minutes from
the town of Cuba in northwestern New Mexico, sits the remote Chaco Canyon. Visitors stargaze among ruins from the
ancestral Pueblo people. Don’t miss the presentation about
archeoastronomy—a discipline that marries archeology and astronomy
and sheds light on how ancient astronomers viewed the patterns of the
sun and moon. Since there are no trees for respite from the summer heat,
plan to make the trip in spring or

Stay: Visitors
aren’t allowed to enter the heart of the park after dark, so
it’s a good idea to stay in the campground, which has sites for
reserve or first-come, first-served.

National Monument, Arizona

Perched in northwestern Arizona and grazing the
edge of the Grand Canyon, this million-acre region, a recent
addition to the IDA list, is managed by the National Park Service and
the Bureau of Land Management. (It’s the first Dark Sky
designation for BLM land.)

The landscape ranges from low-level
Mojave Desert to mountains covered with ponderosa pines. The darkest
skies are located from the center of the park to the eastern Mount
Trumbull or Mount Logan areas, about 2.5 hours from the St. George
interagency office in Utah. It’s a good idea to stop in the office
en route for a map and to learn about road conditions. This is desolate
country. Pack spare tires, gas, and

Stay: Camping is
dispersed. The Bar 10
, in the heart of the monument, offers covered wagons and
dormitory-style lodge rooms.

Lead Photo: GOLF3530/ThinkStock