- New Mexico
In absolute darkness, gazing up at the brilliance of the universe can be a humbling, enlightening experience.
Yet the volume and intensity of most major cities’ lights make worthwhile stargazing difficult, if not nearly impossible. Here are five U.S. locales, from a tropical island to the arctic wilds, where dark skies and vast star fields await your inner astronomer.
Mauna Kea, Hawaii
On the Big Island, as the island of Hawaii is known in the Pacific Ocean state of Hawaii, the 4,207-meter summit of dormant volcano Mauna Kea is virtually free of light pollution and crowned with one of the planet’s premier observatories. It’s also the only place in the U.S. you can see the entire Southern Cross constellation. Your destination will be the Maunakea Visitor Information Station at the volcano’s 2,800-meter level. This facility offers a nightly Star Gazing Program that includes peering through public telescopes.
View of the night sky from the Maunakea Visitor Information Station.
Chaco Culture National Historical Park, New Mexico
At this desert archaeological park, located 243 kilometers by car from Albuquerque, New Mexico, you’ll marvel at brilliant constellations, planets and galaxies amid pure darkness, as the site’s Ancestral Puebloan people did 1,000 years ago. Many of the Chaco civilization’s stone buildings were constructed to align with solar and lunar cycles, giving today’s impressive ruins an astronomical tie to the prehistoric past. Evening Night Sky Programs include a peek through the small Chaco Observatory’s 635-millimeter telescope.
A starry backdrop lights up ancient ruins from the Chaco civilization.
Denali National Park & Preserve, Alaska
The park’s wild, isolated location, 386 kilometers north of Anchorage, Alaska, makes it a fine stargazing spot. But it’s Denali‘s high latitude that earns it a well-deserved reputation as a stellar place to view the aurora borealis, also known as the northern lights. The colorful phenomenon — curtains of green, red, blue and violet light waving across the night sky — occurs when solar winds mingle with Earth’s magnetic fields and atmosphere to put on a dazzling spectacle.
Plan your visit between September and April, when darkness abounds and auroral activity is more frequent, and make sure to pack warm layers.
The northern lights as seen from Denali National Park & Preserve.
Death Valley National Park, California
Famed for its fantastic geology and extreme heat, Death Valley also boasts some of the country’s darkest skies courtesy of a remote desert location near the border of Western states California and Nevada. About 193 kilometers from the casino lights of Las Vegas, you’ll find an expansive horizon and a sky typically clear of clouds.
Travelers can lodge at one of the park’s two small tourist developments, Furnace Creek or Stovepipe Wells, but should drive to dark spots like the Badwater Basin or Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes for the best stargazing. From October through April, join a park ranger-guided Moon & Star Program.
Cherry Springs State Park, Pennsylvania
A mere 293 kilometers from the big-city lights of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, exceptional darkness and a dome of stars envelop this wooded wilderness perched at an elevation of 700 meters. A clearing among the park’s namesake cherry trees, the Astronomy Observation Field attracts telescope-toting star watchers from all over the Eastern U.S. Registration and a fee are necessary to access the field, but the Night Sky Viewing Area, opposite from the field, requires neither. In optimum viewing conditions, the Milky Way galaxy shines so bright as to cast your shadow on the ground. Meteor showers, such as the Perseids in August, and the park’s popular events draw large crowds.
The fluorescent Milky Way as seen from Cherry Springs State Park.