Best destinations for stargazing and astrotourism
For astronomers, the darkest skies provide the best entertainment. Planets, countless twinkling stars, and bright meteors are good reasons to look up. But witnessing cosmic wonders has become sacred due to the number of American skies affected by light pollution, which makes dark and clear evenings a challenge. So more of the galaxy’s geeks are gravitating towards destinations where constellation are the brightest.
“Like seeing endangered animals, people want to see the rare night sky,” says Alan Dyer, astronomy writer and photographer and producer of planetarium programs for the TELUS Spark Science Center in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. “Astrotourism is a growing part of the travel industry because people want to check incredible sites on their to-do list, like seeing the Northern Lights, a solar eclipse, or the Milky Way. They’re on par with the scenic wonders of the Earth.
A good starting point for planning a stargazing trip is to consult the International Dark Sky Association website for a list of certified dark areas, including national parks. The International Dark Sky Places Program (IDSP) is dedicated to the preservation and protection of dark places around the world. In 2022, there were 195 certified IDSPs worldwide, including 60 in the United States, including at least 17 national parks. Of course, visiting one of these areas on a clear night is important; so is the phase of the moon. A full moon creates its own version of light pollution, so try to time your trip a few days before, during and after a new moon to improve your viewing chances.
While the stars are guaranteed to be more visible at these certified dark sky locations, even without designation, there are places in the United States that put on brilliant night sky shows. Some of them are within driving distance of major US destinations, making them more accessible.
If astrotourism is on your agenda for 2022, this roundup of the best starry getaways in the US, including locations linked to the historic 1969 moon landing, will come in handy:
Located in the southwest corner of Colorado, Mesa Verde National Park features 600 ancient cliff dwellings and views of millions of stars and nighttime galaxies. In 2021, the park became the 100th certified international dark sky park. Sky sights can be seen from the park’s Morefield Campground and Far View Lodge, which also host ranger-led evening programs, including one on how the Ancestral Pueblo depended on the night sky for planting and harvesting crops and track wildlife habits. The dark sky can also be admired from viewpoints inside the park, including Geological, Mancos Valley and Montezuma Valley viewpoints.
The Glen Canyon National Recreation Area on Lake Powell, straddling Arizona and Utah, is home to one of the largest natural bridges in the world, the arch-shaped Rainbow Bridge National Monument. The monument is designated an International Dark Sky Sanctuary, the first of its kind in the National Park Service, for the quality of its naturally dark night sky and the cultural heritage of the site. Stargazing and exploring the night sky are allowed almost anywhere in the park. Stargazing programs led by park rangers are also offered in the summer.
Yosemite National Parkabout 170 miles east of San Francisco, offers constellation views at some of the region’s most popular stargazing sites, including Glacier Point, Sentinel Meadow, Olmstead Point, Washburn Point, and Cook’s Meadow.
From June to August, amateur astronomers set up telescopes at Glacier Point on Saturdays. The park also offers star programs such as Starry Night Skies Over Yosemite, a walking tour of Yosemite Valley to learn about the moon, the Milky Way galaxy, meteors, comets and more. and Glacier Point Starry Night Skies Over Yosemite, a bus tour. at Glacier Point where visitors are treated to an astronomy program under the stars. Moonbow is a seasonal program to search for rainbow phenomena that occur at night when light from the moon refracts in water droplets from the park’s waterfalls.
Anywhere in the United States
In 2001, Flagstaff, Arizona was recognized as the world’s first IDSP and has continued to wow visitors with its galaxy views ever since. “To get lost in the universe from the light and dark window of Flagstaff is a joy that doesn’t fade,” says Bonnie Stevens, executive director of the Flagstaff Dark Skies Coalition. Even before 2001, Flagstaff had impressive ties to space. Its lunar legacy includes serving as a training ground for Apollo astronauts such as Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin who walked on the moon in 1969. Scientists have transformed the landscape of northern Arizona into a recreation of the moon using explosives to create a simulated lunar surface in the ash fields near Sunset Crater. The artists also worked with scientists at Lowell Observatorywhich was established in Flagstaff in 1894, to create detailed lunar maps by observing the moon through Lowell telescopes.
Pro Tip: From September 22-24, Flagstaff, Arizona will hold its annual Star Party in Buffalo Park to celebrate the night sky.
The Lowell Observatory offers various tours throughout the year, as well as the Giovale Open Deck Observatory, which is a collection of six advanced telescopes that allow visitors to see the stars up close. There is also the Wupatki National Monument car park
north of Flagstaff off Highway 89, a popular viewing location as it has almost no
light pollution or obstructions to block moon sightings, and buffalo parklocated on McMillan Mesa northeast of downtown Flagstaff with 215 acres to see the planets with the San Francisco Peaks and Mount Elden in the background.
Fun fact: Lowell Observatory in Arizona is where the planet Pluto was discovered in 1930.
For more stars in Arizona, check out Mesa’s Astronomy Dinner Cruises on Canyon Lake with the Dolly Steamboat, as well as several stargazing sites in Tucson, including Spencer Observatory adjacent to Cat Mountain Lodge, offering private stargazing sessions with the 14-inch SCT Celestron Telescope; the Mt. Lemmon SkyCentera
9,000 foot high formation located in the Santa Catalina Mountains of Tucson; the
for nighttime stargazing programs and how Apollo astronauts visited the observatory, before their landing, to view the moon through the McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope; or visit the Sky Bar, a solar-powered café with free telescopes on its terrace.
Pro Tip: The Mt. Lemmon SkyCenter has the largest public telescope in the Southwest that allows visitors to view Saturn’s rings and spiral galaxies.
Idaho is the location of the only International Dark Sky Reserve in the United States it spans over 1,400 square miles from Ketchum/Sun Valley to Stanley, including land in Blaine, Custer, and Elmore counties and the Sawtooth National Recreation Area. It is the third largest of 12 such reserves in the world.
Idaho is also home to Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve, about 20 miles southwest of Arco. Apollo astronauts explored the region’s lava landscape and learned the basics of volcanic geology in preparation for trips to the moon.
Pro Tip: Visit Idaho’s International Dark Sky Preserve in August to see the Perseid meteor showers.
Stargazing is not limited to Western states. The Eastern Iowa Observatory and Learning Center at Palisades-Dows Preserve near Cedar Rapids has two permanent telescopes and several portable telescopes.
The John Glenn Astronomy Park outside of Columbus, Ohio is located under the dark skies of the Hocking Hills of Southeast Ohio and offers guided stargazing programs on clear Friday and Saturday nights from March through November.
Cape Lookout National Seashore is a 56-mile stretch of beaches that make up North Carolina’s eastern coastal islands, one of the world’s few remaining natural barrier island chains. In 2021, the site was certified as an International Dark Sky Park, the first dark sky location on the Atlantic Coast of the National Park System to be named.