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Which US Dark Sky Park is right for you?

There are few sights as awe-inspiring as the night sky, with the cloudy band of the Milky Way and the planets shining overhead. While most people travel for daytime sightseeing or adventure experiences, there are plenty of reasons to plan extra time into your vacation to enjoy stargazing when the skies are clear.

The International Dark Sky Association (IDA) works with destinations around the world to certify the quality of their dark skies – and provides different levels of designation for the size and quality of darkness you’ll experience. All of these parks are certified dark sky places by the IDA. Based on what else drives you to explore the world, here’s how to choose the best one for you:

A person watching the Milky Way in Grand Canyon National Park
The Grand Canyon is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, at day or at night © Carlos Fernandez / Getty Images

Best for hiking

The Grand Canyon, Arizona

Hiking along the rim of the Grand Canyon, or down in its depths, is a bucket list-worthy adventure. It’s home to a variety of trails you can enjoy during the day, and once the sun sets you can spend your evenings attending organized astronomy events. There’s usually a variety of ranger talks, constellation tours, and star parties where local astronomers bring their telescopes to set up at the visitor centers on the north and south rim.

How to visit: There are three campgrounds, an RV campground, and a wide variety of accommodations available near both the north rim and south rim of the Grand Canyon. Reservations are required at least several weeks in advance.

Camping at cherry springs state park under the Milky Way.
Families will love the camping at Cherry Springs State Park under the Milky Way © Michael Ver Sprill / Lonely Planet

Best for families

Cherry Springs State Park, Pennsylvania

If young members of your family are interested in the night sky, Cherry Springs State Park in Coudersport, Pennsylvania is a great option. This state park is small at just 1.7 square miles but represents one of the best pockets of darkness near the east coast. It plays host to multiple programs on weekend nights, when park educators or guest speakers introduce the wonders of the night sky and natural world at night to all ages.

How to visit: Cherry Springs is about 4 hours from Pittsburgh, or 4.5 hours from Philadelphia. During the summer months, you can camp overnight at one of 30 sites in the park, but they fill up fast so make your reservation online before you go.

The Milky Way is seen in a dark sky above the stone arch of Rainbow Bridge National Monument
Rainbow Bridge National Monument is inaccessible without a backcountry permit © Ralph Ehoff / Getty Images

Best for solitude

Rainbow Bridge National Monument, Utah

Near one of the most sparsely populated areas in the contiguous United States, Rainbow Bridge National Monument is a certified Dark Sky Sanctuary. You’ll need to plan ahead to go stargazing: there are no roads where you’re going. The only way to reach the namesake rock formation is with a backcountry hiking permit administered by the neighboring Navajo Nation.

How to visit: Camping at Rainbow Bridge is not permitted – you’ll need to hike in to go stargazing and then hike back out to a designated campsite on Navajo Lands. It’s best to visit the Lake Powell Navajo Tribal Park office in Page, Arizona, and confirm where you can camp.

Night sky over gates of Lodore in Dinosaur National Monument
Dinosaur National Monument might be the only place in the country you can see fossils and starlight that are the same age © National Park Service / Cindy McIntyre

Best for amateur paleontologists

Dinosaur National Monument, Colorado and Utah

Spend the day exploring dinosaur fossils dating back 150 million years; at night, gaze at stars whose light has traveled the same amount of time. Straddling the border between Colorado and Utah, you can ponder the vast history of the universe through the geologic record that is so well-preserved in this park. There are also human petroglyphs for those who want to learn history that’s a little more modern.

How to visit: There are six campgrounds within Dinosaur National Monument; some are located within hiking distance of fossils or petroglyphs. More adventurous travelers can raft down the Green River from the Gates of Lodore campground; backcountry spots along the river are reserved for this, and are the most remote parts of the National Monument to ensure dark skies.

Silhouette of a girl and telescope with de-focused Milky Way stars.
Star parties, where astrotourism fans get together to look at the night sky, can be found across the country © m-gucci / Getty Images

Best for urban stargazing

Homer Glen, Illinois

It might seem like you’ve got to prepare for a multi-night journey to stargaze in the most remote parts of the country. In fact, there are dark sky places closer than you might think. Homer Glen is home to 25,000 people and only an hour from downtown Chicago. It’s certified as a Dark Sky Community, and hosts semi-regular stargazing events for residents and visitors alike.

How to visit: If you’re staying in Chicago, book a room at the historic Plaza Hotel. You’ll look out over Millennium Park and it’s an easy walk to the Adler Planetarium to learn more about the wonders of the universe.

Circumpolar star trails over the moonlit Mimbres Valley near Lake Roberts in the Gila National Forest, in southwest New Mexico.
Gila National Forest might be primitive, but it is a spectacular place to see stars © Alan Dyer / Stocktrek / Getty Images

Best for going off the grid

Cosmic Campground, New Mexico

If the idea of going off the grid is your ideal escape, there’s a dark sky park for that! Cosmic Campground was the first certified Dark Sky Sanctuary in the northern hemisphere. A sanctuary is usually very remote, with few (if any) nearby threats to its darkness. Because of its remoteness, it needs advocates. And the Sanctuary designation helps to get the word out.

Located under some of the darkest skies in the U.S. in western New Mexico’s Gila National Forest, Cosmic Campground is primitive: there are only pit toilets and no water or trash services at the campground, and you can only use red lights outside after dark. This commitment to living rough ensures all visitors enjoy the pristine night sky.

How to visit: Cosmic Campground currently has five campsites available for RVs, trailers, or tent camping on a first-come, first-served basis.

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