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The Best National Parks in the US for Stargazing

“Half the park is after dark,” the saying goes, but we’re here to say—just half?

Grand Canyon National Park with starry night skies
Hi, I'm Jacqueline!

Jacqueline Kehoe is a freelance writer and photographer with work seen in National Geographic, Thrillist, Travel + Leisure, and more. Find her out on the trails or at jacquelinekehoe.com.

Once night falls, our national parks completely transform: crowds disappear, trails silence, wildlife awaken, and the starry, milky sky becomes a panoramic vista rivaling the wilderness at our feet. Whether or not night hiking has made it onto your outdoor radar—and if it hasn’t, it should—extend your “dark park adventures” to include looking up. Given that 80 percent of Americans can’t see the Milky Way at home, these protected spots are our best chance to be dazzled by the universe beyond our blue dot. And at the national parks below, the view is, dare we say, truly stellar.

1. Death Valley National Park

Stars illuminate the sky at Death Valley National Park.
Death Valley has some of the US' most otherworldly night skies—literally.Photo Credit: Dixon Pictures / Shutterstock

California and Nevada

The skies above Death Valley are so dark that the International Dark-Sky Association has awarded the park its highest designation: gold tier. Here, you’ll get views like almost nowhere else in the country—quite literally to other galaxies.

Anywhere in Death Valley (away from lodges and major roads) will provide excellent stargazing opportunities, but the darkest of dark skies are deeper into the park, at spots such as Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Harmony Borax Works, Ubehebe Crater, and Badwater Basin. What’s more, days in Death Valley can be scorching—there’s a reason so many of the park’s critters come out at night—making night hiking and stargazing a great way to spend more time there.

Insider tip: Arrange a custom stargazing trip and let someone else worry about the astrophotography—and the driving.

2. Grand Canyon National Park

Stars illuminate the sky at Grand Canyon National Park.
Grand Canyon National Park is one of the country's most essential stargazing spots.Photo Credit: Rigel V / Shutterstock

Arizona

A dark sky park as of 2016, Grand Canyon National Park stargazing is a hard-to-grasp, visceral experience. Once night falls, entire worlds unfurl both above and beneath your feet. Stars rise and fall out of the canyon’s dark depths, and you float somewhere in the middle of it all.

From the popular and more accessible South Rim, Moran Point and Lipan Point are the places to be to commune with the heavens. If you happen to be on the higher, more remote North Rim, Bright Angel Point—the quarter-mile trail to the overlook is paved—will be heavenly, indeed.

3. Denali National Park and Reserve

The Northern lights illuminate the sky at Denali National Park.
Seeing the northern lights is a highlight of a night stargazing in Denali National Park.Photo Credit: FloridaStock / Shutterstock

Alaska

Summer is far and away Denali’s most popular season, but summer here means long, light-filled days. Visit this 6-million-acre (2.5-million-hectare) national park from late September to late May instead, when incredible dark skies are the name of the game—until the northern lights steal the show.

Thanks to the park’s remoteness, the skies light up each night with thousands of stars at every scenic viewpoint, but to maximize your chances of seeing purple and green auroras dancing across the sky, book a tour with a pro guide.

Insider tip: The first 3 miles (4.8 kilometers) of Denali Park Road remain open through winter, and you can camp for free at Riley Creek Campground in the off-season.

4. Zion National Park

A beautiful night scene at Zion National Park.
Zion National Park knows how to put on a show after dark.Photo Credit: Susan Schmitz / Shutterstock

Utah

During the park’s main season, Zion Canyon Scenic Drive is closed to private vehicles. In other words—book a night at Zion Lodge or one of the park’s campgrounds and wait for the shuttles to cease. Once they do, you’ve got your pick of trails, overlooks, and scenic spots to catch Zion’s starry display. The flat Pa’rus Trail is a great option, as are Kolob Canyon and Kolob Terrace. If you’re in the Upper East Canyon part of the park, park at Checkerboard Mesa to catch the glittering show against the famous rock formation.

Insider tip: The ultra-scenic Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway, accessible from the park's East Entrance, is open to private vehicles year-round.

5. Glacier National Park

Stars shine over St. Mary Lake at Glacier National Park.
The stars above St. Mary Lake in Glacier National Park are truly luminous.Photo Credit: FloridaStock / Shutterstock

Montana

Glacier’s night-sky programming is nothing short of robust: dark-sky rangers lead programs such as Half the Park Happens After Dark and Here Comes the Sun at various park locations, and the St. Mary Observatory has one of the largest telescopes—a 20-incher—in the entire NPS catalog.

Go at it on your own, of course, and the opportunities are endless. Set up your camp chair across from Lake McDonald, find a clearing in the St. Mary area, or simply go for a night drive along Going-to-the-Sun Road and see where this street to the sky takes you.

6. Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve

Stars shine over the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve.
Long exposure photography is the best way to capture the stars.Photo Credit: Sean Xu / Shutterstock

Colorado

Great Sand Dunes’ main dune field is becoming ever-popular at night, and—even though the park has well-earned its International Dark-Sky Park accreditation—hundreds of waving flashlights don’t make for ideal stargazing.

Luckily, the crowds tend to hover on the sand near the visitor center. So, simply head north and access the sand from Buck Creek Campground and you’ll be amazed at the difference—the Milky Way shines supreme, bright enough to light up the now-cool sand. Pair it with a cotton-candy sunrise or sunset, and you’ll see just how wildly the dunes shift and transform from moment to moment thanks to the skies.

7. Great Basin National Park

A night scene at Great Basin National Park.
An ancient bristlecone pine stands out in sharp relief against the starry night sky.Photo Credit: Pamela Marcelino / Shutterstock

Nevada

Another gold-tier dark sky park, Great Basin National Park offers stargazing that's considered by many to be the best in the NPS system. Not only is there a dedicated Astronomy Amphitheater for ranger-led stargazing talks, the park also works with the Nevada Northern Railway to offer the Star Train out of Ely, a nighttime route that regularly sells out a year in advance.

While visiting with a pro photographer couldn’t hurt, you certainly don’t need the pros guiding you to see the stars. Simply venture out to Mather Overlook or Baker Archaeological Site and give your eyes roughly 30 minutes to adjust. On a moonless night—full moons aren’t great for optimal stargazing—you’ll see thousands of stars and star clusters, planets and meteors, and even our very own Milky Way, no binoculars needed.

Explore more stargazing experiences across the US

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