The Best Campgrounds to Experience a Dark Sky Park
Have you ever gazed up at the stars and gaped in wonder? I know that I sure have. There’s something about seeing the Milky Way rise or watching meteor showers streak across the sky that reminds us of our small place in this vast universe.
If you’re a lover of astronomy, or simply want to see the incredible beauty of a star-filled night, then it’s time to plan a trip to one of the United States’ Dark Sky Places.
What is an International Dark Sky Place?
International Dark Sky Places are spots across the globe that are recognized not only for their exceptionally clear skies, unfettered by artificial light pollution, but also as locations where community or park leaders are dedicated to “excellent stewardship of the night sky.”
Designated International Dark Sky Places include International Dark Sky Communities, Parks, Sanctuaries, and Reserves. Don’t worry too much about the terminology, because here’s the crux of the designation: in Dark Sky Places, you’re going to see a lot—and we mean a lot—of stars.
You’re going to mean it when you say you’re “sleeping under the stars” in a Dark Sky Place. The sky over these locations, on a clear night, will be like nothing you’ve seen before.
Where can I find a Dark Sky Place?
Dark Sky Places are “land possessing an exceptional or distinguished quality of starry nights,” according to the International Dark-Sky Association, and you’re unlikely to find them near big, bright cities. Most of these spots are a little bit off the beaten path—places where you’ll want to stock up, settle into your campsite, and spend a while.
Ready to get planning? Here’s where you’ll find the best of Dark Sky Park camping in the United States:
Dark Sky Camping in Utah
It should come as no surprise that southern Utah has a wealth of Dark Sky camping. It’s hard to imagine anything more beautiful than watching the Milky Way rise over Delicate Arch in Arches National Park or gazing at your favorite constellation from the remote Natural Bridges National Monument.
Utah has both state parks and national parks that have been designated as International Dark Sky Parks. Click on any location to see camping in and near the park:
- Arches National Park
- Bryce Canyon National Park
- Canyonlands National Park
- Capitol Reef National Park
- Cedar Breaks National Monument
- Dinosaur Monument National Park
- Hovenweep National Monument
- Natural Bridges National Monument
- Antelope Island State Park
- Dead Horse Point State Park
- East Canyon State Park
- Fremont Indian State Park
- Goblin Valley State Park
- Goosenecks State Park
- Jordanelle State Park
- Kodachrome Basin State Park
- Rockport State Park
- Steinaker State Park
Dark Sky Camping in Colorado
You need to get a bit off the main highways of 25 and 70 in Colorado to get to those pitch-black skies, but it’s worth the journey. From the quiet Four Corners to the stunningly deep gorges in the Black Canyon, you’ll find a diverse mix of landscapes in Colorado.
- Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
- Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve
- Hovenweep National Monument
- Mesa Verde National Park
Dark Sky Camping in California
Sure, California has a lot of people in it, but it has a lot of wide-open spaces, too. Set up camp at one of these three parks, and you’ll be guaranteed of a starry show so bright that you’ll forget all about those far off city lights.
Dark Sky Camping in Texas
We all know that Texas has some serious sky that feels a little bit larger-than-life…just like everything in Texas. If you’re looking for that perfect spot to name every constellation above, look no further than these destinations.
Dark Sky Camping in Arizona
When you’re at the Grand Canyon, it’s tempting to spend all your days looking down into the canyon’s beautiful layers, but once the sun goes down, be sure to look up. Grand Canyon National Park is just one of Arizona’s four designated Dark Sky Parks.
- Grand Canyon National Park
- Parashant National Monument
- Petrified Forest National Park
- Kartchner Caverns State Park
- Tonto National Monument
Dark Sky Camping in New Mexico
If you’ve never spent a night viewing the night sky above Chaco Culture National Historic Park, get that booked as soon as possible. Tricky to get to and absolutely worth the trip, Chaco is a special place not only for the sky but for the well-preserved dwellings that the park protects. They also offer great stargazing programs and star parties (check with the Visitor Center for details).
Another great spot in New Mexico is El Morro National Monument, a short drive off Highway 40 between Albuquerque and Flagstaff, which offers unobstructed views of the sky.
Dark Sky Camping in Idaho
Central Idaho was recently named an International Dark Sky Reserve, one of only 16 spots in the world, and the only location in North America to receive that distinction. Make your way to the adventurous mountain town of Stanley to be in the thick of one of the darkest skies in the country.
About two hours south of Stanley, you’ll find another Dark Sky Park, Craters of the Moon National Monument. This lava-filled landscape will have you not sure whether to look up or down. Why not do both?
Dark Sky Camping in Nevada
You won’t drive past Great Basin National Park by accident; you’ll need to seek it out. We’re quite sure, though, that you won’t regret the effort. During the day, you can explore the park’s ancient bristlecone pines and hike in the South Snake Mountains, and at night you can sit by the campfire and gaze at the heavens.
Dark Sky Camping in Oklahoma
Clayton Lake State Park is a Dark Sky Park that is located an easy drive from Dallas, Oklahoma City, and Shreveport, Louisiana. Talk about centrally located! This 500-acre state park has hardwood forests, an 80-acre lake, and plenty of camping for a weekend of dark skies.
Dark Sky Camping on the East Coast
East coasters, don’t you dare think that we forgot about you. Dark Sky Parks are a little harder to come by in the populated East, but they definitely exist, and you should absolutely check them out.
In Florida, you can make your way to Big Cypress National Preserve, just north of Everglades National Park, to get a different type of stargazing than watching for the glitterati on the Miami Beach boardwalk. In south-central Florida, Kissimmee Prairie Preserve Park is known for its spectacular stargazing and birdwatching.
In Georgia, Stephen C. Foster State Park is an island park inside the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. Hike through trees laced with Spanish moss, paddle through the Okefenokee Swamp, and snag a campsite to watch the stars and planets blink to life at night.
In Tennessee, Pickett CCC Memorial State Park honors the history of the Civilian Conservation Corps and was the first park in the southeast to be designated as a Dark Sky Park.
Last, but most certainly not least, Cherry Springs State Park in Pennsylvania has earned a reputation as one of the darkest night skies on the eastern seaboard, so bring your telescope to check out planets, nebulae, and other astronomical wonders.
Want even more? To see a full list of Dark Sky Places and to learn more about Dark Sky Parks, Reserves, Communities, and International Dark Sky Sanctuaries in the United States, including popular Headlands International Dark Sky Park in Michigan, head to the International Dark-Sky Association.