Photo: NPS

Dark-Sky Destinations for Stargazing

Expand your sense of cosmic awe with a visit to these 8 stunning Dark Sky Parks, lookouts, and observatories.

Outdoor explorers always gush about summer’s long days, but the nights should never be overlooked. Mild temperatures, clear skies, and some of the most striking celestial phenomena—like the Perseids meteor shower, visible in August—all make summer evenings among the best for stargazing. 

So, on your next free weekend, gather some friends and some popcorn, head to these incredible stargazing spots, and get ready to have your mind blown. 

1. Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument - Maine 

One of the darkest spots east of the Mississippi, this official International Dark Sky Sanctuary is home to the famous Mount Katahdin, the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail. Spend the day exploring the park’s countless trails, then either book a campsite (request a spot at Sandbank Stream when you check in) or head to the Katahdin Loop Road Overlook for the best celestial views.

2. Cherry Springs State Park - Pennsylvania 

A designated astronomy field atop a 2,300-foot mountain offers visitors to Cherry Springs State Park an unparalleled view of the night sky. If you’re serious about your stars, camp in the field (white light is prohibited, so make sure your headlamp has a red-light mode). If you’d rather have more amenities, head to the park’s nearby Rustic Campground.

3. Stephen C. Foster State Park – Georgia 

Another official Dark Sky Park, Stephen C. Foster is renowned as the entrance to Georgia’s legendary Okefenokee Swamp. As such, it’s an incredible place for wildlife viewing, including black bears, ibis, and alligators. Book a campsite online for a relaxing evening of stargazing. Or, if you’re feeling brave, book a nighttime boat tour and keep one eye on the stars—and one on the gators.

4. Dillon State Park - Ohio 

Located in one of the darker corners of Ohio, Dillon State Park is a go-to spot for local astronomers. Snag a campsite at the Dillon State Park Campground. Then, as dusk falls, set up shop on the lakeshore or at the park’s designated observation deck near the nature center for the best view of the stars. 

Photo: Courtesy of NASA Earth Science

5. Staunton River State Park – Virginia 

Virginia is home to five different Dark Sky parks and preserves, but Staunton River was the state’s first. Located in south-central Virginia, the state park is home to a handful of cabins and campgrounds—perfect for watching the stars come out over the lake. (Campsites can be reserved online.)

6. Grand Canyon National Park - Arizona

Between the clear desert skies and the pure vastness of the park, Grand Canyon is a stargazer’s paradise. On some nights, the Milky Way is so bright it actually illuminates the canyon’s red-rock walls. Mather Point on the South Rim and Cape Royal on the North Rim are among the best viewpoints.

7. Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park - Colorado

Nearly 3,000 feet deep and less than a quarter-mile wide, Black Canyon of the Gunnison offers more dramatic vertical relief than the Grand Canyon—and far fewer crowds. Arrive at sunset to watch the day’s last glow color the walls purple, then stay for the stars: Because it’s in the middle of nowhere, this one’s a shoe-in for International Dark Sky Park status.

8. Pine Mountain Observatory – Oregon

While Crater Lake National Park might be the first Oregon stargazing spot to spring to mind, Pine Mountain has two things Crater Lake doesn’t: free camping, and a powerful, research-grade telescope. Both the Pine Mountain Campground and observatory are open June through September. (Check the observatory website for updated hours before planning a visit.) 

Stargazing Gear Essentials

You can stargaze with nothing but your own eyeballs and a soft patch of grass, but a few added items can seriously level-up the experience. Consider these recommended ’gazing goods on your next nighttime journey.

  • Camp chair. Bonus points if you have one that rocks all the way back, like the aptly named Nemo Stargaze Recliner
  • Moon phase chart. You can find these easily online. Knowing the moon phase and the evening forecast can help you choose clear, dark nights for better viewing. 
  • Constellation app. A paper chart works, too, but some apps, like Sky Safari, let you hold your phone up to the night sky and tell you what you’re seeing. 
  • Headlamp. This is essential for finding your way home when you’re done taking in the heavens. Look for headlamps with red-light modes, which help preserve your night vision. 
  • Camp blanket. An insulated jacket will keep you warm as the temps drop, but a packable puffy blanket provides a cozier vibe.  
  • GPS navigation. GPS is the best tool for getting back to your car or campsite in the dark. (The Gaia GPS phone app is a great option. It also has a dark-skies overlay, used to make the map above.)
  • Portable telescope. If you really want a good view, consider bringing a compact travel telescope. Most high-quality models are a bit heavy, but astronomy fanatics will find them worth the weight. 

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.