For astrophotographers and stargazers, darkness is critical. The International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) is a United States-based non-profit created in 1988 to preserve and protect our endless dark skies.
Major cities cause most light pollution, drastically reducing our chances of seeing millions of stars in the night sky. Sadly, most Americans cannot see the Milky Way from their home, and that’s a direct reflection of artificial light sources dimming our skies. So where are the best stargazing places?
As of 2023, there are 201 certified Dark Sky Places worldwide. They’re divided into five categories: International Dark Sky Sanctuaries, International Dark Sky Parks, International Dark Sky Reserves, Urban Night Sky Plans, and International Dark Sky Communities.
Each category has its own list of criteria to be considered for dark sky status and a pretty strict set of guidelines to follow. These Dark Sky Parks must be accessible, so even though some of the most remote areas on earth, like the poles or Arctic circle region, may have some incredible dark skies, they may not be on the official list due to how remote and difficult it is to get there physically.
How To See The Milky Way Galaxy Core
Learning some basics is important so you know how to see the Milky Way and, most importantly, when to see it. Of course, you’ll want to find a dark site far from artificial light, that’s step one, but there are a few other factors to consider, including the time of year and the moon phase. The core of the Milky Way is only visible for about half of the year (regardless of what hemisphere you’re in).
In general, Milky Way season runs from February through September, with July and August being the best times to scout out a dark sky site and go stargazing. Early and late in the season, the galaxy’s core only rises for a short time. If you want to track the rising and setting of the galaxy core for your location, download the PhotoPills app and get plotting.
Once you’ve established the best time of year to see the Milky Way, the other factor you’ll want to consider is the moon phase. The brighter the moon, the fewer stars you’ll see.
A full moon will dim many of the faint stars in the sky and the milky way. To reduce lunar light pollution as possible, aim to stargaze during the new moon when the sky is at its darkest.
Whether you want to brush up on your night photography skills, catch a meteor shower, or just gaze up at the Milky Way, these are some of the best places to stargaze in the world. Here’s to clear skies and moonless nights!
Stargazing Essentials Packing List
Before you start exploring the best stargazing places, checked the weather, and gathered up your friends, you’re ready to enjoy the dark skies! Here are a few helpful packing essentials for stargazing which will make your experience just a little bit easier.
- Red flashlight/headlight: Once your eyes adjust to the darkness, turning on any bright lights will disrupt your vision (and everyone around you). Red lights help visibility and preserve your night vision.
- Chairs/blankets: You’ll be outside for a few hours, so you’ll want to be as comfortable as possible! Setting up some camp chairs or picnic blankets is key, especially when you’ve been staring up at the night sky for a while, being able to lie down will do wonders for your neck.
- Snacks: Snacks should be on every essentials packing list, really. I prefer things like jerky and just about anything with nuts to help keep me fueled. Just be sure to pick up after yourself so these areas don’t become littered with trash. Oh, and don’t forget to pack a few bottles of water!
- Bug spray: Perhaps the most important packing essential. Being eaten alive by mosquitos really takes the fun out of the experience, trust us. Bug spray, bug, spray, bug spray.
- Camera with a tripod: If you’re going to take some images of the night sky, you’ll want a tripod to make sure your images are crystal-clear, plus it keeps your expensive camera off of the ground and away from dust and sand. We know a thing or two about cameras, and you can read about the best cameras for travel before you head out.
- Telescope/binoculars: this one may be a bit of an investment, but if you’re serious about astronomy and astrophotography, then having a good telescope or some quality binos is a must.
Best Stargazing Places
1. NamibRand Nature Reserve, Namibia
Not only is the NamibRand Nature Reserve one of Africa’s largest private nature reserves, but it’s also one of the most naturally dark places on Earth (that’s accessible, we’re not talking about the Poles here). Since the closest town is about 60 miles away, expect pristine skies from this International Dark Sky Park on a clear night.
Wolwedans offers cabins and lodges for an overnight option where you’ll enjoy uninterrupted views of this deserted oasis and gold-star status skies. But for a once-in-a-lifetime experience, book a night or two at Kwessi Dunes all-inclusive lodge, right in the heart of the nature reserve!
See Related: Best Family Vacation Spots in the World
2. Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve, New Zealand
New Zealand’s 4,300-square-kilometer Dark Sky Reserve is the world’s largest gold-status International Dark Sky Reserve. Tucked away in the heart of the Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park, this spot offers unparalleled views of alpine lakes and glacial valleys during the day, and they make for an incredible background for a nighttime shot.
If the skies are clear, you’ve got a front-row seat not only to view the Milky Way but also the Aurora Australis, also known as the Southern Lights. While the Northern Lights in the northern hemisphere are on many people’s bucket lists, few actually know that the same phenomena occur down in the southern hemisphere, too!
Once you’ve captured the perfect shot and made a wish on a shooting star, check into the YHA Mt. Cook, a nearby accommodation with fantastic views of Mount Cook and even a sauna to kick back in.
See Related: Waitomo Glowworm Caves in New Zealand
3. Devils Tower National Monument, Wyoming
Devils Tower National Monument is a world-famous stargazing site thanks to Close Encounters of the Third Kind, a Spielberg film that’s one of the top science fiction masterpieces ever created. The monolith, also known as Bears Den or Bears Lodge, was the first-ever National Monument, and the National Park Service likes to brag that “half the park is after dark”.
The monolith is surrounded by flat, accessible land, and it’s far from any city lights. Those features make it easy to spot the galaxy core no matter what month you visit – you’ll just have to choose which side of the monument to set up camp! While Devils Tower National Monument isn’t a Dark Sky Site, it’s a must-see for any space enthusiast thanks to its ties to extraterrestrial history.
See Related: 11 Famous Landmarks in Wyoming to Visit
4. Death Valley National Park, California
Clocking in with over three million acres of designated wilderness, Death Valley is a land of extremes. From deep canyons to salt flats, this National Park in the United States is a nature lover’s playground during the day, and it only gets better when night falls and you can see an endless sea of starry skies.
Despite Los Angeles and Las Vegas being semi-close, it still ranks as a Gold Tier Dark Sky Park by the IDA and continues to be one of the most popular stargazing spots in southern California. Park Rangers often host various stargazing events throughout the year, including a Dark Sky Festival where you can learn about space through ranger programs and special guest speakers.
See Related: Where to Stay in Death Valley: Best Areas & Places
5. Atacama Desert, Chile
The 90,000-acre Elqui Valley region became the first International Dark Sky Sanctuary in 2015 and was named the Gabriela Mistral Dark Sky Sanctuary to honor the award-winning poet Gabriela Mistral, who grew up in the area. The night skies surrounding the Atacama Desert and Elqui Valley are truly mesmerizing, and you’ll have some of the best stargazing opportunities here, as long as you have clear skies, which shouldn’t be a problem since the desert sees roughly 300 clear night skies per year!
Due to its high altitude and nearly non-existent cloud cover, this dark sky sanctuary has grown to be one of the most important places for astronomers to study the night sky and boasts more than 50% of the world’s astronomical infrastructure, including some of the largest and most powerful telescopes in the world. After finding the perfect stargazing spot and spending your night gazing at the star-filled skies, check into the Hotel El Bramador for a wonderfully relaxing rest.
6. Cherry Springs State Park, Pennsylvania
This one might surprise you, but Cherry Springs State Park in Pennsylvania is actually one of the best places to stargaze on the east coast of the United States. Known for its abundant plant and animal life and iconic black cherry trees that pepper the state park, once the sun sets below the horizon, Cherry Springs State Park steps into its dark side where thousands of stars are visible with the naked eye.
Due to its high altitude and little light pollution, even amateur astronomers will have no problem picking out some of the brightest stars and constellations from this park that sits 2,300 miles above sea level. There are plenty of designated areas for short-term stargazing, and the Overnight Astronomy Observation Field is ideal for serious stargazers, remember that all lights must have a red filter, and no white light is allowed.
Feel free to bring your telescopes and gear, there are plenty of concrete pads to set up. On dark nights with few clouds (ideally no clouds), you’ll be amazed at how many more stars you can see just with the naked eye.
While I highly recommend camping, I know it’s not for everyone. In this case, there are a few vacation rentals in the area, such as Aquila’s Nest in Cherry Springs State Park, which has its own share of breathtaking views of the night sky.
See Related: Pennsylvania Slang Terms You Need to Know
7. Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah, United States
When the Natural Bridges National Monument became an official Dark Sky Park in 2007, it was one of the darkest night skies the IDA had ever seen. Far from the light pollution of city lights, this International Dark Sky Park is a perfect spot for stargazing, watching meteor showers, and enjoying the Milky Way dancing across the sky on a dark night.
The closest accommodations are in Blanding, and you’ll still be able to carry over those dreamy night sky views here, too. Stone Lizard Lodge is a great little motel that has views of starry nights for days!
See Related: Most Amazing Natural Arches in the World
8. Mauna Kea, Hawaii, United States
Mauna Kea is a dormant volcano on the Big Island of Hawaii that’s just dreamy for stargazing. Located nearly 14,000 feet above sea level, Mauna Kea is the highest peak in Hawaii and if you think the views during the day are dazzling, just wait until nightfall when you’re met with one of the best dark skies in the world.
Take a tour to the summit with a small group tour where you can spend a few hours on top of the world surrounded by some of the darkest skies you’ve ever seen. Be sure to give yourself time to adjust to the high altitude change, it can be a doozy! Like Chile, Hawaii is known for its pristine clear skies that rarely see cloud cover, and when you combine that with a view from 14,000 feet high, you’ll feel like you’re king of the world.
See Related: Where To Stay In Hawaii: Best Areas & Neighborhoods
9. Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
After three years of converting 5,000 of its light fixtures to be dark-sky compliant, Grand Canyon National Park finally received its official International Dark Sky Park status in 2019. One of the most popular national parks in the United States, the park transforms at night, with thousands of bright stars visible in the sky.
The park is divided up into the North Rim and the South Rim, with Mather Point in the South Rim Village being a popular spot for star gazing. On the North Rim, check out Cape Royal. Grand Canyon National Park hosts several star parties throughout the summer, and this free event is great for all skill levels.
Park rangers offer constellation tours and telescopes for better viewing but feel free to bring your own. Don’t forget to bring a red flashlight!
10. Cosmic Campground, New Mexico, United States
You’ll find the Cosmic Campground tucked away in the Gila National Forest in western New Mexico, right on the Arizona border. At only 3.5 acres, it may be a smaller International Dark Sky Sanctuary, but due to its exceptionally dark skies and minimal light pollution, it’s certainly worth spending a night or two stargazing.
You’ll have a 360-degree unobstructed view of the night sky. Late May until late October are the best times to see the Milky Way, and for a truly rustic night, you can pitch a tent and spend a night sleeping under the stars.
See Related: New Mexico vs Colorado: Which Is Better?
11. Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park, United States and Canada
Waterton Lakes National Park in Alberta, Canada and Glacier National Park in Montana have a unique claim–they were the first International Dark Sky Parks to share the IDA status across an International border. With over a million acres combined, the UNESCO World Heritage Site is a bucket list destination for stargazers.
For lodging on the American side, Reclusive Moose Cabins in West Glacier is an adorably rustic site about 20 miles away from Glacier National Park and on the Canadian side, Aspen Village in Waterton Park will become your new home away from home.
See Related: Best National Parks in the USA to Visit
12. Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah, United States
Known for its crimson-colored spire-shaped rock formations called hoodoos, Bryce Canyon is far from the light pollution of major cities, making it an ideal spot for stargazing. The national park received its International Dark Sky Park status in 2019, attracting thousands of night owls every summer to see the night sky in all its glory.
The park fully embraces its dark side, offering about 100 astronomy programs and star parties throughout the year, including a four-day Astronomy Festival filled with family-friendly activities. Bryce Camp and Glamp in Cannonville is a great lodging option, and these glamping domes offer the best of both worlds for campers wanting a rustic experience while still having some basic modern amenities.
13. Sky Meadows State Park, Virginia, United States
Another east coast beauty, Sky Meadows State Park was accepted as an International Dark Sky Park in 2021 and its location is perfect. It’s only about an hour’s drive away from Washington DC, so it’s a very accessible dark sky park for folks in this area looking to spend a night stargazing without having to rearrange their entire life to head to one of the more remote Dark Sky Parks.
14. Big Bend National Park, Texas
They say everything is bigger in Texas, and that might as well include the night sky. If you’re lucky, on a clear night, not only will you be able to see the Milky Way, but you can see the core of the Andromeda Galaxy.
This is the northern hemisphere’s southernmost dark sky park and you’ll be amazed to see nearly 2,000 stars in the sky plus Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn — all with the naked eye! Camp Elena is just a short distance from Big Bend and these luxury cabins in Terlingua also have some fabulous views of the night sky. Far from the glow of artificial lights that major cities produce, the dark skies found at Big Bend will leave you speechless.