Stargazing in national parks in the U.S.

Stargazing and the national parks: Night sky over a valley covered in trees. There are huge cliffs on both sides, lights of cars below and a lit-up waterfall on the right.
View at EarthSky Community Photos. | Lee Amber in Yosemite National Park captured this image on February 15, 2023. At that time, both Venus and Jupiter – the sky’s 2 brightest planets – were in the evening sky. And it was around the time of the Yosemite firefall, an event at Horsetail Fall in Yosemite, when hundreds of spectators gather to witness sunlight reflecting on the waterfall. Lee called this scene “an encore” as photographers and spectators were leaving. Thank you, Lee! Stargazing and the national parks go hand-in-hand, because – as the slogan suggests – “half the park is after dark!” Read more about stargazing in national parks below.

Stargazing in national parks

According to a study in Science Advances, more than 99% of people in the U.S. live under light-polluted skies, and nearly 80% of them can’t see the Milky Way. If you look at a map of light pollution, you’ll see the dark pockets often correspond to public, protected lands. The national parks are some of the least light-polluted and therefore best places to observe the night sky in the United States.

The National Park Service (NPS) maintains a Natural Sounds and Night Skies Division in an effort to protect the native soundscape and guard against light pollution in the parks. As far as preserving dark skies, the NPS website says:

The night sky has inspired us for generations. Nighttime views and environments are among the critical park features the NPS protects. Night sky protection enhances qualities of solitude and undeveloped wilderness character that animals depend on for survival, park visitors seek for connections, and many cultural-historical parks require for preservation. In this regard, the NPS recognizes a naturally dark night sky as more than a scenic canvas; it is part of a complex ecosystem that supports both natural and cultural resources.

So, many U.S. national parks have earned the designation of International Dark Sky Park. Of course, these parks must have exceptional and protected dark skies to earn this distinction. Some International Dark Sky Parks include the Grand Canyon, Death Valley, Big Bend, Mammoth Cave and more. You can view the full list here.

In addition, no matter where you live in the world, you can look for a dark-sky site near you at EarthSky’s best places to stargaze.

‘Half the Park is After Dark: Exploring dark-sky parks around the world

To explore the night sky data collected in national parks, visit this website

Stargazing programs in the national parks

Many of the parks hold stargazing events after dark. Park rangers knowledgeable about the night sky point out the highlights and sometimes share views through a telescope. Bryce Canyon National Park even has an annual astronomy festival. Glacier National Park now has the Dusty Star Observatory on the east side in St. Mary, along with star parties at Logan Pass.

Some of the darkest night skies in the U.S. are in the desert of Nevada, and the Great Basin Observatory will capitalize on that. This observatory will be the first research-grade observatory built in a U.S. national park. You can find more national park observatories here.

Before you visit any national park service site, check the NPS website to see what astronomy or observing programs are available to visitors.

Of course, one of the easiest ways to enjoy the night sky in the national parks is to camp out under the stars. Remember to reserve your campground space in advance and hope for clear skies. To see what’s visible in the sky for the night you’re camping, check our Tonight page.

A group of people sit on a hillside looking down at a ranger with a dark mountain behind.
Glacier National Park visitors enjoy a star party at Logan Pass. Image via NPS.

Night-sky photos from the national parks

Dark rock forming an opening with the Milky Way in the background.
View at EarthSky Community Photos. | Prashant Naik in Arches National Park captured this image on May 8, 2019. Prashant wrote: “Visiting Arches National Park was one of the most thrilling moments of my life. It opened my mind to look at things with a different perspective. Arches after arches, they are spectacular structures of nature’s own creation. Watching the world through its window was more captivating than the camera’s viewfinder. This image was shot at Double Arch. The arch itself was facing north west, I had to scramble up and get behind the arch to be able to see the galactic core through the arch. I spent lot of time contemplating rather than photographing at this place.” Thank you, Prashant!
Edgewise view of the summer Milky Way, on a dark night.
View at EarthSky Community Photos. | William Mathe captured this image on August 15, 2020. William wrote: “I hiked up to the top of Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado … just below 12,000 feet (3,700 m). I was greeted with a raging forest fire about 10 miles (16 km) to the west … hung around long enough to get a couple of snaps of the Milky Way. You can see the brown clouds of smoke hanging in the valley below the rock outcrop on which I was perched.” Thank you, William!
Rocky spires with Milky Way in the background. There is water in the foreground, where the rocks and the stars are reflected.
Arches National Park. Image via Mike Taylor Photography. Used with permission.

If you have a great photo of the national parks after dark, share it with us!

Bottom line: Stargazing and the national parks are a great combination. Increasing light pollution in the United States makes national parks some of the last dark refuges.

EarthSky’s Best Places to Stargaze: A crowd-sourced global map of dark sites

May 12, 2023

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