Starry nights: 5 of the USA’s best dark sky destinations

By: Maxine Sheppard

July 15, 2019

Stargazing in Big Bend National Park, Texas © Shutterstock

Stargazing in Big Bend National Park, Texas © Shutterstock

It's 50 years this week since man first set foot on the moon, and in the half century that's followed our fascination with what's 'out there' hasn't dimmed

Witnessing the brilliance of an untainted, starry night sky is still the best way to fill your soul with a sense of wonder, but even on the clearest of nights, artificial light pollution from cities can disguise the natural beauty of the Milky Way. Even in a country as developed as the USA, however, there remain vast expanses of wilderness that preserve their precious lightscape for us to enjoy. We’ve narrowed down five of our favourite destinations to stand and stare in awe.

Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

Far from the coast and any major urban centres, Lassen Volcanic National Park has some of the darkest night skies in the USA. This otherworldly landscape marks the southern end of the Cascade Range, and is home to numerous geothermal wonders, including fumaroles, mud pots and hot springs. Graded two on the nine-point Bortle scale of night-sky brightness (meaning ‘truly dark’), the park hosts a three-day Dark Sky Festival every July or August featuring NASA scientists and astronomers (this year’s event runs from 2–3 August).

It’s best to visit during summer as, out of season, it’s the snowiest place in California and roads through the park are closed. Book ahead at the lodge-style Drakesbad Guest Ranch, the only accommodation in the park, which offers rooms in the lodge as well as rustic cabins and cottages.

Fun fact: Lassen Volcanic receives one tenth of Yosemite’s visitor numbers (around 450,000 vs 4,500,000 per year).

The Milky Way rising over Bumpass Hell, Lassen Volcanic National Park © Shutterstock

Arches National Park, Utah

With its sandstone pinnacles, rock fins and 2,000 gravity-defying arches, few places offer a more dramatic backdrop for would-be astronomers. What’s more, on 5 July this year, the International Dark-Sky Association certified Arches National Park in southern Utah as an International Dark Sky Park in recognition of its “quality night skies and a commitment to protecting and sharing natural darkness”. The announcement comes following efforts by the park service to minimise glare and light emissions, including replacing all light fixtures with fully shielded bulbs. The designation will see Arches develop new astronomy programmes and events, and if you’re in the area in late summer, the news will be celebrated with a star party on 21 September at the newly completed Panorama Point stargazing area within the park. Other great stargazing spots include the Balanced Rock picnic area and the Garden of Eden viewpoint.

Fun fact: Arches’ most famous rock formation – Delicate Arch – is depicted on Utah license plates.

Delicate Arch in Arches National Park is illuminated by a hiker with a red light headlamp © Shutterstock

Mount Lemmon SkyCenter, Arizona

Further south in Arizona, the Mount Lemmon SkyCenter is part of the University of Arizona and is located at Steward Observatory on the summit of Mount Lemmon, just north of Tucson. It’s home to the largest public dedicated telescope in the USA and offers SkyNights stargazing events where you can learn about constellations and view the wonders of the cosmos most Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday evenings throughout the year.

The observatory is reached via a spectacular two-hour drive from central Tucson along the Sky Island Scenic Byway, which takes you from dusty cactus-flecked desert to the 9,157-foot summit via cool, coniferous forests. Remember to bring plenty of layers, including gloves, hats, scarves and coats as the night-time temperatures plummet below zero.

Fun fact: During the Cold War, the present-day SkyCenter site was used by the US Air Force to scan for incoming enemy missiles.

The Schulman telescope at Mount Lemmon Skycenter near Tucson, Arizona © Shutterstock

Big Cypress National Preserve, Florida

Great stargazing opportunities are not solely the domain of the American West. You can contemplate some of the clearest, darkest night skies in the eastern USA at Big Cypress National Preserve in Florida, which lies adjacent to the wet freshwater prairie of Everglades National Park to the south.

Historically occuped by various Native American tribes until the Seminole Indians were removed from the land in the nineteenth century, Big Cypress protects some of the last remaining dark territory in the region, despite it coming under increasing pressure from the Miami and Naples/Fort Meyers urban areas. The heart of the swampland is still one of the best areas east of the Mississippi River to view the Milky Way, and if you’re lucky you may also spot the elusive Florida panther and black bear, as well as venomous snakes and a multitude of birds.

Due to the summer heat and humidity, winter and spring are the best times to gaze heaven-wards here. Keep an eye on the schedule for upcoming ranger-led astronomy programmes.

Fun fact: In April this year, researchers found the largest recorded female python in the preserve. The 17-feet snake contained 73 developing eggs and weighed 140 pounds.

Big Cypress National Preserve © Shutterstock

Big Bend National Park, Texas

By far the most remote destination on our list, Big Bend National Park on the western edge of Texas has the least light pollution of any national park in the lower 48 states. On a clear night here you can expect to see around 2,000 stars compared to around 200 in the average city, and it’s one of the only parks to have received a gold-tier certification from the International Dark-Sky Association.

Bound by the Rio Grande, the park contains the most phenomenal mountain scenery in Texas, and its overall elevation only adds to the sense of awe. If you’re feeling adventurous, the best way to experience Big Bend’s starry skies is to hike deep into the backcountry and camp overnight, but tamer options are also available. While it’s outside the park itself, some of the best astronomy activities are available at the McDonald Observatory 100 miles north, including twilight programmes, star parties and special telescope viewing nights.

Fun fact: At 1,252 square miles, Big Bend National Park is bigger than the entire state of Rhode Island.

Santa Elena Canyon under the Milky Way at Big Bend National Park © Shutterstock

Visit the International Dark-Sky Association for more information on the best star-filled night skies around the world.

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Maxine Sheppard

Maxine is the co-editor of the Virgin Atlantic blog. Travel and music are her joint first loves, and despite having written for Virgin for more years than she cares to remember she still loves nothing more than jumping on a plane in search of new sights and new sounds.

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