Tips for Stargazing at National Parks

When you want to get away from the daily bustle, national parks offer refuge. When you want to feel connected to something larger than yourself, national parks provide perspective.

But if you really want to step back and get the bigger picture, head to a national park, at night, and then look up.

International Dark Sky Parks β€” national parks that have been recognized for exceptional-quality starry nights by the International Dark Sky Association β€” are perfect places for stargazing. So if it's been a while since you've gazed up at the great beyond, use these tips for making the most of your stargazing.

Tips for better stargazing

You don't have to be an experienced astronomer to appreciate the beauty of a clear night sky, but it does help if you prepare a little bit. For those who are relatively new to stargazing, these tips will help you get ready for your first trip:

  • Head for high ground. Getting up high gives you an ideal vantage point, and maximizes your view of the sky.
  • Start with binoculars. A telescope can be a great investment after a while, but many newcomers become frustrated by how difficult they are to use, and how hard it is to know what you're seeing through them. Binoculars are far less expensive, and provide a surprising amount of detail.
  • Invest in some star charts. They make it much easier to know what you're looking at. You can even get star chart apps for your smartphone.
  • Get a red light. It takes up to an hour for your eyes to become fully adjusted to the dark, and a regular flashlight makes it more difficult to become acclimated. A red light allows you to see your star charts (and the ground ahead of you) without spoiling your eyesight.
  • Know when to go. If you can bear the chill, you'll find the darkest skies on crisp winter nights with minimal humidity.

Great national parks for stargazing

Some parks, like Death Valley National Park in California and Craters of the Moon National Monument & Preserve in Idaho, are famous for their clear night skies. But if you want to beat the crowds and have the stars all to yourself, head to one of these lesser-known parks for a stellar view:

Canyonlands National Park (Utah): The geological formations of this park are truly unique, and Canyonlands’ night skies are some of the clearest in the country. Visit the Needles District to catch the bright band of the Milky Way behind the otherworldly silhouettes of the strange landscape.

Capitol Reef National Park (Utah): This 242,000-acre park is almost entirely undeveloped, which means light pollution is virtually nonexistent. The sandstone domes and cliffs of the Waterpocket Fold dominate the landscape, while incredibly vibrant stars dominate the sky.

Chaco Culture National Historical Park (New Mexico): Established to protect the archaeological heritage of the Chacoan people, this park has strict dark sky-friendly lighting guidelines to encourage stargazing.

Big Bend National Park (Texas): The stars at night are big and bright deep in the heart of Texas. In fact, this park has the least amount of light pollution of any other national park in the lower 48 states!

National parks provide a perfect opportunity to explore an often-overlooked treasure of the parks: the night skies above them! Be sure to take the time to cast your gaze upward, and share your stargazing adventures at FindYourPark.com.

Photo credit: Canyonlands National Park by Vivek Vijaykumar

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