Founded in 2001, the International Dark Sky Association has certified over 120 International Dark Sky Places across the globe. Ranging from Dark Sky Parks such as Craters of the Moon National Monument to Dark Sky Sanctuaries including the Cosmic Campground in the Gila National Forest, the certifications also include International Dark Sky Communities across states like California, Arizona and Texas. With limited light pollution spoiling the view, these International Dark Sky Places possess a nocturnal environment that allow you to see out of this world.
Below is a short collection of Dark Sky Parks where the Milky Way roams free, as well as a few Reserves and Sanctuaries. On the International Dark Sky Association website you can find the entire list of designated dark sky places across the world, as well as useful information on how to mitigate light pollution near you. Website visitors can also find useful statistics on lighting, crime, and safety—as well as what to do if your neighbor’s light is affecting your nocturnal environment.
Park: Craters of the Moon National Monument, Idaho
In the rugged and lava-formed interior of southeastern Idaho, Craters of the Moon National Monument provides a stark landscape of boulders, caves and volcanic landforms. Very little development has occurred in this rugged and foreboding landscape that is wonderful to visit, resulting in a darkness that is almost tangible enough to touch. Craters of the Moon celebrates its Dark Sky Park status with Star Parties in the fall and spring, as well as ranger-led full moon hikes throughout the summer.
Park: Death Valley National Park, California
The largest national park in the lower 48, don’t let the ominous name of Death Valley National Park mislead you towards the amount of life found within this desert playground. Alongside being one of the hottest, driest and lowest national parks, Death Valley also has some of the darkest night skies. The Ubehebe Crater has some of the darkest skies in the park, and the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes and Harmony Borax Works offer slightly more accessible places to visit with equally stunning celestial shows.
Park: Big Bend National Park, Texas
Well after the sun sets throughout the mountainous region on the “big bend” of the Rio Grande River in southern Texas, visitors to this remote national park can witness the sparkling of approximately 2,000 stars. Thanks to very minimal development in the region, the Milky Way often makes a startling appearance at Big Bend National Park throughout the night. The National Park Service operates three campgrounds within Big Bend, and some of the best stargazing is done along the park’s backcountry Chisos Mountains trails.
Park: Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
In addition to the sheer splendor of the place, the Grand Canyon also provides some of the most stellar night skies. Officially designated a Dark Sky Park in 2019, the Milky Way in the Grand Canyon is known to shine so brightly that it casts a shadow. The park celebrates the night sky with an annual Star Party and different viewing opportunities throughout the year. To receive the official designation, Grand Canyon National Park did a retrofitting of all its light fixtures to alleviate wasted illumination.
Park: Glacier National Park, Montana
Encompassing deep glacial valleys, snow-crusted mountain peaks and several alpine lakes bobbing with icebergs, Glacier National Park is also home to stunning dark night skies. The park provides numerous ways to witness the night sky throughout the year, especially through their “Half of the Park Happens After Dark” educational programs. Alongside Glacier’s neighbor to the north, Waterton Lakes National Park in Alberta, these two national treasures have teamed up to become the first International Peace Park and the first Dark Sky Park that straddles international borders.
Park: Arches National Park
The desert landscapes of Utah offer a lot of wonder and awe, especially as the Milky Way and many celestial bodies take over the sky at night. Alongside the state’s license plate feature, Arches National Park also has brilliant night skies which are easily viewed from places like Panorama Point, Garden of Eden and the Balanced Rock Picnic Area. Utah is filled with dark night skies, including at its other four national parks; Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands, and Zion.
Reserve: Central Idaho Dark Sky Reserve
The first and currently only International Dark Sky Reserve in the United States, the Central Idaho Dark Sky Reserve seeks to protect one of the last remaining large pools of natural nighttime darkness in the country. Encompassing over 900,000 acres mainly within the Sawtooth National Forest, this Dark Sky Reserve retains much of its status thanks to the designated wilderness areas within its borders. Other International Dark Sky Reserves can be found across the world in countries like New Zealand, France, and Germany.
Sanctuary: Cosmic Campground, New Mexico
One of the major differences between a Dark Sky Park and Dark Sky Sanctuary is that sanctuaries are far more geographically isolated. The Cosmic Campground within the Gila National Forest of New Mexico is a great example, with the nearest artificial light located over 40 miles away in Arizona. Home to numerous Star Parties hosted by the Friends of the Cosmic Campground, this dark sky sanctuary has a 360-degree, unobstructed view of the dazzling night sky.
Tips for Viewing Dark Night Skies
Go on a New Moon
The exact opposite of full moon, the dark skies will host the most starlight when a new moon has begun. Look at your moon charts and plan your star party accordingly.
Use a Red Light
Bring along a headlamp with a red-light feature, which dramatically decreases the amount of time your eyes need to adjust to the darkness if you need to use a light.
Give it Some Time
It can take up to thirty minutes for your eyes to fully adjust to the darkness. Bring something you can sit on, warm layers and perhaps something warm to drink (like a hot toddy)—and then sit back and enjoy the show.
Stay Up Late
If you have a dedicated go-to-bed-at-dusk routine, fire up the French press or grab some caffeinated tea, the darkest night skies don’t begin to appear until midnight at least. Not to say you can’t see some of the celestial matinee show, but the main act has a late premiere.
Avoid Light Pollution
This one may seem obvious, but avoid places where light can ruin your view. At Dark Sky Parks, typically any trail will take you away from the few lights coming from visitor centers, campgrounds and bathrooms. When traveling to a Dark Sky Park, be sure to be conscious of your own light pollution including headlights from your car.