A version of this story appeared in the fall 2019 issue of Uncommon Path.
Look to the night skies outside your house or apartment and maybe you’ll see the faint outlines of the Big Dipper beyond the street lights, or the glimmering North Star past a row of headlights on the nearest highway.
Head into the wild, though, and thousands of stars, planets and satellites will sparkle all night long.
Whether you’re taking starry night sky photos or simply want to admire the views, here are nine spots throughout the United States for staggering stargazing.
Owyhee Canyonlands, Oregon
According to the Campaign for the Owyhee Canyonlands, there is no region in the United States farther from major highways than the rugged canyonlands near the intersection of Oregon, Idaho, and Nevada. Given its remote locale, high elevation, and distance from major cities, the Owyhee Canyonlands are among the most pristine places in the United States to stargaze and watch for the Milky Way.
The 4.6-mile-long Three Forks and a Soak hike offers a fitting introduction to the region. On the trail, you'll walk between sheer canyon cliffsides, make two river crossings, and end up at Three Forks Hot Springs. At roughly 99 degrees year-round, the pools are heated by geothermal vents along the river bed and are nestled near the confluence of three Owyhee River tributaries.
Backpackers and intrepid campers have established a few primitive campsites, which you can use for stargazing. Once the sun sets, you won’t have much light pollution to contend with.
Big Cypress National Preserve, Florida
One of the darkest spots on the East Coast, this South Florida preserve oﬀers free ranger-led astronomy programs, which include constellation tours and telescope viewings of stars, planets, nebulae and even galaxies.
Antelope Island State Park, Utah
We could have chosen any one of a dozen locations throughout Utah for stunning stargazing, but Antelope Island State Park is one of a kind. Little development intrudes on the park itself (limiting light pollution), and its western views look out over the pristine Great Salt Lake, home to some of the darkest night skies in Utah.
Take in the scenery from atop Frary Peak, the highest point on Antelope Island. The summit sits at more than 6,500 feet above sea level and offers unparalleled views of the Great Salt Lake, the surrounding valley, and nearby ridges.
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California
Inside 600,000-acre Anza-Borrego, rangers and astronomers lead night-sky tours where you’ll learn about eclipses and phases of the moon. The nearby town of Borrego Springs has worked to reduce streetlight pollution by swapping out too-bright bulbs and encouraging businesses and homeowners to turn off lights at night.
Cherry Springs State Park, Pennsylvania
While much of the eastern seaboard is too populated for flawless stargazing, Pennsylvania's Cherry Springs State Park marks one of the most sought-after sites for dark skies and clear views.
Located just four and a half hours from Philadelphia, Cherry Springs sits on top of the Allegheny Plateau, more than 2,000 feet above sea level in the remote Susquehannock State Forest. The park’s Astronomy Field offers an unobstructed, 360-degree panorama of the night sky, and visitors can reserve one of 30 campsites for overnight visits. Or plan your trip for one of the park's twice-yearly star parties, and book at stay at nearby Blue Skies Lodge. Its Astro Cabins feature private stargazing fields.
Looking to stretch your legs? The one-mile Cherry Springs Working Forest Interpretive Trail offers an easy stroll through the surrounding woods. Several interpretive panels along the way explain the environmental, social, and economic benefits of forests.
Newport State Park, Wisconsin
Located on the shores of Lake Michigan, Newport encourages dimming phone screens and camp lanterns to reduce light pollution. Local astronomers host star-gazing events around the new moon.
Death Valley National Park, California
Death Valley National Park in Southern California and Nevada is known for its brooding desert landscapes and extreme temperatures. The remote conditions also make Death Valley a pristine stargazing location. The 3.4-million acre park sits far enough from Las Vegas and Los Angeles to miss the worst of the cities' bright lights and doesn’t generate much light pollution itself.
Made possible by the erosion of the nearby Cottonwood Mountains, the wavy dunes at Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes are exactly what you envision when you think of the desert. They’re more accessible than other dunes within the park; the tallest is only about 100 feet, making the region popular for hikers and dune boarders alike. That accessibility, unobstructed views, and wide expanse make Mesquite Flats an ideal stargazing location.
Elsewhere, hikers can take in sweeping panoramic vistas of Death Valley from atop Dante’s View, more than a mile above sea level. The elevation ensures a lack of obstructions in every direction.
Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado
Thanks to its location in the high desert of the San Luis Valley and a base elevation of 7,520 feet, Great Sand Dunes has some of the clearest, darkest skies in the West. The park hosts a number of free programs after hours, including laser-guided constellation tours.
Cape Hatteras National Seashore, North Carolina
The only thing better than a day at the beach? A night of stargazing on the sand.
Start your day with a mostly flat 4.7-mile hike on the Cape Hatteras Point Loop. Following old access roads, the trail is home to numerous coastal birds, scores of seashells, animals, and wildflowers. It also offers the unusual opportunity to witness the merging of two ocean currents (the Gulf Stream from the south and the Labrador Current from the north), which create constantly-changing sandbars in the area.
Sea turtles are a regular summertime presence along the shore of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Bioluminescent plankton occasionally light up the surf after sunset, and four campgrounds look out over the dunes.
Among the area's biggest draws are its dark nighttime skies. The shore is surrounded by water: on its west side, the Pamlico Sound and on its east, the Atlantic Ocean.
No matter where you are, there are opportunities to see amazing starscapes. You just have to know where to look. To help you get started, REI offers star walks around the US, led by experienced guides who will teach you about the cosmos.
Megan Michelson contributed to this article.