The Best Dark Sky Parks In The United States

Few things are more magical than staring up into the night sky at the wide expanse of stars. Seeing a planet in the distance, a fleeting shooting star, studying the moon, or seeing the soft wave of the Milky Way can be both amazing and calming. From astronomers, to avid stargazers, and even complete novices, there is something special about looking up into the night sky. This incredible experience is what Dark Sky Parks are all about.

Technically speaking, Dark Sky Parks are described by the International Dark Sky Association as “an exceptional or distinguished quality of starry nights and a nocturnal environment that is specifically protected for its scientific, natural, educational, cultural heritage, and/or public enjoyment.” More simply, they are protected areas where light pollution from things like cities and large light sources do not affect stargazing. The area is dark enough, and far enough away from this light pollution, that an abundance of stars can be seen readily and easily (assuming the weather complies). 

This list will look at eight major dark sky parks in the United States which offer amazing views of the world beyond our planet.

  1. Big Bend National Park
  2. The Grand Canyon
  3. Glacier National Park
  4. Cherry Springs State Park
  5. Arches Canyon National Park
  6. Headlands International Dark Sky Park
  7. Mayland Earth-to-Sky Park And Bare Dark Sky Observatory
  8. Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

Big Bend National Park

Big Bend National Park
Milky way at Balanced Rock, Big Bend National park, Texas United States.

Big Bend, in Texas, includes both the Chisos mountain range and part of the Chihuahuan Desert. It is known for being an excellent location for stargazing, and has Dark Sky status. In fact, according to NPS (National Park Service), it has the “least light pollution of any other national park unit in the lower 48 states.” Its remote location makes it ideal for viewing the night sky, as there is virtually no light pollution in the area. The park also offers various night sky programs which both guide and educate visitors about the world beyond our planet.

The Grand Canyon

Grand Canyon dark sky
The moon shining above the horseshoe bend in the Grand Canyon.

The Grand Canyon, in addition to being one of the most popular national parks, is also a dark sky park. This park is one of the newest to gain this designation, being declared a dark sky in 2019. Arizona is ideal for stargazing, as most of the area experiences clear skies year round. Additionally, there are few people that live in and around the canyon area, menaing there is almost no major settlements for light pollution. For these reasons, the Grand Canyon National Park is growing in popularity as a dark sky reserve.

Glacier National Park

Glacier National Park, in Montana, is located in the Rocky Mountains. The dark sky area in Glacier borders with the Canadian Waterton counterpart to form an expansive dark sky park. Night time tours and twilight walks are common, and the raised elevation of the park helps to separate it from any light pollution, and improve the likeihood of clear skies, for excellent stargazing conditions.

Cherry Springs State Park

Cherry Springs
Night sky at Cherry Springs.

In the east, one of the best dark sky parks is Cherry Springs. It was named Pennsylvania's first dark sky park by the DCNR in 2000, and an International Dark Sky Park in 2007. The park is located in the state of Pennsylvania, and it is one of the very best places to see the Milky Way. The elevation of the Allegheny Plateau allows for a panoramic 360 view of the skies. In addition, given the right conditions, the Northern Lights, (or Aurora Borealis) can also be seen in the Cherry Springs State Park.

Arches Canyon National Park

Arches Canyon National Park
Double Arch in Arches National Park in Utah under the night sky.

Utah has a high number of dark sky areas, and is full of stargazing opportunities. Arches has a strong sense of galactic wonder. The park hosts an annual astronomy festival, and also puts on some 100 or more astronomy programs each year. The park focuses both on stargazing, from the clear bright star opportunities, to education and informational sessions for visitors to the park.

Headlands International Dark Sky Park

Headland International Dark Sky Park, Michigan
Twilight sky at Headland International Dark Sky Park, Michigan.

This park is located in Michigan state, and has some of the best dark sky viewing in the northern United States. The park is mainly a remote area of woodlands and meadows, from which the open skies can be viewed with ease. The remote nature of the park means there is very little light pollution from nearby cities, and at times, the Aurora Borealis can even be seen here. These wonders of the sky are awe-inspiring and difficult to spot in areas so south, so Headlands has become increasingly popular with ameatur astronomers and stargazers. 

Mayland Earth-to-Sky Park And Bare Dark Sky Observatory

The Mayland Earth-to-sky Park was the first IDA-certified Dark Sky Park in the southeast United States. The area is located roughly 10 kilometers outside of Spruce Pine, North Carolina, outside of the bright lights of any major cities. This lack of civilization makes this dark sky park such a great place for viewing stars and night skies. The region is so focused on dark skies, that 2019 saw the construction of a full size planetarium. 

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

Anza Borrengo Desert State Park
Night sky at Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park was designated as a dark sky park in 2019. The park is located in the Colorado Desert of California. The desert climate, and its lack of large cities means the park has excellent dark sky conditions. Additionally, the town of Borrego was declared a Dark Sky Community due to its use of special low-light emission bulbs and fixtures which reduce light pollution. This means that any light coming from the nearby town does not interfere greatly with the viewing of the stars, moon, or sky-gazing generally, helping to improve the dark sky conditions. 

Dark Sky Parks And Dark Sky Communities In The United States

Name Location Status Designated

Flagstaff

Arizona

International Dark Sky Community

2001

Natural Bridges National Monument

Utah

International Dark Sky Park

2007

Cherry Springs State Park

Pennsylvania

International Dark Sky Park

2008

Borrego Springs

California

International Dark Sky Community

2009

Clayton Lake State Park

New Mexico

International Dark Sky Park

2010

Geauga Observatory Park

Ohio

International Dark Sky Park

2011

Headlands

Michigan

International Dark Sky Park

2011

Homer Glen

Illinois

International Dark Sky Community

2011

Big Bend National Park

Texas

International Dark Sky Park

2012

Chaco Culture National Historical Park

New Mexico

International Dark Sky Park

2013

Death Valley National Park

California

International Dark Sky Park

2013

Beverly Shores

Indiana

International Dark Sky Community

2014

Copper Breaks State Park

Texas

International Dark Sky Park

2014

Dripping Springs

Texas

International Dark Sky Community

2014

Enchanted Rock State Natural Area

Texas

International Dark Sky Park

2014

Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument

Arizona

International Dark Sky Park

2014

Hovenweep National Monument

Utah, Colorado

International Dark Sky Park

2014

Mayland Earth to Sky Park & Bare Dark Sky Observatory

North Carolina

International Dark Sky Park

2014

Oracle State Park

Arizona

International Dark Sky Park

2014

Sedona

Arizona

International Dark Sky Community

2014

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

Colorado

International Dark Sky Park

2015

Canyonlands National Park

Utah

International Dark Sky Park

2015

Capitol Reef National Park

Utah

International Dark Sky Park

2015

Horseshoe Bay

Texas

International Dark Sky Community

2015

Pickett CCC Memorial State Park & Pogue Creek Canyon State Natural Area

Tennessee

International Dark Sky Park

2015

Staunton River State Park

Virginia

International Dark Sky Park

2015

Thunder Mountain Pootseev Nightsky

Arizona

International Dark Sky Community

2015

UBarU Camp and Retreat Center

Texas

International Dark Sky Park

2015

Weber County North Fork Park

Utah

International Dark Sky Park

2015

Westcliffe and Silver Cliff

Colorado

International Dark Sky Community

2015

Big Park / Village of Oak Creek

Arizona

International Dark Sky Community

2016

Capulin Volcano National Monument

New Mexico

International Dark Sky Park

2016

Cosmic Campground

New Mexico

International Dark Sky Sanctuary

2016

Dead Horse Point State Park

Utah

International Dark Sky Park

2016

Flagstaff Area National Monuments

Arizona

International Dark Sky Park

2016

Goblin Valley State Park

Utah

International Dark Sky Park

2016

Grand Canyon National Park

Arizona

International Dark Sky Park

2016

Great Basin National Park

Nevada

International Dark Sky Park

2016

Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park

Florida

International Dark Sky Park

2016

Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument

New Mexico

International Dark Sky Park

2016

Stephen C. Foster State Park

Georgia

International Dark Sky Park

2016

Antelope Island State Park

Utah

International Dark Sky Park

2017

Big Bend Ranch State Park

Texas

International Dark Sky Park

2017

Cedar Breaks National Monument

Utah

International Dark Sky Park

2017

Central Idaho

Idaho

International Dark Sky Reserve

2017

Craters Of The Moon National Monument

Idaho

International Dark Sky Park

2017

Joshua Tree National Park

California

International Dark Sky Park

2017

Kartchner Caverns State Park

Arizona

International Dark Sky Park

2017

Ketchum

Idaho

International Dark Sky Community

2017

Newport State Park

Wisconsin

International Dark Sky Park

2017

Obed Wild and Scenic River

Tennessee

International Dark Sky Park

2017

South Llano River State Park

Texas

International Dark Sky Park

2017

Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park

Montana (US), Alberta (Canada)

International Dark Sky Park

2017

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

California

International Dark Sky Park

2018

Camp Verde

Arizona

International Dark Sky Community

2018

Fountain Hills

Arizona

International Dark Sky Community

2018

Middle Fork River Forest Preserve

Illinois

International Dark Sky Park

2018

Petrified Forest National Park

Arizona

International Dark Sky Park

2018

Rainbow Bridge National Monument

Utah

International Dark Sky Sanctuary

2018

Steinaker State Park

Utah

International Dark Sky Park

2018

Torrey

Utah

International Dark Sky Community

2018

Tumacácori National Historical Park

Arizona

International Dark Sky Park

2018

Wimberley Valley

Texas

International Dark Sky Community

2018

Devils River State Natural Area - Del Norte Unit

Texas

International Dark Sky Sanctuary

2019

Norwood

Colorado

International Dark Sky Community

2019

Rappahannock County Park

Virginia

International Dark Sky Park

2019

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