There are few activities that offer such a dramatic perspective on our place in the universe as stargazing, and with the right equipment and conditions, you can witness the wonders of the galaxy from almost anywhere in the world. The Arizona-based non-profit International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) recognizes more than 120 official International Dark Sky Places (IDSP) across the globe and most of them are in the U.S. Destinations like the Grand Canyon, Death Valley, and Utah's Rainbow Bridge National Monument have attracted astrophiles and "star parties" for years. If you know where to go, what to pack, and how to go about your own stargazing road trip, you're liable to become one of those nocturnal star-seeking nomads yourself.
Choosing Your Destination
International Dark Sky Places in the U.S. often overlap with national parks. These patches of protected nature are typically distant from urban areas, which helps cut down on light pollution, and many national parks across the country offer ranger-led stargazing gatherings for beginners and aficionados alike. Among the most notable are Acadia National Park in Maine, Joshua Tree National Park in California, and Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska. But although remoteness is key, you don't have to go entirely off-grid to see some galactic action. Less isolated options include Clayton Lake State Park, about 15 miles from Clayton, New Mexico, and Cedar Breaks National Monument, roughly 25 miles from Cedar City, Utah—both offering great stargazing conditions a stone's throw from civilization.
Certified International Dark Sky Places are located all over the U.S. and the world. Consult the IDA's official list to choose one that's viable for you.
What to Look for in a Spot
Choosing a destination is only part of what goes into a stargazing road trip. In order to get the best vantage point—unobstructed by mountains, trees, and buildings—you must get specific in establishing your target. Serious stargazers may even narrow it down to GPS coordinates. Take your telescope to a location far from campgrounds, traffic, and buildings, perhaps to the top of a hill where you have a panoramic view. Although trees provide a bit of wind cover, it's ideal to get as high as you can, above the tree line if possible, because turbulence in the atmosphere can obstruct telescopic views. This, and the benefit of seeing a greater portion of the sky at altitude, is the reason why most observatories are located on mountaintops.
Where to Stay
Camping and stargazing go hand in hand. Perhaps the best way to truly immerse yourself in the scenes of the universe is to sleep out under it. What's more, ideal stargazing spots are located in remote areas far from hotels and civilization, so unless you're willing to wake up in the middle of the night and drive a ways, camping close to the vantage point may be your best option. Fortunately, most U.S. national parks offer on-site camping. The campgrounds themselves may not be the best place to set up your telescope if there are lights around, but many are located within certified Dark Sky Places: Devil's Garden Campground in Arches National Park, Utah; North Rim Campground in Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Colorado; Texas Springs Campground in Death Valley National Park, California; and Chisos Basin Campground in Big Bend National Park, Texas.
To make it even easier, the virtual camping/glamping marketplace Hipcamp compiled a handy map of dark-sky campgrounds in the U.S. using official IDA data.
When to Go
While you may want to take advantage of the alpenglow while setting up your gear to avoid using a flashlight, the best time for stargazing is around midnight, when the sun is farthest below the horizon. You'll also want to avoid a bright moon, so go as close to a new moon as possible for optimal darkness. Give your eyes 20 minutes to adjust before attempting to locate constellations.
Stargazing is a year-round event. While long winter nights offer more hours of darkness than summer nights, they're more uncomfortable and, in some places, more prone to clouds than summer. Summer warmth makes stargazing more comfortable and, according to NASA's Night Sky Network, the season offers great viewing opportunities of the Coma Cluster, Sagittarius and its Teapot, and the Summer Triangle, as well as the Perseids meteor shower peaking in August.
Equipment to Bring
The final line of order when preparing for a stargazing road trip is packing the car.
- Stargazing gear: A telescope is the primary item in a stargazing experience, but you don't need any fancy astro equipment to enjoy the night sky. Some stars, planets, constellations, and the Milky Way, for instance, can be seen with the naked eye. Bring binoculars for a boost if you don't have access to a telescope and, of course, pack a flashlight.
- Star charts or maps: There are countless star charts and maps on the market to help you identify your findings, but one of the most widely used is the David S. Chandler Night Sky Planisphere, a rotating star wheel that you simply hold up to the sky.
- Apps: As an alternative to physical star charts, simply download a virtual star identifier such as the SkyView Lite app or SkySafari. For more information about what, exactly, you're looking at, download NASA's official app.
- Warm clothes: Even if your destination happens to be Joshua Tree or Death Valley during summer, be prepared for cold nights. Deserts, in particular, get surprisingly chilly after dark because they don't often have clouds to hold in the heat of the day. Bring blankets, jackets, coats, thermal socks, and a hot drink.
- Observation log: You may be so inspired by what you see that you'll want to jot it down in an astronomical log book. Record your observations every time you go stargazing and you'll be acquainted with the night sky in no time.
Feeling like you don't know where to start? Seek out a star party, either at a national park or in one of the International Dark Sky Communities, where experts will have telescopes set up to help beginners.