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A guide to America's best stargazing spots

Next time you have a chance, look into the night sky. How many stars do you see? It's estimated that around 2,500 stars are visible to the human eye, but because of light pollution you're probably seeing far fewer. Somewhere around 200 to 300 if you are in the suburbs, and less than a dozen in a major city. What's more, only one in three of you is able to see the Milky Way at all. Yes, for too many of us, wishing upon a star isn't as easy as it used to be. 

Today, there are still places to view a star-filled night sky, but you have to get as far away from any urban areas or other human development as you can. And that is exactly what we did. Check out our list of the top eight places to stargaze in the US. 

Kitt Peak National Observatory: Arizona

Just outside of Tucson, the Kitt Peak National Observatory is home to the world's largest collection of telescopes. Why? To take advantage of the clear, dark skies of the Sonoran Desert, of course. Situated at the top of a mountain, the observatory has one of the best night sky views in the U.S. For an extra treat, register for the Nightly Observing Programs and the opportunity to see it all though a 20-inch telescope.  

Mauna Kea: Hawaii

Take in the big night sky on the Big Island. The highest point in Hawaii, Mauna Kea is a dormant volcano with an elevation of nearly 14,000 feet. It's also the site of the world's largest and most advanced astronomical observatory. Three factors make this such a good stargazing spot; there's virtually no light pollution due to its location in the Pacific, a strong island-wide lighting ordinance and above all, a tropical inversion cloud layer that isolates it from the moist ocean air below. The result is dry, pollutant-free skies and tons of stars. One look and you'll understand why many astronomers consider the stargazing atop Mauna Kea to be the best on the planet.  

Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument (International Dark Sky Sanctuary): Maine

This International Dark Sky Sanctuary is located in western Maine, not far from the famous 100 Mile Wilderness, the most remote section of the Appalachian Trail. Mount Katahdin marks the beginning of the trail. At 5,269 it's the highest mountain in the state and the centerpiece of Baxter State Park. And yes, it sure is dark. Every September, the Friends of Katahdin Woods and Waters celebrate Stars Over Katahdin. The day-long event includes a campfire chat hosted by Dark Sky Maine followed by the chance to use a telescope with an expert astronomer on hand to assist you. 

Central Idaho Dark Sky Reserve (International Dark Sky Reserve): Idaho

Less than three hours east of Boise, the Central Idaho Dark Sky Reserve encompasses nearly 1,500 square miles of the Sawtooth National Forest. This is America's first Gold Tier International Dark Sky Reserve. As such, they boast some of the darkest skies in the lower 48 and the chance to see the Milky Way, Andromeda Galaxy, and numerous satellites including the Space Station. Visitors can even see the Galilean Moons of Jupiter and the rings of Saturn with the aid of a small telescope.  

Big Bend National Park (International Dark Sky Park): Texas

Located in the "Big Bend" of the Rio Grande river, the park is the largest protected area of the Chihuahuan Desert. It's also one of the most remote, and least-visited national parks in the country. And according to the Natural Sounds and Night Skies division of the National Park Service it also has the darkest night skies of any national park in the lower 48 states, and therefore some of the best stargazing in the world. Awarded International Dark Sky Park status by the International Dark-Sky Association, to get the most out of the experience join one of the night sky programs which include star parties and moonlight walks.  

Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve: Colorado

Home of the 750-foot-tall Star Dune, the tallest sand dune in North America, and some of the best sandboarding, Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is also a great place for stargazing. Because of its remote location, this is one of the least visited parks in the whole country, which surely helped it become a Gold Tier Dark Sky Park. For a real treat, make a night of it. Backcountry camping in the dunes in specified areas is allowed year-round, although you probably want to limit it to the warmer months.  

Headlands International Dark Sky Park: Mackinaw City, Michigan

For an opportunity to stargaze in the Midwest, Headlands International Dark Sky Park is close to downtown Mackinaw City on Michigan's Lower Peninsula. Located on a peninsula where Lake Michigan and Lake Huron meet, even though it is close to urban, it has very little light pollution. What it does have, along with a sky full of stars, is a lot of organized activities like nighttime storytelling sessions, star parties, astrophotography nights and stargazing cruises. It also gives you one of the best chances of seeing the Northern Lights in the Lower 48.  

Death Valley National Park: California

Another International Dark Sky Association Gold Tier park, Death Valley is often called the hottest place in the world. And thanks to its lack of humidity and remote location (Vegas is 125 miles away) this is also considered one of the best places to see dark skies in the whole USA. Anywhere in the park offers a star filled sky, but for the best views check out the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Ubehebe Peak, Badwater Basin or the Racetrack. Warning: Plan your trip for late fall, winter or early spring. Between May and September the park can become dangerously hot.  

Going Dark

The above is a list of just a few or our favorite dark sky spots in the US. There are a lot more. The National Parks Conservation Association has a list of dozens of national parks designated as International Dark Sky Parks and Sanctuaries. For more information on dark sky preservation initiatives, the International Dark Sky Association's website (darksky.org ) offers details on the effects of light pollution on the environment, ways you can get involved, as well as a comprehensive list of International Dark Sky places selected for their "exceptional or distinguished quality of starry nights."  

In a letter to his brother Theo in 1888, Vincent van Gogh wrote, "For my part I know nothing, but the sight of the stars makes me want to dream." Vince had it right. And if you’re with him on this one, then choose your favorite, spread out a blanket, and dream.  


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