As the sun sets and the world around us darkens, a whole new universe unveils itself, sparkling with the celestial beauty of countless stars. With the increasing rarity of truly dark skies due to artificial lights, dark sky national parks have emerged as exceptional destinations to appreciate the wonders of stargazing. We have gathered our top parks and tips for enjoying and photographing the stars.
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What are dark skies
The concept of dark sky national parks and observatories has emerged to preserve the experience of gazing at a starlit sky. These designated areas focus on minimizing light pollution and offer optimal conditions for stargazing, often hosting educational programs and events to inspire and inform visitors.
What makes an excellent stargazing destination
Families embracing the RV lifestyle have the opportunity to uncover numerous dark sky parks and observatories, adding a cosmic dimension to their adventures on the road. By incorporating this activity into their daily experiences, families traversing the country can foster their curiosity about the cosmos.
Low light pollution is one of the most critical factors in determining an excellent stargazing destination. Urban areas, with their abundance of streetlights, advertising signs, and residential lighting, can significantly hamper our ability to view the night sky in all its glory. The more we reduce light pollution, the better the stars become visible to the naked eye, allowing for a truly mesmerizing stargazing experience.
Another essential aspect of an ideal stargazing location is clear skies and favorable weather conditions. Cloud cover, high humidity, and airborne particles can all impact visibility, making it challenging to observe the sky. Regions with a predominantly dry climate and minimal cloud cover offer the best stargazing opportunities, providing stunning night sky views.
Boondocking on BLM land can provide fantastic stargazing opportunities. Since these areas are often situated far from major cities and their accompanying light pollution, the skies overhead are typically darker and clearer. RV-living families can take advantage of these remote locations to escape the hustle and bustle of urban life, immersing themselves in the serene beauty of the cosmos and creating unforgettable memories beneath the starlit sky.
Top Dark Sky National Parks
As you embark on your RV journey to explore the wonders of the night sky, there’s no better place to start than our National Parks. These natural treasures provide breathtaking landscapes and diverse ecosystems and serve as sanctuaries for stargazers, thanks to their remote locations, low light pollution, and clear skies. In this section, we’ll delve into a selection of these remarkable parks, highlighting their unique stargazing opportunities and range of activities.
Grand Teton National Park
Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming is a spectacular destination for stargazing, offering breathtaking views of the Teton Range and stunning night skies. The park’s high elevation, low humidity, and minimal light pollution create ideal conditions are one of our favorite dark sky national parks.
Capturing the stars and the Milky Way in Grand Teton National Park can be a breathtaking experience. Some of the best locations for astrophotography within the park include:
- Mormon Row Historic District: Photographing the historic barns and homesteads under a starry sky creates a stunning contrast between the rustic structures and the celestial backdrop.
- Oxbow Bend: With its tranquil waters and the Teton Range in the background, Oxbow Bend can be a magical spot for capturing the reflections of stars on the Snake River.
- Snake River Overlook: The winding Snake River and the Teton Range create a dramatic composition to capture the landscape and the night sky.
- Jenny Lake: The serene waters of Jenny Lake offer opportunities to photograph the starry sky with reflections on the water.
- Signal Mountain Summit: The panoramic views from Signal Mountain Summit can provide an expansive view of the night sky.
Big Bend National Park
Big Bend National Park, located in the remote region of West Texas, is renowned for its exceptionally dark skies, making it an excellent destination for stargazing enthusiasts. The park’s clear skies and dry climate provide ideal viewing conditions for observing celestial phenomena.
Big Bend National Park offers numerous locations for capturing stunning starry photographs. Here are some of the best spots within the park:
- Chisos Basin: The Chisos Mountains’ dramatic formations create a unique foreground for night sky photography. The Basin area, with its higher elevation and relatively easy access, is an excellent spot for capturing the stars and the Milky Way.
- Santa Elena Canyon: Located along the Rio Grande, Santa Elena Canyon boasts towering cliff walls that can create a striking contrast with the star-filled sky above. The canyon’s entrance is particularly picturesque when illuminated by starlight.
- Boquillas Canyon Overlook: Another beautiful canyon in the park, Boquillas Canyon, offers panoramic views of the Rio Grande and the surrounding landscape.
- Mule Ears Viewpoint: The iconic Mule Ears peaks can serve as an intriguing foreground for your starry night photographs, adding depth and interest to your images.
- Dagger Flat Auto Trail: This scenic drive takes you through a dense forest of dagger-like yucca plants that can add an interesting foreground element to your starry sky photos.
Bryce Canyon National Park
Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah has geological formations known as hoodoos, which are even more impressive when observed under the starry sky. The park’s high altitude and remote location contribute to its extraordinary stargazing opportunities. Additionally, Bryce Canyon offers ranger-led astronomy programs and an annual astronomy festival.
The Bryce Canyon National Park Annual Astronomy Festival is a multi-day event that celebrates the park’s exceptional night skies and encourages visitors to learn about and experience the wonders of astronomy. The festival usually takes place in June, when the skies are clear and the nights are relatively warm. The festival is a great way to experience the dark sky national parks.
The Bryce Canyon Astronomy Festival is an incredible opportunity for visitors to immerse themselves in astronomy and appreciate the beauty of the park’s dark skies. Check the Bryce Canyon National Park’s official website for the most up-to-date information on the festival’s dates, activities, and registration requirements.
Bryce Canyon National Park has a stunning setting with its dark skies and unique geological formations. Here are some of the best spots to take starry photos within the park:
- Sunset Point: As one of the most famous viewpoints in the park, Sunset Point offers breathtaking views of the Bryce Amphitheater and the famous hoodoos.
- Inspiration Point: This viewpoint presents a panoramic vista of the Bryce Amphitheater and the surrounding landscape.
- Bryce Point: Another great spot to photograph the stars, Bryce Point features an expansive view of the Bryce Amphitheater and its hoodoos.
- Paria View: With a stunning view of the hoodoos and the Paria Valley, Paria View is an excellent location to show the contrast between the rock formations.
- Fairyland Point: Fairyland Point overlooks the Fairyland Canyon, providing a unique perspective of the hoodoos and the stars above.
Great Basin National Park
Great Basin National Park in Nevada has some of the darkest skies in the United States, making it a prime location for stargazing. Its isolation from major cities and minimal light pollution offers unparalleled views of the Milky Way. The park provides astronomy programs and an annual astronomy festival.
Here are some excellent spots within the park to capture starry photos:
- Mather Overlook: This viewpoint offers a sweeping vista of the Great Basin Desert and the surrounding mountain ranges.
- Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive: Along this scenic drive, you’ll find various pullouts and viewpoints that provide excellent opportunities to capture the stars and the park’s unique landscape. The higher elevations along the drive can offer clearer night sky views.
- Stella Lake: Nestled at the base of Wheeler Peak, Stella Lake provides a beautiful foreground for your starry night photos. The lake’s calm waters can create stunning reflections of the night sky.
- Bristlecone Pine Grove: Capture the ancient Bristlecone Pines under a starlit sky for a truly unique and captivating image. The grove is accessible via the Bristlecone and Glacier Trail.
Capitol Reef National Park
Capitol Reef National Park in Utah has dramatic cliffs, canyons, and domes, which form a picturesque backdrop for stargazing. The park’s remote location and limited light pollution create excellent night sky viewing conditions. Capitol Reef also offers ranger-led stargazing events and workshops.
Capitol Reef National Park in Utah is a designated International Dark Sky Park. Here are some of the best locations within the park for night sky photography:
- Panorama Point: This easily accessible viewpoint offers panoramic views of the Waterpocket Fold and the park’s striking geologic features.
- Sunset Point: Another easily accessible location, Sunset Point offers wide-open sky views with the park’s unique rock formations and cliffs as a captivating foreground.
- Cathedral Valley: This remote and lovely park area offers solitude and dark skies, perfect for capturing the Milky Way and other celestial objects.
- Hickman Bridge Trailhead: The area around the Hickman Bridge Trailhead offers open views of the night sky, and the nearby rock formations can add depth and interest to your astrophotography.
- Fruita Historic District: This picturesque park area features historic orchards, barns, and a one-room schoolhouse that can create a charming foreground for your starry night images.
- Grand Wash: The towering cliffs and rock formations of Grand Wash create a dramatic setting for capturing the night sky. The wash can provide natural framing for your photography.
- Strike Valley Overlook: Accessible via the Burr Trail Road, this viewpoint offers panoramic views of the Waterpocket Fold and Strike Valley. The elevated vantage point can create stunning compositions with the night sky.
Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Tree National Park, situated in the California desert, is another exceptional location for stargazing. Its dry climate, clear skies, and remote location make it ideal for observing the cosmos. The park hosts night sky programs and the annual Night Sky Festival.
Joshua Tree National Park is one of our favorite dark sky national parks because of the unique rock formations, Joshua Trees, and dark skies. Here are some excellent locations within the park to capture starry photos:
- Arch Rock: Located near the White Tank Campground, Arch Rock offers a striking foreground for night sky photography. Positioning the Milky Way or stars within the natural arch can create a captivating composition.
- Cholla Cactus Garden: The Cholla Cactus Garden is home to a dense collection of Cholla cacti.
- Keys View: This location presents breathtaking panoramas of the Coachella Valley, Salton Sea, and the encompassing mountain ranges because of its elevated vantage point.
- Jumbo Rocks Campground: This area has massive boulders and fascinating rock formations that can add depth and interest to your photos. The nearby Joshua Trees also make for great foreground subjects.
- Skull Rock: As one of the park’s iconic features, Skull Rock creates a unique and dramatic foreground for photographing the night sky. Experiment with different angles and compositions to showcase its distinct shape.
Canyonlands National Park
Canyonlands National Park in Utah offers a dramatic setting for stargazing. Its remote location and minimal light pollution allow for incredible night sky views. The park occasionally offers ranger-led stargazing programs.
Here are some excellent locations within the park for night sky photography:
- Mesa Arch: This iconic natural arch is excellent for framing the Milky Way or stars within and can create a dramatic composition. Be sure to arrive early, as this location can get crowded.
- Green River Overlook: This viewpoint offers a panoramic vista of the Green River and the surrounding canyons. The dramatic landscape provides an excellent backdrop for capturing the night sky.
- Grand View Point Overlook: You can capture sweeping views of the canyons and the distant mountains.
- White Rim Overlook: This lesser-known viewpoint offers a more secluded setting for capturing the night sky. The stunning view of the White Rim and the surrounding canyons make for a captivating composition.
- The Needles District: The striking sandstone spires and unique rock formations in the Needles District make for an exceptional setting for capturing the night sky. Elephant Hill, Chesler Park, and Druid Arch can offer gorgeous compositions.
- Island in the Sky District: This elevated area of the park features a variety of viewpoints and geological features that provide excellent opportunities for night sky photography, such as the Shafer Canyon Overlook and the Neck Spring area.
Glacier National Park
Glacier is a stunning wilderness area located in the Rocky Mountains of Montana, United States, bordering the Canadian provinces of Alberta and British Columbia. The park is renowned for its dramatic peaks, clear waters, abundant wildlife, and over a million acres of forests, alpine meadows, and lakes.
The altitude, often clear skies, and low light pollution makes Glacier another one of our favorite dark sky national parks.
Here are some excellent spots to consider:
- Logan Pass: Situated along the Going-to-the-Sun Road, Logan Pass offers a panoramic view of the sky. This area is at a high altitude and far from any city lights, making it an ideal spot for capturing the night sky. Logan Pass is also accessible, which is excellent for those who don’t want to hike too far with their equipment.
- Lake McDonald: The largest lake in the park, Lake McDonald, is another excellent spot. The reflections of the stars in the calm water create a stunning effect.
- Many Glacier: This area offers a variety of stunning landscapes to include in your composition, like mountains, valleys, and water bodies. It’s also one of the best places in the park to see wildlife so that you can capture some unique shots. Be careful walking around in the dark—there are grizzlies!
- Two Medicine Lake: Less crowded than other locations, Two Medicine Lake provides a tranquil setting for astrophotography.
- St. Mary Lake: It’s the second largest lake in the park and offers unobstructed sky views. The famous Wild Goose Island in the middle of the lake can be a unique element in your compositions.
Dark sky Community
Cottonwood, Arizona, has earned the distinction of being a Dark Sky Community. This title, bestowed by the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA), highlights the town’s commitment to preserving the pristine night skies and reducing light pollution.
The local community and government have worked diligently to implement strict lighting ordinances and raise awareness about the importance of dark skies. This commitment to preserving natural darkness enhances the stargazing experience, supports nocturnal wildlife, and promotes sustainable, eco-friendly tourism. Cottonwood’s status as a Dark Sky Community makes it an ideal destination for RV-living families seeking night skies.
We have seen more shooting stars in Cottonwood than in any other place.
Tips for a successful stargazing experience
To ensure a memorable and successful stargazing experience at a national park, follow these tips:
- Plan ahead: Research the park you plan to visit, check for any stargazing events or ranger-led programs, and familiarize yourself with the park’s rules and regulations.
- Choose the right time: Aim for a night with clear skies and minimal cloud cover. Check the weather forecast in advance and plan your visit around the moon phases, as a new moon or crescent moon phase will provide darker skies for better stargazing.
- Arrive early: Give yourself ample time to explore the park during daylight hours and scout potential stargazing spots. Arriving early also allows your eyes to adjust to the darkness, improving your night vision.
- Dress appropriately: Nighttime temperatures can drop significantly, even during summer (especially in the desert). Dress in layers and wear warm clothing to stay comfortable throughout your stargazing experience.
- Bring the right gear: A red flashlight or headlamp will help you navigate the dark without disrupting your night vision. Binoculars or a telescope can enhance your stargazing experience by providing closer views of celestial objects. Bring a blanket, chair, or sleeping pad for comfort while observing the sky.
- Use a stargazing app: There are numerous stargazing apps available for smartphones and tablets that can help you identify constellations, stars, and other celestial objects. These apps often have a night mode that will maintain your night vision.
- Practice patience: Take time and allow your eyes to adjust to the darkness. The longer you spend observing the sky, the more stars and celestial objects you’ll be able to see.
- Follow Leave No Trace principles: Help preserve the beauty of national parks by practicing Leave No Trace principles, such as staying on designated trails, packing out your trash, and respecting wildlife.
- Be mindful of light pollution: Turn off or dim any unnecessary lights in your campsite or vehicle to minimize light pollution and maintain the park’s dark skies.
- Share the experience: Stargazing can be a fun and educational activity for family or friends. Share your experience with others, and consider joining ranger-led programs or group stargazing events to learn more about the night sky.
Bring comfortable chairs and a cozy blanket to admire the night sky in style.
Tips for photographing the night sky
To ensure you achieve breathtaking photography images, consider these essential tips:
- Plan your shoot: Research the location, check the weather forecast, and choose a night with minimal cloud cover and moonlight for the darkest skies. Familiarize yourself with the moon phases and plan your shoot around the new or crescent moon phases for the best results.
- Use a sturdy tripod: A solid tripod is essential for astrophotography, as it ensures stability during long exposures and helps prevent blurry images.
- Choose the right camera and lens: A DSLR or mirrorless camera with manual settings is ideal for astrophotography. A wide-angle lens (14mm-24mm) with a fast aperture (f/2.8 or lower) is recommended to capture more light and detail.
- Manual focus: Autofocus often struggles in low-light conditions, so switch to manual focus and use live view to focus on a bright star or distant object.
- Use the correct camera settings:
- Mode: Set your camera to manual mode (M) to fully control the settings.
- Aperture: Use the widest aperture (lowest f-number) available on your lens to let in as much light as possible.
- ISO: Start with an ISO setting between 1600 and 3200, adjusting as needed for the desired exposure.
- Shutter speed: Begin with a shutter speed of 15-30 seconds. To avoid star trails, use the “500 Rule” (500 divided by your lens’s focal length) as a guideline for the maximum exposure time.
- Shoot in RAW format: RAW files retain more information and provide greater flexibility during post-processing, allowing you to adjust exposure, white balance, and other settings without degrading image quality.
- Use a remote shutter release or self-timer: This helps to minimize camera shake and prevent blurry images when pressing the shutter button.
- Take multiple exposures: Capture several exposures of the same scene, which can be stacked during post-processing to reduce noise and improve image quality.
- Experiment with composition: Look for an interesting foreground, such as trees, rock formations, or bodies of water, to create depth and add visual interest to your night sky photos.
- Post-process your images: Use photo editing software like Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop to adjust exposure, white balance, and noise reduction. Experiment with image stacking techniques to create cleaner, more detailed images.
Get the kiddos involved
As your kiddos gaze up at the stars and learn about the vast universe surrounding them, children will develop a greater appreciation for the wonders of the natural world and their place within it. Here are some things to help get the kiddos involved:
- Star maps and apps: Provide kids with a star map or download a user-friendly stargazing app on your smartphone or tablet. These tools can help them identify constellations, planets, and other celestial objects, making the experience interactive and educational.
- Create a scavenger hunt: List constellations, stars, or planets you’d like the kids to find during the stargazing session. This activity will encourage them to explore the night sky and learn about various celestial objects in a fun and engaging way.
- Storytelling: Kids love stories, which can be a great way to keep them entertained while teaching them about the cultural and historical significance of the stars.
- Astronomy crafts: Prepare simple crafts such as making constellation viewers from paper tubes or crafting a model solar system.
- Ask questions and encourage curiosity: Ask open-ended questions about the stars, planets, and other celestial objects to stimulate their interest and provoke deeper thinking. Be open to their questions as well, and take the time to research the answers together if you don’t know them.
- Attend ranger-led programs or stargazing events: Many national parks and observatories offer ranger-led programs or special astronomy events for families. These activities can provide a more structured and informative experience for kids.
Embracing the magic of stargazing
Stargazing offers a remarkable opportunity for RV families to deepen their connection with the natural world, nurture their curiosity, and create lasting memories under the stars. Dark Sky national parks provide exceptional settings for families to explore the cosmos together while learning about the importance of preserving our night skies for future generations.
As you travel the country in your RV, we encourage you to seek out your own stargazing adventures, whether in a designated dark sky park, a remote boondocking location, or even your campsite. With each star-filled night, you’ll create unforgettable memories and strengthen the bond between your family and the cosmos surrounding us.