Whether you’re observing the moon, planets and constellations through gigantic telescopes or scanning the heavens with the naked eye, some places in America are better than others for stargazing. Here are five super places to enjoy nature’s celestial show:
Peering through a towering telescope near McDonald Observatory, 13-year-old Katherine Hausknecht gazes at Jupiter and spies the Great Red Spot on our solar system’s largest planet.
“I can really see its storms!” says Katherine, a seventh-grader from El Paso, Texas, referring to the planet’s astronomical weather phenomenon. Her brother, John, 11, takes his own turn looking skyward during a family-oriented star party at the observatory’s Rebecca Gale Telescope Park. “You can really see its stripes!” he says of Jupiter’s mysterious belt-like pattern.
The youngsters’ celestial view is one of the best in the nation for stargazing, thanks to the surrounding Davis Mountains, which block artificial light at night; local ordinances that restrict use of artificial lighting; and dry, cloudless conditions that enhance stargazing at an elevation of 6,791 feet.
The McDonald Observatory visitors center, northwest of Fort Davis, offers events three times a week to educate guests about night skies. While gentle red lighting illuminates the outdoor viewing area, attendees meander the grounds, peer through telescopes and learn from astronomy experts. The use of flashlights, cell phones and camera flashes is prohibited.
“Each time you use white light, your eyes need 15 minutes to readjust to the dark,” explained program coordinator Frank Cianciolo, 50, during a star party last spring.
A research unit of the University of Texas at Austin, the observatory houses a Hobby-Eberly Telescope, one of the world’s largest optical telescopes.
While most of the nation’s skies have grown brighter from encroaching artificial light, western Texas has protected its dark nights through lighting ordinances and a committed astronomy community.
Since 1979, astronomers ranging from novices to professionals have flocked to the Texas Star Party, considered the granddaddy of star parties. The annual spring event takes place on a 3,500-acre private ranch 12 miles from McDonald Observatory and caps attendance at 700.
Further southeast, Big Bend National Park, near Redford, Texas, serves as another stargazing destination. Larger than the state of Rhode Island, the sprawling park is one of 11 places in the world designated an International Dark Sky Park.
Big Pine Key, Fla.
Home to the National Key Deer Wildlife Refuge, this Florida island lies 100 miles from Miami’s bright lights and restricts artificial lighting to accommodate nesting sea turtles. Wintertime delivers a special treat: the Southern Cross constellation. At 24.99 degrees latitude, Big Pine Key is one of the few places in the United States to see the small but beautiful constellation in the Southern sky.
“Even though you’re at sea level, the air’s very stable,” says Lester Shalloway, 62, president of the Miami-based Southern Cross Astronomical Society (SCAS). “Because of that, we get incredible views of planets at low magnification.”
Founded in 1922 and one of the oldest astronomical societies in the Western Hemisphere, SCAS sponsors its Winter Star Party each February on nearby Scout Key. Attendees follow a “no white light” protocol, especially since many SCAS members practice astrophotography, a hobby that converges art with science.
“Astrophotography requires extremely long exposures,” Shalloway explains, “and a single flash of white light destroys hours of someone’s hard work.”
Socorro County, N.M.
Long before New Mexico voters passed the Night Sky Protection Act in 1999, scientists recognized the Land of Enchantment as an astronomical jewel.
“Because it’s so dry here, we tend to have more clear nights suitable for astronomy than many other places,” says Daniel A. Klinglesmith III, 73, outreach coordinator for Magdalena Ridge Observatory, which is operated by the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology (NMT) in Socorro (pop. 9,051).
At an elevation of 10,600 feet, Magadalena Ridge is the second highest observatory in the continental United States and is open to the public each fall for its Enchanted Skies Star Party. (The Meyer-Womble Observatory on Mount Evans, Colo., is highest at 14,148 feet.)
Nearby, the Etscorn Campus Observatory, also operated by NMT, welcomes visitors on the first Saturday of each month for free star parties led by professors and graduate students.
Also in the region, on the Plains of San Agustin, the National Science Foundation oversees one of the world’s premier astronomical radio observatories, used by astronomers from around the world. Consisting of 27 massive dish radio antennas in a Y-shaped configuration, the antennas—known as the Very Large Array—form a single radio telescope system designed to interpret the energy of the universe. On the first Saturday of each month, visitors can enjoy free guided tours and family-friendly activities.
Cherry Springs State Park, Pa.
At an elevation of 2,300 feet, Cherry Springs State Park ranks among the best places to stargaze in the Northeast.
The 262,000-acre Susquehannock State Forest insulates the park from artificial lighting, while valleys retain most light generated by the nearby towns of Galeton (pop. 1,149) and Coudersport (pop. 2,546).
“It’s such an accessible spot for such a great viewing location. We’re within just a few hours’ drive of large populations,” says Greg Snowman, 49, the park’s environmental education specialist.
In 2008, Cherry Springs was designated an International Dark Sky Park by the International Dark-Skies Association (IDA), a nonprofit organization based in Tucson, Ariz., and dedicated to the thoughtful use of light at night.
During weekend programs from May through Labor Day, visitors can use the park’s stargazing equipment in the park’s 360-degree viewing area.
“I love to see people’s reactions when they look through the telescope and then look up at the sky, like ‘Is that really up there?’” Snowman says.
Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah
The 7,500-acre area in southern Utah was designated the world’s first International Dark Sky Park in 2008.
“The park’s a long way from anywhere. A million acres of wilderness surround us, all off the grid,” says Gordon Gower, 62, a National Park Service sky ranger.
At an elevation of 9,000 feet and nestled in forests of pine, aspen and Douglas fir trees, Natural Bridges offers among the nation’s most pristine night-sky conditions. The park is surrounded on three sides by plateaus, separated from Blanding (pop. 3,375) by 40 miles and a bluff.
From May through September, Gower presents twice-weekly educational programs featuring advanced stargazing equipment. “I have fun with the programs. They’re not a boring recitation of facts,” Gower says. “Astronomy is way too interesting for that!”