The night sky is full of magic—which in many places, can be hard to see.
These days, 80% of Americans can’t see the Milky Way from their backyards. But there are still a number of spots that are carefully kept free of light pollution, and where you can see an arm of our galaxy, thousands of stars, and planets, just by turning your eyes upward.
Dark-skies locations can make for a fantastic family vacation. If you’re planning a visit, be sure to consider what’s happening in the skies. During a full moon, you won’t be able to see as many stars, but will be able to enjoy moonlit hikes or wanderings. You could also coordinate a trip around a meteor shower (like the Perseids, which strike every summer), lunar eclipse, or other astronomical event. To really ignite kids’ celestial curiosity, get a laser pointer so you can easily guide them toward constellations or planets, and consider downloading one of the many stargazing apps.
The International Dark-Sky Association maintains a map of certified parks and places so you can plan your next trip around the stars. We picked a half-dozen of our favorites.
Great Sand Dunes National Park
I’ll never forget my first peek at the star-speckled sky in Colorado’s San Luis Valley, before Great Sand Dunes got upgraded from a National Monument to a National Park—or officially became an International Dark Sky Park in 2019. I was 15 and my dad set the alarm for 4 a.m. so we could summit the highest dune barefoot and make it back before the sand was scorching. In summer, take advantage of the night sky programming that park rangers run at an outdoor amphitheater. If your kids are 5 to 12 years old, they can partake in a Junior Ranger Night Explorer program and earn a new patch for their pack. Children may also get a kick out of the UFO Watchtower just a few miles down the road. Behold the strange objects left by visitors in the energy vortex garden, and browse for alien and conspiracy-theory reading material gift shop. nps.gov/grsa
Are dark skies a natural resource? The city of Moab says so. Southern Utah’s HQ of desert adventures has an entire working group dedicated to preserving its starry views. Several of the public parks in the area are also International Dark Sky Certified, including Dead Horse Point State Park and Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. These parks tend to be the busiest during daylight hours. Show up at Arches at dusk or dawn, and you’ll be rewarded not only with short lines and quiet trails, but with the awe-inducing sight of rock arches against a backdrop of stars. Having trouble motivating your kids to wake up early? Lure them with the promise of ice cream—there are some great local scoop shops. discovermoab.com
Staunton River State Park
The East Coast isn’t known for its dark skies. Growing up in Washington, D.C., I was lucky to spot a half-dozen stars in the night. But just a couple hundred miles south of the nation’s capitol lies Staunton River State Park, one of just a handful of International Dark Sky certified locations in the eastern U.S. Constellations aplenty are just one appeal of visiting this park near Scottsburg. With multi-use trails through forests and paddling on two rivers—plus ample camping as well as historic cabins for accommodations—there are plenty of reasons for a visit. The park is also known for hosting an annual spring star party. dcr.virginia.gov
Fun fact: Flagstaff was the very first place in the world to be certified by the International Dark Skies Association. It all started with a visionary lighting ordinance designed to conserve the area’s celestial sights, which was also the world’s first back in 1958. By day, Flagstaff is a world-class adventure destination with great hiking, mountain biking, and rock climbing. After a hot day exploring under the Arizona sun, a little stargazing in the cool evenings is a great way to cap the day. If you really want to get a good peek at the heavens, visit the Lowell Observatory. If it’s love at first sight of those stars, you can even send your kids back for the observatory’s summer camps. flagstaffdarkskies.org
Big Bend National Park
For the biggest starry night views in Texas, travel to the nearest town to Big Bend National Park— Terlingua is just a 15-minute drive to the entrance. During the day, you can see as far as Mexico’s Santa Fe de Los Pinos mountains. By night, take in the Milky Way whether you’re riverside, playing in the Chihuahuan Desert sand, or camping at the base of the mountains. While some consider Terlingua a ghost town (the bustle of its mining days are long gone), it’s still a charming community, with amenities that make it family-friendly, too, like a general store, art galleries, restaurants, and lodging.
If you have extra time, head a few hours east to Big Bend Ranch State Park, also a certified Dark Sky park. The park contains nearly 300,000 acres of wilderness stretching across volcanic landscapes all the way down to the Mexican border. Remote terrain has even earned this area the nickname El Despoblado, which translates to “the uninhabited”— you can bet you’ll be able to catch some epic stars. visitbigbend.com
Glacier National Park
Climate change is shrinking the namesake glaciers of this national park—trek north with your kids so they have a chance to see the icy behemoths before they all but disappear. An added reason to go is the stars you’ll be able to see. Going-to-the-Sun Road is a popular spot to go look up away from any lights. Rangers lead star parties and programs at park visitor centers. You can also see the aurora at Glacier; your best bet is to visit in winter (or late fall/early spring). To extend the trip, hop across the Canadian border to spy more stars at Waterton Lakes National Park. glacier.org