I was kayaking in Tomales Bay (California) when I first stared at the Milky Way. After that encounter, I researched locations to view it outdoors in the backcountry. If you want to find the best places for looking at the Milky Way, this list will help you discover which outdoor camping spots have the darkest skies on the planet.
Big Bend National Park
The dark skies are “dark as coal” according to the National Park Service. The IDA (International Dark-Sky Association) agrees—you’ll find this majestic location on their list of outdoor travel places. Its location is the Far West region of Texas and there’s no artificial light source for miles, nor are there cities nearby. You can hike along 150 miles of trails that cover the expanse of this park. The entire area looms larger than the state of Rhode Island. Plus a fossil discovery is possible as well! Specific campsites are available for up to 14 consecutive nights, but you can camp for a total of 28 nights per year. The Milky Way, along with 2,000 other stars, is viewable from any area of the park.
Death Valley National Park
Death Valley is the land of extremes. North America’s driest spot includes weather phenomenon such as extreme heat, snow and sparse rains. Stargazing enthusiasts usually flock to the Furnace Creek campground to observe the Milky Way under the very dark skies. Late winter and early spring are oftentimes infamous for hosted tours of the night sky by park rangers.
Galloway Forest Park
The heart of Galloway, southern Scotland, hosts a three-hundred square mile forest park that offers sanctuary from urban environments. Due to its remoteness, the IDA certifies the dark skies in this location; perfect for night sky viewing of the Milky Way. This location is also unique for its lodging—hotels and campgrounds are available, and the outdoors are always nearby regardless of where you stay. Other astronomical wonders include: shooting stars, the Andromeda Galaxy, the Aurora Borealis and stellar nurseries (new suns of distant planets).
Black Canyon Of The Gunnison
This dark sky spot is a prime Colorado area to view the Milky Way. Numerous hiking trails, along with a treacherous path to the inner canyon, along with rock climbing and kayaking and fishing are available activities for the outdoor enthusiast. Campground locations include the North Rim, South Rim and East Portal.
Cherry Springs State Park
Located on a Pennsylvania mountaintop that’s 2,300 feet tall, this spot is an astronomer’s dream. Surrounded by the undeveloped 262,000-acre Susquehannock State Forest, and nearby communities shielded by the valley, this area’s dark skies allows anyone to view the nucleus of the Milky Way Galaxy. The Astronomy Field offers a 360-view of the night sky. A nearby observatory allows the public to look at close-up views of the universe, and people can setup their own telescopes. You can pitch a tent or park your RV if you’re interested in overnight stays; campgrounds have running electricity and bathrooms. Inns and cabins are also available as lodging options. Galaxy Passes are available for year-round visits.
Enchanted Rock State Natural Area
Camping, hiking, rock climbing and other fun outdoor activities are available—but you’re probably more interested in knowing where you can see the Milky Way. Luckily for you, this Central Texas night sky spot offers expansive views of the universe. Stargazing is possible from any corner of this park. The rangers have even installed dark sky monitors that measures the level of darkness. For daytime views, climb to the top of an ancient dome. Campers can choose walk-in or primitive campsites (Moss Lake and Walnut Springs, which require 1-3 miles of backpacking; no water available).
Grand Canyon – Parashant National Monument
Only primitive campsites (no toilets, running water, accomodations) are available in this region just outside of the Grand Canyon. However…you don’t need permits! Just arrive, pitch your tent and enjoy the backcountry. There are some limitations: maximum 14 day stay, and water-side camping is forbidden. The IDA certifies this region as a dark sky location—it’s remote, mostly cloud-free, features high elevation and the area is sparsely populated. Due to extreme remoteness, urgent preparation is required.
Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park
This 54,000-acre preserve represents the largest remaining Florida dry prairie. The land’s remoteness allows for very dark skies. Backpackers can observe the Milky Way and other luminous stars from outside their tents. Convenient and primitive campsites are available, although the campgrounds in the wilderness are 2.5 miles from the office. All water and food must be backpacked in/out of the wilderness area. They have 35 campsites with electricity and other conveniences. You can bring pets, but they’re forbidden in the primitive camping areas.
The IDA designated the Cosmic Campground as North America’s first dark sky sanctuary. Visitors can park their RVs or stay at a number of campsites on this ground located just off of I-180 in New Mexico. Star parties and astronomers flock to this location every year, gazing at the Milky Way Galaxy that rises in the horizon of the night sky. Unfortunately the website isn’t completely organized but you can find information about the campgrounds.
Sark Channel Islands
These islands are one of the rarest travel places on the planet where you don’t need to travel into the backcountry to view the Milky Way. The galaxy appears in full view from within the middle of towns. That’s because there aren’t many bright communities and there’s a sparse population living on the islands. You can partake in many daytime outdoor activities (hiking, kayaking, coastal cruising, etc.) but no tents required for stargazing.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park
The night sky is dark enough for you to view the Milky Way. North Dakota holds a Nights Astronomy Festival every year. Convenient campgrounds for RVs and car-campers are available. Backcountry camping is free; there’s no established campsite for primitive camping. The park hasn’t approved any safe sources of drinking water and they recommend bringing all your sources of water. Violent summer and winter thunderstorms can develop; campers are advised to stay alert at all times. Besides stargazing you can enjoy a number of outdoor activities: bicycling, fishing, skiing, kayaking and horseback riding.