Finding a good stargazing spot is not an easy thing. Research shows that the Milky Way is not visible to more than one-third of the world’s population. In the United States, more than 80% of the population lives in cities or urban areas where light pollution compromises the view of the stars. Fortunately, the US is home to some unique places for stargazers. Here are 4 destinations to catch the best views of the Milky Way.
1. Ketchum, Idaho
Ketchum is a small mountain town nestled in the Rocky Mountains of central Idaho and one of the best spots for stargazing. This vibrant city is known for its hiking and mountain biking trails, skiing, clear waterways, and – most importantly – pristine night skies. Besides its natural beauties, Ketchum’s downtown also boasts restaurants, art galleries and shops and hosts cultural events all year round. In 2018, Ketchum was designated as a Dark Sky Community by the International Dark-Sky Association, becoming one of the 11 cities in the U.S. to have the coveted International Dark Sky Community designation. Ketchum is part of the Central Idaho Dark Sky Reserve, a huge portion of land encompassing 906,000 acres, where it is possible to catch amazing views of the Milky Way, planets, meteors, comets, and deep sky objects. The city has approved various ordinances to reduce light pollution, making it possible for locals and visitors to enjoy the Milky Way and the surrounding constellations in complete darkness. For example, one ordinance requires street and building exterior lights to be pointed downward, allowing people to better see what’s in front of them when walking at night. Another ordinance aims at regulating the display of holiday lights.
2. Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah
Located in the southwestern United States along a high plateau at the top of the Grand Staircase, Bryce Canyon National Park boasts the world’s largest concentration of hoodoos (irregular columns of rock). Thanks to its high elevations, park’s visitors can enjoy fantastic starry dark skies. The 35,000-acre national park organizes night excursions guided by trained Astronomy Rangers, during which participants can admire with the naked eye more than 7,500 stars, and, if lucky enough, catch a glimpse of Venus and Jupiter and a fabulous Milky Way. There are several reasons why Bryce Canyon National Park is one of the top astrotourism destinations in the United States. Firstly, pollutants are very scarce there. Secondly, thanks to its high altitude, the national park is far away from the city lights. Each June, the park hosts an annual Astronomy Festival, which is free with park admission. Some traditional events include telescope viewing, model rockets, keynote speakers at Ebenezer’s Barn and Grill, family-friendly daytime activities, evening programs on a variety of astronomy-focused topics, and constellation tours with rangers.
3. Mauna Kea, Hawaii
Mauna Kea is a dormant volcano located on the Big Island of Hawaii. Being the highest peak in Hawaii (around 4,300 meters above sea level), Mauna Kea offers the best stargazing opportunities in the region thanks to its total darkness and clarity. The Onizuka Center for International Astronomy Visitor Information Station is situated halfway up Mauna Kea. The center organizes nightly stargazing programs and tours with telescopes. From the center, travelers can go up to the volcano’s summit either by themselves or by joining a guided excursion. Mauna Kea is the world’s largest and most advanced astronomical observatory. Additionally, the entire island has a light ordinance and there are no pollutants, making the skies always clear for stargazing. All visitors are advised to stop midway on their journey up to give their body enough time to adapt to the high altitude, which otherwise might cause sickness. Additionally, the temperature at Mauna Kea summit changes dramatically and freezing temperatures are not rare.
4. Headlands International Dark Sky Park, Michigan
Established in the late 1950s, Headlands International Dark Sky Park is situated along the shoreline of Lake Michigan, at the northwest tip of Michigan’s lower peninsula. The park encompasses 550 acres of woodlands, and many species of rare plants and native animals, including bald eagles, osprey, white tail deer, wild turkeys, coyotes and black bear. The park is a sought-after destination among hikers, bicyclists, cross-country skiers, nature photographers, and stargazers. The 1-mile Dark Sky Discovery Trail takes visitors to the official viewing area, where they’ll be able to enjoy the view of thousands of stars. The park organizes monthly free Dark Sky Park programs and special events connected to celestial phenomena. During meteor showers, the park offers a spectacular view of falling stars reflected on the waters of the lake. In 2011, the Headlands became the sixth International Dark Sky Park in the United States and only the ninth in the world.