Embrace clear nighttime views, astronomy walks and celestial-friendly activities.
Whether it's the spate of sci-fi movies or the upcoming total solar eclipse, interest in space travel and astro tourism is sky high. Travelers should keep in mind that stargazing is dependent on weather and, often, research facilities that are unsure of funding. However, thanks to nonprofit groups like the International Dark-Sky Association, a growing number of areas are fighting light pollution to conserve our natural nighttime environment. With that in mind, here are 10 places where sky-watchers can discover sublime celestial observations beneath a star-speckled sky.
Big Bend National Park
Because Big Bend has the least light pollution among national parks in the lower 48 states, visitors can see up to 2,000 stars in the Milky Way. This spring's Some Endangered Evening programs are at Chisos Basin Amphitheater, and last summer's weekly telescope and laser programs explored ancient star navigation at Rio Grande Village. Schedules are tentative, so come prepared with your own star charts. You can access printouts at Space.com, CloudyNights.com or Skymaps.com or utilize tools such as Google's Sky Map and binoculars.
Cedar Breaks National Monument
In March, Cedar Breaks became the 16th designated International Dark Sky Park for its protection of natural darkness and many public programs. From Memorial Day through Labor Day weekend, you can enjoy free star parties at Point Supreme Overlook. With a 10,350-foot altitude, on a clear night you may see the moon's craters and mountain ranges as well as the rings of Saturn, Jupiter's Galilean moons, star clusters and more. And in inclement weather, astronomy presentations move indoors. What's more, winter night sky events are planned at nearby Brian Head.
Dinosaur National Monument
Colorado and Utah
If you're a dinosaur enthusiast, head to this scenic area, situated along the Colorado-Utah border, near the Yampa and Green rivers. Today, visitors can hike or raft from the Canyon Visitors Center in Dinosaur, Colorado; then, stop at the Quarry Visitor Center in Jensen, Utah, to admire its famous wall of dinosaur fossils and participate in its Stargazing with Telescopes program. Rangers and amateur astronomers lead 20- to 60-minute sessions devoted to the planets, nebulae, star clusters and other sky objects for ages 5 and older. Sky tours take place at 4,800 feet Wednesday and Saturday nights from July to September, with full-moon walks and a solar eclipse viewing planned.
Greater Palm Springs' desert environment is ideal for stargazing. In the heat of summer, you'll see Jupiter, Saturn and Mars. In August, you can catch sight of Venus, and in winter and spring, you can view the Orion Nebula, Sirius and the Andromeda Galaxy. At nearly 5,000 feet, Joshua Tree National Park holds the annual Night Sky Festival in the fall. Meanwhile, Sky's the Limit Observatory and Nature Center in 29 Palms teaches basics frequently, with adult astronomy camps from April to June. Plus, Rancho Mirage Observatory opens its outdoor viewing deck and telescope in a 22.5-foot rotating dome this autumn. Until then, check into the Ritz-Carlton, Rancho Mirage where an 11-inch computerized telescope magnifies stars.
Above Maui's beaches and the tropical inversion layer, the Haleakala Observatory, an astrophysical complex, studies stars and man-made space such as satellites. Visitors cannot enter, but national park rangers guide day tours, and private companies offer sunset tours for star-chasers. The Hyatt Regency Maui Resort & Spa puts on three Tours of the Stars for $25 nightly. Plus, the Hyatt's sophisticated rooftop observatory includes reflectors, binoculars and the 14-inch Edge telescope, which guests use after practicing with the naked eye and astronomy binoculars. The resort's director of astronomy, Eddie Mahoney, is renowned for his ability to describe each star, constellation and planet while recounting Hawaiian wayfaring lore.
Mauna Kea Observatories
An arid climate, the world's tallest mountain at a staggering 33,000 feet from the sea floor and strictly enforced low-light ordinances make Mauna Kea's 12 observatories among the best for deep space exploration. The University of Hawaii runs free evening telescope demonstrations, but most travelers prefer to summit at sunrise or sunset. On Hawaii Forest & Trail tours ($215 for participants ages 16 and older), a knowledgeable guide explains submillimeter, infrared and optical research and sets up a telescope to share the heavenly view. On May 6, the designated AstroDay in Hilo, see the discoveries being made on Mauna Kea.
Sedona's striking red rock formations have long lured and enchanted those seeking spiritual awareness, from Native Americans to modern-day tourists. Experience a transformative Hopi vision quest ritual, or spend the night at an energy vortex to connect with the universe. On evening sky tours with operator Sedona Stargazing, professional astronomers point out Mars, Jupiter and Saturn to participants ages 6 and older who are comfortable with state-of-the-art telescopes. Keep in mind, May to July are the clearest months for taking in a star-studded sky.
Sunspot Astronomy and Visitor Center
Sunspot, New Mexico
Our largest star, the sun, is subject to solar, high-resolution imaging and spectroscopy at the National Solar Observatory. After walking through the telescope loop, continue your stargazing adventure at the Sunspot Astronomy and Visitor Center run by Apache Point Observatory and the USDA Forest Service. Study educational exhibits and star maps during the winter weekends, with longer hours April to November. Budding astronomers should head west to the Cosmic Campground in Silver City, New Mexico, or move into Astronomy Village in New Mexico's IDA-designated dark-sky zone for more stargazing.
(Education Images/UIG via Getty Images)
Jackson Hole and Casper
Embark on an unforgettable adventure in Wyoming, where the total solar eclipse can be seen on Aug. 21. Enjoy night sky viewing at Devils Tower National Monument, where free viewing programs run frequently. At the Four Seasons Resort and Residences Jackson Hole, naturalist-led star tours (available for $600) teach families how to use a 12-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope to discover jaw-dropping views. And Casper, home to Astrocon from Aug. 16-19, is the center of the weeklong Wyoming Eclipse Festival. In preparation, Casper Planetarium will run shows weekly, starting at $3 for ages 6 and older, plus live, hourlong sky tours each month.
Travelers should chase the northern lights between 66 to 69 degrees north in the auroral zone, where they're seen a few nights weekly from September to March. The Finnish Meteorological Institute reads daily magnetic disturbance levels. However, there are no viewing guarantees, so plan a trip to a destination where there are other activities and enticements. By day, Lapland is known as the hometown of Santa Claus with a Santa-inspired village. Plus, Rovaniemi boasts several outfitters leading afterdark star-viewing tours by snowmobile or reindeer. And in Kemi, you can try an ice hotel and icebreaker tour of the Baltic Sea.