Milkyway Island Lake Colorado Hiking Photography

These Amazing Places Have the Darkest Skies for star-watching

One of my favorite things is finding dark skies where you can enjoy a peaceful night in quiet and solitude and disconnect from the modern world.

Some of my favorite memories are of driving with a friend to Monument Valley and spending the next 4 hours sitting in the pitch black watching the stars and Milky Way move across the mittens or driving up to Sedona and bouncing between caves in the middle of the night.

However, if you like to tackle enjoying the night sky, there is a place for everyone to enjoy!

Milky Way views from Island Lake in Colorado at 12,600 feet.

Below are some of my favorite areas to take photos and stare up at the stars. As always, this is just a basic list with 100’s of other locations out there to check out!

(If you are interested in night photography, ​here’s my guide​.)

See the Brightest Stars You’ve Ever Seen

California

Death Valley National Park, CA
Joshua Tree National Park, CA
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

If I’m being honest with you, there are a lot of perfect places in California to watch the night sky. Just head into the mountains, and you’ll be good. But Death Valley and Joshua Tree are also super accessible and well-known, so we’ll go with those.

I do need to note that these are in the desert and can command temperatures of 115 degrees during the summer. If you plan to visit during this time of the year, please be safe and drink plenty of water.

Colorado

San Juan Mountains (Silverton/Telluride/Ouray)

One of my favorite areas in the country is the San Juan Mountains in southwest Colorado. The night skies there are incredibly clear, and you’re closer to them than most places in the US. (The region sits around 10,000-12,000 feet in elevation.)

The first photo is from that region of the country.

Wyoming

Yellowstone National Park, WY
Grand Teton National Park
Wind River Range, WY

With its half-a-million-plus residents, Wyoming offers incredible opportunities to view the night sky as it used to be: In pure darkness.

The Wind River Range is one of the most stunning locations in America, but it takes a dozen or more miles to reach the gems. So, if you’re not looking to backpack, Yellowstone and Grand Teton offer excellent sites with epic foregrounds.

Milky Way with Star Trails at Jackson Lake in Grand Teton NP
Island Lake in the Wind River Range

Nevada

Great Basin National Park, NV

I had the ​pleasure of visiting in 2023​ and spent about three hours under the stars at 10,500 feet before I got too cold. Even with moonlight, the night sky was still magical and offered top-tier star-watching!

North Dakota

Theodore Roosevelt National Park, ND

This is an ​underrated National Park with​ a lot of wildlife and almost no crowds. The closest town is maybe 20,000 strong… probably less, which means a lot of light pollution. I didn’t have the energy to stay up for the night sky on my trip, but I know you’ll have epic views!

Arizona

Grand Canyon National Park, AZ

While both sides of the Grand Canyon will provide epic night skies, head over to the North Side to get A) even darker skies and B) the Milky Way, as you see it, looking south, not north.

It was one of the first-night sky photos I ever took. The moon was out, which illuminated the canyon. Also, Phantom Ranch’s lights are visible at the bottom.

Texas

Big Bend National Park, TX

On the Texas/Mexico border, this is a Dark Sky GEM and in the top tier for darkest night skies in the world. I haven’t been yet, but I would love to spend a few days out here and enjoy the massive canyons and water activities.

Canada

Algonquin Provincial Park, Ontario

I had to throw a bone at the East Coast readers. Unfortunately, your side of the country is not exactly conducive to the darkest skies.

Other East Coast Spots With Relatively Dark Skies

  • Spruce Knob
  • Cherry Creek State Park
  • Stephen C Foster State Park

Garibaldi Provincial Park

I had a great time shooting the Milky Way at Garibaldi Provincial Park in British Columbia. There’s some light pollution from nearby Whistler and Squamish. Still, you’re in the backcountry, and you’ll have gorgeous views even if you’re only at 80%.

Milky Way at Garibaldi Lake

Utah

Moab, UT (Arches and Canyonlands National Parks)
Bryce Canyon National Park, UT

The Moab area has a lot of really great places to enjoy the night sky. Head into Arches, Canyonlands National Park, or nearby Deadhorse State Park for some of the darkest skies in the country. I didn’t shoot night photography here during my winter trip, as it was 15 degrees. Next time!

Furthermore, MUCH of Utah is perfect for night sky viewing. Pick a place in the state’s center, and you’ll be golden.

Idaho

Sawtooth National Forest, ID

This is one of the places I’ll never forget how clear the night sky was. I spent a week road tripping and backpacking through Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains and saw the most brilliant Milky Way and night skies. For the backpackers out there, this is a surreal place!

Idaho’s El Cap in the Sawtooth Wilderness

How to find a Dark Sky Location

Get away from urban centers and light pollution

Major metro areas are terrible for viewing the night sky – but I’m not breaking any news here. All you have to do is look up while at home, and you’ll only see a few twinkling stars.

Aim to drive at least 45 minutes away from the city (it’ll fluctuate depending on where you live) to where streetlights have disappeared. Now, you’ll have a much better opportunity to stare up at the sky and enjoy the billions of stars above.

Dark Sky Finder Map

This is one of my favorite maps. It shows where there is light pollution and where there isn’t. Apologies to all of my East Coast readers because you guys are SOL. The map is pretty easy to read, but the yellow and green are bad places to view the stars, and the black and dark blue is good.

See the dark sky map

DarkSky.org also has good information

Author: Alec Sills-Trausch

Title: Founder of Explore with Alec

Expertise: Hiking, Backpacking, Photography, and Road Trips

Bio:

Alec Sills-Trausch is a hiker, backpacker, landscape photographer, and syndicated travel writer. He enjoys showing off the beauty of the world through his photos, videos, and written work on ExploreWithAlec.com. Alec is also a 2x cancer survivor and bone marrow transplant recipient, showing the world that there is a future from this terrible disease.

He lives in Washington, where he gets to enjoy the stunning PNW mountains in addition to all the other places he attempts to visit each year! You can see more work on IG at @AlecOutside