The American Southwest is a stargazing wonderland. With its dry climate and multitude of clear skies mixed with plenty of rural and wilderness areas, it’s no wonder that it is a Dark Sky mecca in the United States.
Although there are plenty of great places to experience an exceptional dark sky in this region, these ten have made it to the top of my list. Not only do they offer some of the best stargazing, but there are so many other things to love about them during the day!
JOSHUA TREE NATIONAL PARK, California
In this park, two distinct ecosystems meet, creating gorgeous landscapes and opportunities for adventure. You may spot roadrunners, lynx, and bighorn sheep wandering among the joshua trees, cholla, and creosote bushes. The sunrises and sunsets are intense, and the fascinating rock formations will lure you to explore.
And when night falls, the park has some of the darkest skies in the world. You will have no problem seeing the Milky Way here. Be sure to visit the Sky’s the Limit Observatory and Nature Center in nearby Twentynine Palms.
Joshua Tree is a certified International Dark Sky Park in southern California between Los Angeles and Phoenix.
GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK, Arizona
Measuring 277 miles in length, eighteen miles in width, and up to a mile in depth, it is no wonder the Grand Canyon is one of the wonders of the natural world. The steep canyon walls reveal millions of years of geological layers as the Colorado River carves its course here.
During the day, you can tour the vistas along the edge of the rim, take a hike, or observe wildlife. The area is a stunning playground for adventurers and photographers.
The Grand Canyon has stunning, unspoiled views of the night sky. They have been building a robust Night Skies Program that includes activities such as star parties. They even have an astronomer in residence. Don’t miss an opportunity to stay at the Clear Sky Resort, a unique glamping experience just 30 minutes away from the park.
Grand Canyon is a certified International Dark Sky Park in northern Arizona.
LOWELL OBSERVATORY, Flagstaff, Arizona
What could be better than visiting the home of Pluto’s discovery in the world’s first International Dark Sky Community? Lowell Observatory is a great place to visit during the day and at night. You can try several telescopes to get a peek into the cosmos, touch an enormous iron meteorite, and learn about the history of Percival Lowell and the discoveries made at this iconic observatory.
Flagstaff has plenty of other things for you to do during the day, too. Don’t miss the Riordan Mansion State Historic Park, the Museum of Northern Arizona, and hike the Lava River Cave. Walk the streets of the Old Downtown district for some unique shopping and delicious eateries, including the fun Dark Sky Brewing Company.
SEDONA & COTTONWOOD, Arizona
Sedona has mystical magic that begins with its red rock surroundings, runs through the diverse outdoor recreation options, and comes right into the streets filled with crystal shops, psychics, and fun eateries.
And its nearby neighbor of Cottonwood has a charming allure. Known as the Heart of Arizona Wine Country, Cottonwood offers a quiet, reinvented old downtown area to explore leisurely. You will be near several stunning cultural sites, including Tuzigoot National Monument, Montezuma’s Castle National Monument, and Jerome’s artisan-revived hillside mining town.
For stargazers, this area is a corridor of dark sky preservation. Sedona, the Village of Oak Creek, Camp Verde, and Cottonwood are all certified International Dark Sky Communities. Tuzigoot and Montezuma’s Castle are also working toward the designation.
SAGUARO NATIONAL PARK, Arizona
Saguaros seem to be synonymous with the American Southwest, but they are only native to the Sonoran Desert of Arizona and the Mexican state of Sonora. Tucson, Arizona, has a national park that preserves these native desert plants.
Saguaro National Park splits into two sections, one on the west side of Tucson and one on the east side. Although it does not yet have the International Dark Sky Park designation, the skies from these locations offer beautiful stargazing experiences.
If you can find availability, I recommend a stay at the JTH Tuscon, a 5-suite inn bordering the western side of Saguaro National Park West. The night skies here are stunning, and the atmosphere of the inn is serene and will make you feel close to nature.
KODACHROME BASIN STATE PARK, Utah
Kodachrome is an other-worldly landscape with 67 monolith spires that reveal 180 million years of geological time. Outdoor enthusiasts will enjoy hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding. Photographers will feel like they are in a scenic wonderland, and stargazers will be speechless over the pristine dark skies and views of the Milky Way overhead.
ARCHES NATIONAL PARK, Utah
The magnificent rock arches and soaring spires that spread across this park today started about 65 million years ago. At that time, it was a dry seabed that stretched as far as you could see. Through the geological wrinkling and folding of the sandstone layers as the ground pushed upward to the sinking of the land, these arches and spires took millions of years to form. Water erosion helped carve them out of the stone and continues to shape them today.
Other than the employee and main visitor areas, most of the park has no artificial lighting. The park believes that preserving the natural sky is as important as protecting their arches. They view the night sky as an essential cultural, natural, and scientific resource.
Arches National Park is a certified International Dark Sky Park and is open for stargazing from dusk to dawn. There are not many nearby amenities, so consider camping at the Devil’s Garden campground located inside the park.
MESA VERDE NATIONAL PARK, Colorado
People have inhabited the Mesa Verde region seasonally since about 7500 BCE. For over 700 years, the Ancient Pueblo people built thriving communities along the mesas and cliffs of this region. The 600 cliff dwellings are the most recognized parts of the park. Cliff Palace is the largest known cliff dwelling in North America.
Today, the park protects the rich cultural heritage of 26 tribes, including their night sky heritage. The Ancient Pueblo people were keen observers of the sky and left behind evidence of their sophisticated astronomical knowledge.
Mesa Verde National Park is a certified International Dark Sky Park. Although most of the archaeological sites throughout the park are closed at night, there are designated places where you can enjoy an incredible stargazing experience.
CHACO CULTURE NATIONAL HISTORICAL PARK, New Mexico
More than a thousand years ago, Chaco was the center of the Ancient Puebloan world. The monumental architecture they created can still be seen today and offers a glimpse into another lifetime. Their structures align with the solstices and equinoxes, and even lunar standstills. The modern-day descendants see Chaco as a sacred place to be honored and respected.
Chaco’s remoteness and pristine dark skies led to its certification as an International Dark Sky Park. Many night sky enthusiasts claim it is one of the best places for stargazing in the United States. The park now has dark sky interpretive programs and works in partnership with the Albuquerque Astronomical Society.
You have to drive on rugged roads to reach Chaco Culture National Historical Park, and amenities are limited, so plan carefully.
BISTI / DE-NA-ZIN WILDERNESS, New Mexico
Located in the dark sky zone of the Four Corners region, this wilderness area is a badlands landscape. You will find strange rock formations that have weathered into the shape of hoodoos (pinnacles, spires, cap rocks, and more).
Seventy million years ago, this was a river delta on the western edge of the ancient sea, Western Interior Seaway. A massive volcano, the lifting of the Colorado Plateau, the retreat of the last ice age, and constant erosion helped form this vast wilderness.
Although Bisti is not a designated Dark Sky Place, it has pristine dark skies and breathtaking views of the Milky Way.
Bisti / De-Na-Zin Wilderness is a desolate area that the Bureau of Land Management manages. Be sure to plan your trip carefully in advance.