Idyllic stargazing destinations across North America
By Kristan Schiller
Paul Bogard, author of Let There Be Night, an anthology celebrating the gifts of darkness, recently observed that the prime tool for astronomers is no longer the telescope but the car. “Most of us live in cities and suburbs where you can’t see the stars as they should be seen,” says Bogard, “so you have to get in your car and drive.”
So as you hit the road in your Traverse, prepare for a luminous patchwork of cross-country constellations at these outstanding stargazing spots.
Mauna Kea, Hawaii, is home to one of the most famous observatories on the planet. Here, 13 telescopes from 11 nations are located on top of a massive 13,796-foot volcano. Mauna Kea is particularly conducive to stargazing as its dry atmosphere is one of the most cloud-free in the world and it draws minimal light pollution. If that’s not enough, free stargazing tours are held nightly atop the volcano for beginners and non-professionals.
While smog-filled L.A. may be the last place you think of when you think astronomy, the city’s Griffith Observatory, perched atop iconic Mount Hollywood, makes it a highly worthy stargazing destination. Most often remembered for its appearance in the classic 1950s film Rebel Without a Cause, the observatory completed a $93 million renovation in 2006. There are several new programs for stargazing enthusiasts, including evening telescope-viewing on the lawn and free “star parties” hosted each month by the Los Angeles Astronomical Society and the Los Angeles Sidewalk Astronomers Association.
A 275-mile drive from New York City, this secluded park in upstate Pennsylvania has become a hub for professional astronomers as well as regular Joes just looking to see a clear night sky. Although Cherry Springs is relatively close to the light pollution of East Coast cities, it was named the state’s first “dark skies park” in 2000 by the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. The main draw is the dark-sky observation field in the middle of the park; it’s open year-round, with 60 to 85 nights a year that are prime for stargazing. Conditions are best in fall and winter, when humidity is lower and nights are longer.
In 2006, the National Park Service adopted a policy to “preserve, to the greatest extent possible, the natural lightscapes of parks, which are natural resources and values that exist in the absence of human-caused light.” Inspired by the new policy, Acadia National Park in Bar Harbor, Maine, launched the annual Acadia Night Sky Festival featuring art, music, science and stargazing within the park and on nearby Mount Desert Island and the Schoodic Peninsula. So clear is the night sky in Acadia that many have compared the stargazing to that which you would experience in the remote national parks of the West.
Sonoran Desert, Scottsdale, Arizona
With its expansive skies and remote setting, Arizona’s Sonoran Desert is an ideal spot for serious stargazers. If you dream of wishing on a desert star, one of the best ways to do so is to take a three-hour stargazing tour offered by Stellar Adventures. You will be guided by astronomer James Ashley, who, through his giant telescope, will show you Saturn, Venus and Orion’s Nebula. It’s a brilliant evening in more ways than one.
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Kristan Schiller is a New York-based travel writer and blogger whose articles have appeared in Conde Nast Traveler, Travel + Leisure and Fodor’s, as well as on Forbestraveler.com and Salon.com.