The best US national parks for stargazing, according to star map makers
"Nature is soothing, and gazing at the night sky with friends and family is the perfect way to spend a relaxing break with all the hustle and bustle of the real world that's currently taking over," says Zoltan Toth-Czifra from Under Lucky Stars. "We determined the best spots for stargazing to give US citizens inspiration for their next trip to get away and experience the true beauty of the night sky above us. We took into consideration the darkest skies for people to stargaze from, whilst factoring the park's accessibility and busyness, to ensure the ultimate stargazing experience." Here are the top five parks selected, and the full list is available here.
Great Basin National Park was deemed to be the best stargazing hot spot in the US. Spanning Nevada, much of Oregon and Utah, and sections of California, Idaho, and Wyoming, the Great Basin is the largest area of contiguous endorheic watersheds in North America. With only 131,802 yearly visitors, this park is one of the best to stargaze from without being disturbed by other visitors.
Big Bend National Park is located in southwest Texas and borders Mexico. It holds national significance as the largest protected area of Chihuahuan Desert topography and ecology in the US. This park also includes the entire Chisos mountain range. Thanks to its vast surface area, it is one of the best parks to stargaze from as there is very little light pollution.
Redwood National and State Parks lie along the coast of northern California. They consist of Redwood National Park, California's Del Norte Coast, Jedediah Smith and Prairie Creek Redwoods State Parks. The combined parks span 139,000 acres and feature old-growth temperate rainforests. Redwood National Park scored highly with easy accessibility, very low light pollution and a yearly footfall of 504,722 visitors – a great combination to see the stars.
The North Cascades located in Washington State is a vast terrain of wilderness. Filled with a varied species of animals and birds, the remote park is an outdoor dream. With just 38,208 yearly visitors to the vast land combined with low light pollution, the park is the perfect peaceful destination to enjoy the stars in the sky.
Close to the Canadian border, Voyageurs National Park is the perfect canvas to sit and enjoy the stars. Located in northern Minnesota, the park is known for its stunning forestry and lakes, but mostly for its overall peaceful surroundings. The park welcomes 232,974 visitors annually, which combined with low light pollution lands it in the top five.
Here are our top picks for how to escape the crowds and find a slice of pristine wilderness in some of the country’s most visited national parks. Editor's note: Please check the latest travel restrictions before planning any trip and always follow government advice. Mineral King Found in Sequoia National Park Sure, you’ll have to drive an hour down a rugged dirt road to get to Sequoia’s Mineral King area, but you’ll be rewarded with spectacular views of the Sierra Nevada Range and plentiful hiking and backpacking opportunities. The trail up to Franklin Lakes (12 miles round trip) is an awesome day hike or overnight trek, passing by waterfalls and, in summer, spectacular wildflowers. Serious adventurers might want to tack on a 3-4 day journey over Franklin Pass to secluded Kern Hot Springs. East Inlet Trail Found in Rocky Mountain National Park Situated on the far less traveled, western side of Rocky Mountain National Park, the East Inlet Trail is a great jumping off point for hikers seeking big mountain vistas, wildlife, waterfalls, and, most importantly, solitude. The trail starts with Adams Falls, then steadily climbs up through a mountainous valley, with views getting better the further your climb. It’s a 16-mile round trip to Spirit Lake, and an even farther overnight trek for those who want to travel to Fourth Lake and over Boulder Grand Pass. Kolob Canyon is a little-visited area in Utah's Zion National Park © Nickolay Stanev / ShutterstockKolob Canyon Found in Zion National Park Located in the park’s northern, higher elevation section, Kolob Canyon has all the fabulous red rock and big vistas that you’d expect from Zion, but with far fewer crowds. Take a scenic drive along East Kolob Canyon Road, then go on a hike amidst towering, rust-colored fins and escarpments on the La Verkin Creek Trail. Serious trekkers won’t want to miss Kolob Arch (15 miles round trip – mostly flat) as a long day hike or a mellow backpacking trip along a gently burbling creek (permits available online or at the visitor center). Schooner Head Overlook & Tide Pools Found in Acadia National Park Download a tide schedule app onto your phone, then traverse the Park Loop Road to Schooner Head Overlook. Head down to the rocky seashore at low tide to check out numerous tide pools filled with barnacles, sea urchins, and crabs, just watch out for slippery seaweed on the rocks. Visitors comfortable scrambling on wet rocks will definitely want to check out Anemone Cave, which can be accessed only at low tide via careful rock-hopping. Like the NPS, we don't recommend entering the cave, but the interior can be safely viewed from the rocks nearby. You'll have quiet places like Hetch Hetchy Reservoir all to yourself © Nickolay Stanev / ShutterstockHetch Hetchy Found in Yosemite National Park Located in the least-visited northwestern quadrant of the park, Hetch Hetchy is an area John Muir once called “one of nature’s rarest and most precious mountain temples.” Unfortunately, the valley was dammed to create a reservoir for drinking water, but the surrounding mountainous landscape is still spectacular and free of the usual hustle and bustle of the rest of Yosemite. Visitors can day hike here or check out an epic, 25-mile backpacking loop that traverses several of the area’s stunning lakes and waterfalls. Go in spring for rainbow bursts of alpine wildflowers. Sidewinder Canyon Found in Death Valley National Park Just 20 minutes by car from Badwater Basin lies a small, unsigned parking lot and a vague trail leading toward a series of three slot canyons. After hiking .6 miles up an imposing desert wash, visitors here can squeeze, shimmy, and scramble through narrow breccia rock formations. Grab detailed, printed directions for the 5-mile (round trip) journey at the ranger station in Furnace Creek if you’re at all nervous about off-trail exploration, and be sure to pack plenty of water. With the water from this nearby waterfall rushing by, the Sinks is a perfect place for a relaxing swim © Ehrlif / iStock / GettyThe Sinks Swimming Hole Found in Great Smoky Mountains National Park Enjoy one of the most picturesque spots on the Little River Road scenic drive, located just 12 miles west of the Sugarlands Visitor Center. Travelers here can hang out on the massive river boulders, relax near a rushing waterfall, and swim in the clear, natural pools to cool down on a hot, summer day. The bravest of your group might even want to try cliff diving from the nearby rocks, a popular activity among locals. Bogachiel River Trail Found in Olympic National Park Bypass the ever-popular Hoh Rain Forest Trail while still enjoying the same temperate rainforest ecosystem, filled with verdant spruce, mossy alders, and gardens of sword fern. Hikers can go the distance and parallel the river for a 12-mile round-trip out-and-back or simply turn around whenever they’ve seen enough. At .3 miles from the trailhead is a junction with the Kestner Homestead Loop, which is a lovely, accessible trail to an old barn, house, and outbuildings that colors the historic significance of the area. The Lone Star Geyser is a little out of the way, but it offers the spectacle of Old Faithful without the crowds © Kris Wiktor / ShutterstockLone Star Geyser Found in Yellowstone National Park Escape the madness at Old Faithful and visit Lone Star Geyser instead. A mellow, 4.8-mile (round trip) hike or bike ride down an old park road takes visitors here through a dense pine forest, occasionally opening up to beautiful meadow views. At the turn-around point is Lone Star Geyser. The geyser erupts about every three hours, so use a geyser times app to check the predicted schedule. It’s a great spot to hike to for lunch and hang out as you wait for the geyser to blow. Be sure to download the NPS Yellowstone App onto your phone before going on this hike – there’s little to no cell service inside the park. Shoshone Point captures the scope of the Grand Canyon without the crowds seen at more popular spots © Chr. Offenberg / ShutterstockShoshone Point Found in Grand Canyon National Park Shoshone Point has all the grandeur of Mather Point and Bright Angel, without the throngs of crowds that can make it difficult to snap a decent picture. That’s because travelers here have to walk an easy, 1-mile (each way) former service road to get to the viewpoint. Gaze out at layer upon layer of bright red canyon rock and try to catch a glimpse of the powerful Colorado River, a vertical mile beneath your feet. Go at sunrise to have the place all to yourself.
How the Great American Outdoors Act will save US national parks
On Wednesday, Congress passed the Great American Outdoors Act, which combined two earlier bills to commit $900 million a year to the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) and $9.5 billion over five years to address critical infrastructure updates across the National Park Service, Forest Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, and Bureau of Land Management. “Passing the Great American Outdoors Act is quite simply the most significant investment in conservation in decades," said president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation Collin O’Mara in a statement. “It’s a huge win for wildlife, our natural treasures, our economy, and all Americans, who enjoy our America’s public lands for solace, recreation, and exercise, especially amid this pandemic. All Americans will benefit from this historic legislation, which will create hundreds of thousands of jobs, expand outdoor recreation opportunities in every community, and accelerate our nation’s economic recovery from COVID-19.” Rafting tours down the Snake River near Grand Tenton Mountains ©Mark Read/Lonely PlanetThe expansion of access to outdoor spaces, and the restoration of existing destinations is crucial as more and more Americans have turned to outdoor recreation in recent years. Some 327 million travelers a year visit national parks, forests, and Wild and Scenic Rivers from Mt. Rainier and the Rouge River to the Great Smokey Mountains and the New River Gorge, traveling over some 5000 miles of paved roads, nearly 20,000 miles of trails, and making use of almost 25,000 buildings. Back in June, when the US Senate initially passed the Great American Outdoors Act, the Land Trust Alliance noted that the LWCF has "only been fully funded once in its history," despite the fact it's been promised $900 million a year since its inception and supports "over 41,000 state and local park projects, contributing $778 billion to the nation's economy annually and providing 5.2 million sustainable jobs nationwide." Men from the Civilian Conservation Corps finish a shelter house at South Mountain Reservation, New Jersey, 1935. Many such structures are still in use today. © New York Times Co. / Getty ImagesBecause budgets haven't increased even as traffic on public lands has grown, officials haven't been able to keep up with the deterioration of key infrastructure nearing, or past, the end of its lifespan. A significant portion of the federal assets at national forest campgrounds, national parks, and state parks were built nearly a century ago, when the Civilian Conservation Corps was put to work during the Great Depression. According to the Pew Charitable Trust, 70% of the National Park Services' overdue projects pertain to structures at least 60 years old. That's had big, costly consequences that impact visitor experiences. For example, a sink hole nearly the length of a subcompact car opened up in Shenandoah National Park on the busy George Washington Memorial Parkway last May – and it wasn't the first such incident in the park. The series of sinkholes were the result of delays to roadwork and updates to storm water drainage networks, the kind of problems that are cheaper to fix before they eat into an entire roadway. Hunt's Mesa at sunrise, Monument Valley, Arizona, Utah, USA ©Francesco Riccardo Iacomino/500Meanwhile, the Transcanyon Pipeline in the Grand Canyon is fifty years old and perpetually leaky. Built in the 1960s in the midst of Mission 66, one of the last major flurries of upgrades to the national parks system that formed in response to similar concerns about degraded infrastructure and funding, the pipeline has been a focus for replacement for years. Although the pipeline supplies all the potable water to the South Rim of the park, officials have carried on with makeshift repairs because they haven't had the $100 million necessary to build an alternative. "LWCF is an issue I've been working on since my introduction into the outdoor policy world six years ago," said Katie Boué, founder of the Outdoor Advocacy Project. "This week's passage marks a huge victory for so many advocates who have invested years in making it happen. In a time when our public lands and green spaces are more valued and visited than ever before, it gives me hope to see Congress stepping up to support them." High-angle view of Jackson city covered in snow and the Teton Valley. ©Adventure_Photo/Getty ImagesBudget constraints have also made it harder to establish new public lands and expand existing parcels, especially around fragile conservation areas like the Everglades and the Grand Tetons that are experiencing increased development nearby. In January environmentalists celebrated when the state of Florida purchased 20,000 acres of swampland that feeds the Everglades in order to end Kanter Real Estate's multi-year quest to drill oil on the parcel. A greater number of similar deals will be possible at the federal level now the Great American Outdoors Act has secured permanent funding. It's been proven that new national parks can be a big hit, like when visitor numbers soared at Indiana Dunes after it was designated a national park in January of 2019. The same was true for White Sands National Park in New Mexico – the newest of the country's 62 national parks. The increase in funding could aid efforts to upgrade a handful of national forests and monuments that advocates hope could be national parks candidates, like Craters of the Moon in Idaho and Louisiana's Atchafalaya National Heritage Area, without further stretching a cash-strapped National Parks Service. White Sands National Park Yucca picnic area covered in sand in New Mexico. ©krblokhin/Getty ImagesExactly where and how to first apply the funds secured by the Great American Outdoors Act still needs to be decided by multiple federal agencies. But legislature's passage is reason enough for outdoor enthusiasts and activists to celebrate – it heralds the biggest overhaul the parks have received in a generation. And with many grounded travelers turning to road trips and visits to state and national parks in lieu of international travel as a result of the global coronavirus outbreak, the timing couldn't be better for the country's beleaguered public lands. "As an avid outdoors woman and activist, I’ve been going to DC for many years advocating for more funding for our national parks, public lands and green spaces," said Caroline Gleich, an Utah-based environmental advocate and pro ski mountaineer who summited Mt. Everest last year. "As America is dealing with the pandemic, more and more of us are turning to our parks and public lands for our mental and physical well being. The passage of the Great American Outdoors Act gives us something to celebrate. It gives us hope for the future."
Amid COVID-19, Americans are flocking to the relative safety of the outdoors. Recreating in national parks delivers fresh air, stunning natural surrounds, physical exercise, and stress relief. However, as the flag went up for summer outdoor recreation over Memorial Day weekend, visitors flooded park viewpoints, trails, and shuttles, making maintaining social distance impossible even in the great outdoors. The National Park System oversees 62 parks, so there are plenty of places to explore beyond the Great Smoky Mountains, Grand Canyon, and Yosemite. Here are 10 of the least visited national parks. Don’t confuse a lack of visitors with a lack of merit. These parks are remote, which keeps the number of travelers to a minimum. However, they boast magnificent — and untrammeled — scenic beauty. 1. Gates of the Arctic National Park, Alaska This park’s name is no misnomer: It hugs the Arctic Circle in Alaska’s northern reaches. The 8.4 million acres here offer natural splendor largely untouched by humans, with no roads, trails, or established campsites. This is the domain of enormous herds of caribou, musk ox, moose, wolves, and grizzly bears. Only the most rugged explorers, who have solid outdoor survival skills, should venture here. However, a stable of outfitters, guide services, and air taxi operators, who offer flight-seeing trips, can ease the challenges of your expedition. Alaska’s Kobuk Valley, Lake Clark, Wrangell-St. Elias, Katmai, and Kenai Fjords also rank among the country’s most far-flung and least visited parks. Take note of Alaska’s COVID-19 travel restrictions before booking your flight. Kenai Fjords National Park. Photo by ©James + Courtney Forte/Getty Images 2. Isle Royale National Park, Michigan The centerpiece of Isle Royale is its eponymous 45-mile long island. Hiking the 165 miles of trails there is only an appetizer: The park also includes 400 smaller islands and some 80 percent of it lies underwater. There’s plenty of territory to explore both for trekkers and scuba divers, kayakers, canoers, and anglers. Wildlife watchers will find plenty of sights here, too. From the heavily forested shoreline, visitors may spot eagle or osprey. Although they’re harder to spot, an isolated species of wolves roams here, too. Isle Royale’s ecology is so unique it doubles as an International Biosphere Reserve. 3. North Cascades National Park, Washington Travelers don’t have to venture to Alaska or Patagonia to see epic glaciers. North Cascades has the highest number in the lower 48 states with some 300 clinging to craggy peaks here. In less than a three-hour drive from Seattle, visitors will find a vast wilderness of glacier-carved crevasses and crisp turquoise lakes (such as Diablo and Ross, two of the park’s most popular). Around 400 miles of trails ribbon through forested valleys, trace ridges, and ascend spires. For an alternative to all that trekking, travelers drive the North Cascades Highway, which offers picturesque views from early May to late November. 4. National Park of American Samoa, American Samoa Set more than 2,600 miles southwest of Hawai’i, this national park earns the distinction as the southernmost in the U.S. and one of the most remote. Getting there pays dividends with a South Pacific paradise spread across three islands — Tutuila, Ta'ū, and Ofu — and some 4,000 underwater acres. Fruit bats, which frequent the island rainforests, and the Indo-Pacific coral reefs, which have more than 950 species of fish, are two top attractions. The chance to experience the 3,000-year-old Samoan culture is also reason to make the journey. 5. Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida The Dry Tortugas are a much-sought-after place to escape in the Florida Keys. A collection of seven islands 70 miles west of Key West, the Dry Tortugas are as well known for scenic beauty as pirate lore. The isles are only accessible via boat or plane, so they’re one of the most secluded units in the national park system. The park protects 100-square-miles of sandy shores, shoals, and ocean waters. In those ocean depths, visitors will find coral and seagrass communities that rank among the Keys’ best. Here, shipwrecks are just as common as marine life. Garden Key, home to the massive Fort Jefferson, is often the jumping off point for park visits. Dry Tortugas National Park. Photo by Laura Brown 6. Great Basin National Park, Nevada Four and a half hours north of Las Vegas, Great Basin National Park delivers natural wonders from the cosmos to underground. The International Dark Sky Park, an accolade it earned thanks to its low light pollution and clear views of astrological phenomena, offers particularly heavenly views from Wheeler Peak. Hikers can reach the 13,063-foot summit via an 8.6-mile hike; however, many visitors ascend via Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive (June to October). From there, travelers can take in panoramic views of the park’s mountain slopes, which contain stands of bristlecone pines, the oldest living organisms on Earth. The sights are just as impressive below ground, where tours of Lehman Caves reveal elaborate stalagmites, stalactites, “soda straws,” and other formations. 7. Virgin Islands National Park, Virgin Islands The island of St. John is popularly thought of as a polished resort destination; however, more than 60 percent of the island is set aside as a rugged national park. Entering through Cruz Bay, Virgin Islands National Park protects rainforest hikes, sandy beaches, and complex coral reefs (a marine reserve lies offshore). The 20-square-mile park is more than a tropical playground; the landscape delivers a history lesson, too. Travelers may hike to plantation ruins that date to the island’s sugar trade days, as well as ancient petroglyphs the Taino people left. 8. Congaree National Park, South Carolina Set in the middle of South Carolina and only 30-minutes away from the city of Columbia, Congaree National Park feels like a faraway wilderness. In fact, its stands of towering loblolly and white pines, and swamps make it seem like a fantasy movie set. The park is also home to 130-foot-tall bald cypress, and it contains the most ancient stands of old-growth cypress of anywhere in the world. Elevated board walks meander through its towering forests. The 2.4-mile Boardwalk Loop offers the shortest tour and departs from the visitor’s center. For another type of trail, paddlers can follow the 15-mile Cedar Creek Canoe Trail deep into the forests on a float to the Congaree River. 9. Pinnacles National Park, California Visitors may come to Pinnacles National Park for the geology, but they’re also treated to remarkable fauna and flora. Volcanic activity 23 million years ago created a weird and wonderous landscape of rock spires, towers, canyons, and even caves. The park boasts colossal talus caves, which boulders created when they lodged in narrow canyons. Visitors can hike to and through Bear Gulch and Balconies Caves. Townsend’s big-eared bats frequent these caves, so they’re sometimes closed to visitors. Travelers can also spot California condors, California red-legged frogs, and more than 100 species of wildflowers in the park. Pinnacles National Park. Photo by Laura Brown10. Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas Texas isn’t just made up of plains. It has peaks, too, and four of the state’s tallest lie within the boundaries of Guadalupe Mountains National Park. Guadalupe Peak, the highest in the Lone Star State, looms large. An 8.5-mile hike ascends the summit and offers expansive views over the exposed, ancient fossil reef bed that makes up the park’s landscape. The relatively few visitors who venture are rewarded with true solid among craggy peaks, sand dunes, and desert canyons sprawling across the Texas-New Mexico state line. Keep in mind: Due to evolving COVID-19 conditions, check the park’s website in advance of your visit to ensure it’s open. The CDC recommends following social distance guidelines within parks and wearing cloth masks when social distancing isn’t possible. Finally, many national park gateway communities are small, rural towns. Be sure to follow local guidelines for mask wearing and social distancing to keep residents safe.
Here’s what to expect as the National Parks begin to reopen after COVID-19 closures
Across the United States, local governments are beginning to move from shelter-in-place orders to phased schedules of reopening. This includes America’s National Parks, which are beginning to reopen after being shuttered for most of the spring season to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Here’s a roundup of what to expect for the summer season. Each National Park is empowered to make its own open or close decision, which will be based on local conditions and disease spread. Still, as parks open, officials stress that operations will not be close to normal. Visitors should largely expect for visitor’s centers and campgrounds to be closed or slow to open, and amenities like restaurants and gift shops to remain shuttered. Before you plan a visit to National Park, we recommend checking the park website to determine its current status, and searching for it on Twitter to see if proper social distancing protocol is being followed. To check on specific operations in any particular park, go to https://www.nps.gov/findapark/index.htm When America’s most visited park, Great Smoky Mountain National Park in Tennessee, reopened select trails on Saturday, May 9, visitors flocked to it. Photos emerged showing full parking lots, crowded trails, and people disregarding trail closures. Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona was one of the last parks to close, at the dismay of its staff and eventually the general public. As of press time, the Grand Canyon is planning a phased reopening with limited services. Zion National Park, the most popular park in Utah, is currently scheduled to reopen to the public on Wednesday, May 13. However, the visitor’s center, popular shuttle busses, campgrounds and hiking trails will not be open. Time will tell if the closures of necessary services will suffice to keep people at safe social distances. Further up the state, Arches and Canyonlands National Parks are expecting to open their doors after Memorial Day on May 29. However, both parks plan to have their trails, roads, and restrooms open, while visitor’s centers and overnight services will remain closed. In addition, commercial tour providers will be able to begin operations, except in places that are too small to allow people to achieve social distancing. In Montana, the decision to reopen Glacier National Park is expected to be a joint decision made with state, local, and tribal officials, and as of press time, the decision has not yet been made about when to start phasing in openings. It has already been announced that the famous Glacier Park Boat Co., will not be operating tours this summer. Despite these openings, sources inside the park service say they are being pushed to reopen before they are ready. The Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks, a group representing 1,800 current, former, and retired employees and volunteers of the National Park Service, raises serious concerns about protecting NPS employees, volunteers, visitors, and local community members from the spread of the coronavirus. The group stresses that it believes it is too soon to reopen. Phil Francis, Chair of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks, explained: “We are also eager to get Americans back into our national parks. But it is too soon.” “Parks absolutely should not open until the safety of National Park Service (NPS) employees, concession employees, volunteers and other partners, including those who work and live in gateway communities, can be ensured. Parks must be able to demonstrate that they have adequate staff to protect resources, personal protective equipment available to those staff members, and employee training including specific training related to COVID19 as recommended by the CDC and OSHA. “The vast majority of NPS staff will be in contact with visitors to our national parks. And many NPS employees live on-site, in close quarters, in government-owned housing. According to an NPS document, parks should estimate that 40% of the total population at the park will require isolation and 4% will require hospitalization. This is not only impossible under the current set-up, it is unacceptable.” “Parks should follow the most cautious standards to ensure the safety of all involved in park operations, as well as visitors who visit the parks and utilize services provided in gateway communities. Superintendents, in consultation with their local communities, must be delegated the authority to make decisions about when it is safe to open. They should not be treated as pawns in a larger political game. “We take the protection of park resources and employees seriously, and we urge the administration to do so as well. This means protecting our parks for the long term and supporting efforts such as the Great American Outdoors Act, rather than attempting to win short term political gains by rushing to reopen national parks at the expense of human health and safety.”