Camping is often a sensory buffet of sights, sounds, and smells. With each deep breath of pristine air, we absorb the aroma of every growth of vegetation and the musk of each species of animal.
Our ears twitch and shiver at the rush of a mountain stream, ring out with each cry of a coyote, and perk up at every wisp of wind. As for our eyes, well, they get the best of both worlds, to see what we hear and smell. And when night falls, they get a grand and awe-inspiring show all to themselves.
The Night Sky
Camping offers us many different joys, both large and small, but one of the most underrated is the chance to get away from light pollution.
The vast majority of us forget that when staring into the night sky, there is more than just a moon and a few incredibly bright stars. That’s because of the lights of urban sprawl, and even the glow of some smaller, rural towns, drown out the show that’s taking place above us.
So once the day’s activities end and the evening campfire breathes its final, fiery breath, settle in for a nighttime glow that is not of this earth.
Where to Stargaze
Outside the city. Far outside the city. Obvious answer aside, the best places to stargaze in the US tend to be in the western states, where elevation and scarcity of manufactured light prove a winning combination for skywatchers.
But there are also a few hidden gems and even remote points scattered about the country that offer fantastic views of the night sky. Here are a few spots to put at the top of your must-see list.
Joshua Tree National Park, California
Not just a classic rock album from everyone’s favorite Irish quartet, Joshua Tree National Park is a genuine gem that remains unfettered by much of Southern California’s outward expanse. Best time to visit is the winter solstice, where the shortest day of the year gives way to a brilliantly long spectacle of light.
Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah
Natural Bridges received the first dark-sky park certification by the International Dark-Sky Association and is well-deserved. The park offers astronomy programs for visitors while they observe upwards of 15,000 or more stars in a given night.
The best time to go is usually spring and summer to take advantage of the programs, but spectacular views are available year round.
Bryce Canyon, Utah
Another Utah park, Bryce Canyon, is home to some serious stargazing (over 100 astronomy programs frequent the park every year) and offers up the night sky in widescreen format. Brightly lit Venus and Jupiter are particular highlights.
The best time to visit is in June when the park’s annual Astronomy Festival takes place and offers the chance to learn while gazing at the starlit sky above.
Big Bend, Texas
When you hear the song Deep in the Heart of Texas, there’s a very good chance the stars at night line is referring to Big Bend. Far removed from Texas’ urban centers, Big Bend affords visitors the opportunity to see stars, planets, and the occasional galaxy or two. The best time to go is in winter when the humidity is low.
Acadia National Park, Maine
The eastern seaboard of the US is an electricians dream, or possible nightmare, which in either case does not bode well for stargazers. Thankfully, there is Acadia National Park, which boasts night sky views that stretch out over the Atlantic Ocean. The best time to go is early September for the Acadia Night Sky Festival.
Badlands National Park, South Dakota
Heading north, the remoteness of Badlands National Park offers a remarkable vantage point from which to gaze upon our galaxy. Giving visitors the opportunity to see more than 7,000 stars nightly, its little wonder that the park provides free telescopes to use. The best time to go is early July to take part in the annual Badlands Astronomy Festival.
Dry Tortugas National Park, Gulf of Mexico
So maybe mountains are not your thing. No worries. Head 70 miles west of the Florida Keys to Dry Tortugas National Park. A group of seven tiny islands forms the park that can be reached only by boat or seaplane. Once there though, it can feel like you are standing in the center of the heavens.
The best time to go is anytime you want to completely break free of society and feel like you have the whole earth to yourself.
Chaco Culture National Historical Park, New Mexico
Remote in every sense of the word, navigating the dirt roads that lead to Chaco Park are well worth the effort. The natural surroundings help put you in a place that remains untouched by the trappings of the modern world.
The best time to visit is between April and October when the Chaco Night Sky Initiative programs are at their peak.
Death Valley National Park, California
Practically devoid of all artificial light, Death Valley brings to life the best the night sky has to offer. The climate is tailor-made for optimal viewing with dry, clean air. The best time to visit is outside of the summer months between November and April to avoid the parks oppressive heat.
Cherry Springs State Park, Pennsylvania
Considered one of the best spots in the eastern US to check out celestials, Cherry Springs is another place certified for its nighttime views. Its 82 acres is located in the vaunted Susquehannock State Forest.
The best time to visit is in the summer on Friday and Saturday nights when the park sponsors sky tours.
Glacier National Park, Montana
Finally, let’s head to Glacier National Park in Montana, where big sky country truly lives up to the name. As remote as you can get in the contiguous 48 states, Glacier serves up hundreds of miles of trails that lead to brilliant vantage points to view the night sky.
The best time to visit is in the summer when temperatures are at their most moderate and almost all trails are accessible.
How to Stargaze
Generally speaking, when you venture far enough away from the overbearing artificial lights of a city, your eyes can capture most of the brilliance of the night sky. If you seek a little more detail, however, there are a few tools to help you stargaze more clearly.
When you’re camping lugging around a telescope seems a bit impractical. Thankfully, astronomy binoculars can help bring the detail of the night into focus without weighing you down.
Five brands to look for when in the market for a pair include:
- Wingspan Optics.
So you may not want to drag your big telescope campsite to campsite, but your laptop is coming no matter what. The good news is you can upload some software and better identify the sky above you. Starry Night Pro is an excellent option to help show you what to look for and what times of night are best for viewing.
Yep, there’s always an app. Thankfully for stargazing fans, there’s more than just one. Perfect for camping, these pocket-size maps to the stars allow you to aim your smartphone at the sky, and it will help you identify stars, planets, and constellations.
A few options available for both iOS and Andriod include Stellarium, SkyView, Night Sky, and Star Walk 2.
Aside from your regular camping gear make sure to bring a few extras to the party if your time at night will be spent looking up.
A comfortable chair is paramount as you can easily spend long periods sitting and losing yourself in the stars. Lawn or lounge chairs will do the trick, although if you want to get fancy, specific stargazer chairs are available too.
A red light flashlight is also a must have as it keeps your light levels low and your eyes in focus to the stars above.
What to Stargaze
You’ve got the location, you’ve got the gear; now let’s check out what you came to see. Depending on the instrument you’re using, the level of detail dramatically changes when peering skyward. For our purposes though, let’s assume you’re just starting out and what know what you can see through your naked eye or a decent pair of binoculars.
With just your eyes, stars can mainly be blobs of light. But with the use of one of your apps you can begin to identify how they play connect the dots. And soon enough you’ll be an expert on constellations.
If you’re old school, a physical star chart can also be used to help you focus on different parts of the sky at different times to get the most from your viewing. Planets are also visible to the bare eye with Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn the easiest to see.
With your binoculars, you’ll open a bit more of the sky for viewing including more distinct views of Jupiter and Saturn, star clusters and nebulae, and even a galaxy. The key to any viewing is to understand the schedules for every object and know the best times and places to observe each. If you’re just a casual onlooker that’s not a problem.
For serious stargazers, that combination of knowing where to go and when to go is a crucial part of getting the most out your stargazing while camping experience.
When you embark on a camping trip, often your nights are spent wrapped in a sleeping bag under a canvas dome dreaming of the next day’s activities. On your next trip, don’t let your nights get away from you. When our earth goes to sleep, that’s when the rest of the universe comes alive.
Setting aside some time to simply look up may add another, otherworldly dimension to not only that trip, bit all of the others to follow.