When you live in a city like Los Angeles, Miami or Las Vegas, city lights and pollution can often make it hard to see a star-filled night sky. However, with a quick drive to a more isolated place, you’re sure to find a dark and empty road near you to stargaze and have yourself a relaxing and unique road trip.
To help you plan such a trip, check out our interactive map below with 23 of America’s darkest stargazing roads. Click on each star to get all the information you need including each road’s location, length and best stargazing spot. These roads are also a good way to continue practicing social distancing as you can enjoy the night skies from the safety of your car.
We also highlight the top ten most scenic stargazing roads that lead to International Dark Sky Parks certified by the International Dark Sky Association. These skies are recognized for the quality of their starry night skies and incredible nocturnal environments so you’re destined for unforgettable, luminous views.
America’s Top 10 Most Scenic Stargazing Routes
Although any of the roads on our map will take you through miles of dark skies, below we highlight our top ten most scenic, stargazing roads. These top 10 roads run through some of the country’s most incredible state and national parks and have the highest ratings on the Bortle Scale, which astronomers use to measure darkness and light pollution.
The scale ranges from Class 1 through 9, with Class 1 considered an astronomer’s paradise and Class 4 being the cutoff for decent stargazing. Below is a quick breakdown of these top 4 classes.
- Class 1: Excellent dark sky site
- Class 2: Typical truly dark site
- Class 3: Rural sky
- Class 4: Rural/suburban transition
Each road’s incredible surrounding night environments, length and nearby campsites were also considered to make our top 10.
1. Main Park Road
Chiso Basin Campground
Big Bend National Park, TX
Chisos Mountains Lodge
Drive up to Big Bend National Park by way of it’s hauntingly beautiful Main Park Road. This 65-mile stretch makes a perfect road trip for geology, history and astronomy enthusiasts. Situated away from significant light pollution near the Mexico border, Main Park Road takes you straight to the Panther Junction Visitor Center where you can then head to surrounding picnic areas, hiking trails and viewpoints like Emory Peak.
You can also visit the nearby Ghost Town for unique cafes and restaurants like Espresso Y Poco Mas. While in town, pick up a few healthy road trip snacks and head to watch the stars by the Chisos Basin Campground.
2. U.S. Route 180 West
Cosmic Campground, NM
Los Olmos Lodge
Our second road, U.S. Route 180, takes you to an astrophotographer’s favorite spot, Cosmic Campground. Filmmaker Harun Mehmedinovic says, “It’s one of few places where I walked out of the car and didn’t need to have my eyes adjust… I just stepped out and could see the whole Milky Way, it was just beautiful.”
When traveling on this road towards the campground, keep in mind that it’s kept as a primitive campsite with few amenities in order to protect the night sky and respect fellow stargazers. If you’re looking for a more comfortable stay, Los Olmos Lodge has a few cozy cabins about 14 miles down the road.
3. Bridge View Drive
Natural Bridges National Monument, UT
Natural Bridges Campground
Stone Lizard Lodge
Cruise down Bridge View Drive to reach the first park certified by the International Dark-Sky Association — Natural Bridges National Monument. According to the national park service, you can see up to 15,000 stars in certain areas of the park. The starry skies are contrasted by three huge natural bridges including Owachomo, Sipapu and Kachina bridges. If you decide to hike, you may spot Ancestral Puebloans ruins with cliff dwellings and impressive pictographs.
4. California State Route 190
Death Valley National Park, CA
Furnace Creek Campground
Longstreet Inn Resort
Take California State Route 190 for a starry sky through Death Valley National Park. This longer, 129-mile stretch leading up to the park is perfect for a weekend getaway. “In 360-degree directions you don’t see any cities or any light and it gives you this incredible, peaceful, and deadly quiet feeling,” says timelapse filmmaker Gavin Heffernan.
For a unique photographic opportunity, check out the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, the Devil’s Golf Course or Zabriskie Viewpoint. Although hiking is not recommended in this area in the summer, you can still catch the stars during the cooler months while hiking through Wildrose Peak or Telescope Peak Trail.
5. Arizona State Route 64
Grand Canyon National Park, AZ
Kaibab Lake Campground
Grand Canyon Plaza Hotel
There’s no better road to enjoy a star-covered sky than Route 64 towards the Grand Canyon. Another great option for a weekend-long trip as there’s no shortage of both day and night activities nearby.
This 107-mile stretch takes you right through the middle of Grand Canyon State Park and Kaibab National Forest. During the day, you can raft through the Colorado River or hike through the park’s famous red rocks. At night, gaze at the Milky Way on Yaki Point or go on a night hike through Bright Angel Trail.
6. Johns Valley Road
Bryce Canyon, UT
North Campground - Bryce
The Lodge at Bryce Canyon
Contrast your astrophotography with stunning red rocks and pink cliffs. John Valley Road is a solitary desert road that takes you through beautiful desert vistas in Bryce Canyon, UT. This unique canyon is filled with natural amphitheaters and bowls, the most famous being the Bryce Amphitheater.
If you’re interested in hiking, the area’s main viewpoints are connected through trails. Luckily for star seekers, the park offers about 100 astronomy and night sky ranger programs a year where you’ll be led to some of the best stargazing spots.
7. Navajo Service Route 14
Chaco Culture National Historical Park, NM
Angel Peak Scenic Area
The Chaco Lodge Hacienda
Navajo Service Route 14 is another nearly pitch black road heading up to a UNESCO World Heritage site, the Chaco Culture National Historical Park. Take this low-trafficked 27-mile stretch towards Pueblo Bonito. This area of incredible well-preserved ruins of an ancient Indian fortified town will give an eerie perspective to any astrophoto. Another great spot is the Fajada Butte Viewpoint just half a mile past the Chaco Culture NHS Visitor Center.
Plan your visit on a weekend between the months of April and October to take advantage of the park ranger night sky telescope program. Be sure to check the park’s calendar and call ahead to schedule a night guided tour.
8. Wilderness Park Drive
Headlands International Dark Sky Park, MI
Tee Pee Campgrounds
Deer Head Inn
Another dark road near the famous Headlands International Dark Sky Park is Wilderness Park Drive. This road takes you right along the coast of Michigan’s Wilderness State Park — including two miles of undeveloped shoreline which allows spectacular views of the stars.
Nearby you’ll find plenty of campsites and small bed and breakfasts in case you choose to stay overnight. For large groups of about 20 guests, the Headlands also features a guest house with full views of Lake Michigan.
9. Cherry Springs Road
Cherry Springs State Park, MS
Cherry Springs State Park Astronomy Observation Field
Frosty Hollow Bed & Breakfast
Despite being relatively close to urban areas, Cherry Springs Road will lead you uphill to panoramic night sky views. The best spot for stargazing is Cherry Springs State Park which is famous for its Night Sky Viewing area.
During the day, you can’t miss the impressive Kinzua Sky Walk. This 2,053 foot long bridge stands 301 feet over the Kinzua Bridge State Park offering 360 degree views of the forest and wildlife.
10. Pinto Basin Road
Joshua Tree National Park, CA
Jumbo Rocks Campground
No stargazing list would be complete without the road that takes you through Joshua Tree National Park. If you live in southern California, Joshua Tree is the perfect destination for a weekend getaway or even a quick day trip. During the day, you’ll get stunning desert views replete with Joshua trees, Cholla cacti and unique rock formations.
At night, you can catch the star-filled skies anywhere throughout or on the outskirts of the park. In case you’re not familiar with the area, you can also book a guided adventure both through hiking trails or by car — this will allow you to enjoy the night sky views while learning a bit of Joshua Tree’s unique history.
Best Time to Go Stargazing
If you’re looking to take the brightest photo of the Milky Way, summer is the best time to plan your trip. During the summer months, moonlight is a bit more subdued allowing us to have a much clearer view of the night sky. Ideal dates also depend on where you live in the United States. Below are typically the best months to stargaze by region:
- Pacific: July
- Mid-West: August
- Great Plains: July through October
- East: October
The brightness of the moon, especially a full moon, can also wash out sky views making it harder for us to see the stars. Therefore, the best days of the month to go stargazing are a few days before, during and after a new moon — when the moon is nearly invisible in the sky. Luckily, a new moon happens nearly every 29 days.
CDC Travel Recommendations
During this current coronavirus health pandemic, the CDC strongly encourages social distancing and avoiding any non-essential travel. Before you leave, be sure to check your destination’s travel restrictions as some states have closed recreational areas including state parks and campsites.
However, once authorities declare it safe to do so and you continue to take proper precautions like stargazing from the safety of your car, below are some quick tips to keep you safe.
- Bring snacks and water from home.
- Pump gas near home and use a paper towel to touch the gas pump.
- Bring sanitizing wipes, hand sanitizer and a face mask.
- Travel alone or with people currently living in your household.
- Bring a backup map.
- Pick a stargazing road close to home.
- Consider planning a trip now to complete at a later date.
Since a few of these roads are in mountainous areas or lead to other dirt roads, it’s recommended that you bring a high-clearance, all-wheel drive vehicle. If you own a smaller car, rent a car that’s suitable for these types of roads to safely reach your destination.
Whether you decide to watch the stars from the side of an empty road or book a fire lookout to get full 360 night sky views, any of these spots are sure to take you on an epic cosmic adventure.