Campers love clear, starry skies. After all, that's part of the whole experience -- sitting around the campfire at night, inhaling the cool, fresh air, and pausing every now and then to admire a star-studded sky. Stargazing is actually considered one of the top activities for summer campers and RVers. Unfortunately, it's getting harder and harder to find campsites where you can really see a lot of stars, as more and more people inhabit the Earth and fill it with artificial lighting [source: Sibal].
But don't despair. There are still a fair number of such campsites left. The hitch is that they're mainly in remote locales. Not surprisingly, a lot of these out-of-the-way spots are tucked into national park systems all over the world, because that's where you find large tracts of undeveloped land (meaning little or no artificial lighting) [source: Sibal]. Following are 10 such spots, listed in no particular order. If you go, be prepared for the show of your lives.
Badlands National Park, South Dakota
The desolate Badlands in southwestern South Dakota are loaded with fossils. Ancient mammals such as the saber-toothed cat once roamed the area's 244,000 acres (98,743 hectares), padding across its mixed-grass prairie and climbing its buttes, pinnacles and spires. Today, bison, bighorn sheep, prairie dogs and black-footed ferrets -- North America's most endangered land mammal -- live here [source: Parks and Campgrounds].
This rugged, remote terrain is also a great spot to view the heavens, where it's easy to spot more than 7,500 stars on any given night and enjoy an exceptionally clear view of the Milky Way. In addition, you may spot fly-overs by numerous satellites and even the International Space Station. A Night Sky Program runs Friday through Monday at the Cedar Pass Campground Amphitheater; after the program, visitors can stay a bit longer to peer at the sky through large telescopes. Park rangers stay and helpfully point out various constellations, stars and planets. In August, the Badlands Astronomy Festival is held, featuring lectures, family workshops, more telescope viewing and special ranger programs [source: National Park Service].
In addition to Cedar Pass, camping is also available at Sage Creek Primitive Campground [source: National Park Service].
Joshua Tree National Park, California
Joshua Tree National Park is known for the gnarled, treelike plants growing all over its 550,000 desert acres (222,577 hectares). It also has a reputation as a desolate spot with climactic extremes -- and jet-black night skies. In fact, research conducted at the park shows 29 percent of visitors come specifically to gawk at its impressive night skies [source: Romig]. That's not too surprising, as the skies over the park are typically clear, thanks in part to the desert's low humidity, plus its low levels of light pollution -- pretty amazing, considering its location in people-choked Southern California. Stargazing visitors can take advantage of the park's Night Sky programs, typically offered in summer. About 50 to 100 show up for the program each night, and numbers are growing along with Joshua Tree's reputation as a star-gazing hot spot [source: Romig].
You have your choice of camping sites here, as there are nine campgrounds, all of which come with tables, fire grates and toilets. But there are no RV hookups or showers at any of the sites [source: National Park Service].
Haleakalā National Park, Hawaii
One of the better places to peer into the heavens is Hawaii. And Haleakalā National Park, in southern Maui, is tops. Noted for its volcanic landscape and subtropical rain forest, the park is home to a vast, nearly-25,000-acre (10,117-hectare) wilderness area made up of innumerable microclimates, plus two wilderness campgrounds and three historic 1930s-era redwood cabins [source: National Park Service].
The summit of Haleakalā is considered a world-class place to observe the sky at night. No wonder; the mountain's summit is higher than 10,000 feet (3,048 meters) [source: Park Vision]. The island dive shops rent binoculars, so grab some (the National Park Service suggests a 10x50 or 7x50 pair), grab a free star map at the Park Headquarters Visitor Center or Haleakalā Visitor Center, and head on up. It'll probably be chilly, so bring a jacket, too [source: National Park Service].
Campgrounds outside of the Wilderness Area include Kīpahulu and Hosmer Grove, both accessible by car. Hosmer Grove is a better option, as it's tucked into the slopes of Haleakalā, on the way to the summit [source: National Park Service].
Algonquin Park, Ontario, Canada
Ontario's first provincial park, Algonquin sits a little northeast of Toronto, tucked almost against the border with neighboring province Quebéc. The park is 2,946 square miles (1,192 hectares) of fairly wild deciduous and coniferous forest, plus five major types of habitat, resulting in a wonderful diversity in plants and animals [sources: Algonquin Provincial Park, Algonquin Provincial Park].
It's usually easy to see a star-kissed sky here, as there's little artificial light. In fact, you can get in good stargazing from virtually every location. Amateur and professional astronomers from all over the world visit, and tour operators running trips near the park, such as Out for Adventure, tout "endless stargazing" as a trip highlight [sources: Algonquin Provincial Park, Out for Adventure]. An annual Star Party is held in June [source: Terence Dickinson's Sky News].
Since camping is one of the most popular pastimes in Algonquin Park, you have your choice of locations, sites and camping types: drive-to camping, including campgrounds, yurts, ranger cabins and RV camping; or backcountry camping, which offers ranger cabins, paddle-in campsites and backpacking sites [source: Algonquin Provincial Park].
Clayton Lake State Park, New Mexico
Stargazing aficionados know New Mexico is a wonderful spot for sky-peeping, thanks to a small population and blessedly clear skies. And within the state, Clayton Lake is tops. In 2010, the International Dark-Sky Association (IDSA) named Clayton Lake a Certified International Dark Sky Park, one of just a handful of parks in the world to earn that distinction. The IDSA only recognizes parks that have extraordinary views of the night sky and a natural nighttime habitat [source: IDSA].
The designation was bestowed upon the park in part for opening the Star Point Observatory in 2006, which features a computer-operated telescope and remote TV monitor to allow group star gazing through the building, which sports a retractable roof. The local astronomy club also set up several smaller telescopes outside the building [source: Moffatt]. Measurements of the night sky's brightness also show that it's of exceptional quality [source: IDSA].
The campground at Clayton Lake is on the smaller side, with Chicano Beach and Peach Point campgrounds lying the closest to the observatory. During the day, while you're waiting for the stars to be visible, check out the hiking trails, outstanding fishing and dinosaur footprints along the spillway -- there are more than 500. The tracks are best viewed in the morning and late afternoon [source: New Mexico Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department].
Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah
Want to see 10,000 stars twinkling in an inky sky? It's possible at Bryce Canyon National Park, where you can see 7,500 to 10,000 stars on clear, moonless nights. Bryce Canyon, which sits in southern Utah, is best known for its spectacularly beautiful reddish "hoodoos," which are limestones, sandstones and mudstones eroded over time into fancifully shaped spires, pinnacles and mazes. But it's also considered one of the best stargazing spots left [source: Parks and Campgrounds].
A group called the Dark Rangers has established a vibrant astronomy and night sky program at the park that attracts 100 to 300 people each night. The Rangers assist guests in enjoying the nightly celestial show through multimedia presentations, free use of 40 telescopes scattered around the park and guided trips. The park also hosts an annual astronomy festival [source: Sibal].
Camping options at the park include Bryce Canyon National Park North and Sunset Campgrounds, both of which are near the visitor center.
Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
Few people would probably be surprised to learn the immense, remote Grand Canyon National Park is a prime spot for stargazing. Once you get away from the lights of Grand Canyon Village and out onto the various trails along the canyon's north and south rims, the views are impressive. If the moon is in hiding, you can often see the Milky Way stretching across the star-studded sky, or maybe a meteor shower [sources: Sibal, Grand Canyon Lodges].
While there aren't any guided stargazing tours here, you can easily do it on your own. Just head out on a trail, away from the ponderosa pines, and look up. You can also grab a stargazing map from one of the gift shops for a little more guidance; free telescopes are provided at the Grand Canyon Visitor Centers and the Grand Canyon Lodge, too. Once a year, typically in June, there's a Grand Canyon Star Party [source: Sibal].
All of these resources are easily accessible from the park's Mather Campground and Trailer Village, located in Grand Canyon Village. The Desert View Campground is less developed, and lies 25 miles (40 kilometers) from the Village, while the North Rim Campground and Tuweep (aka Toroweap) are on the park's much-less-visited North Rim. The Tuweep site is primitive and remote, so stargazing may be a little better there [sources: National Park Service, National Park Service].
Galloway Forest Park, Scotland
Galloway Forest Park, in Scotland's southwestern corner, was named the United Kingdom's first Dark Sky Park in 2009. No wonder. Sprawling over 185,000 acres (748, 67 hectares) with few buildings, it's easy to spot 7,000 stars, the Andromeda Galaxy and the Aurora Borealis with the naked eye. Star gazing is so easy here, the Forestry Commission lists 10 viewing sites within the park, along with recommended sites for setting up a telescope [sources: Forestry Commission, The Galloway Forest Park]. There are numerous astronomy-related programs and activities regularly occurring at Galloway Forest Park, too, such as Stargazing for Beginners and a Meteor Shower Watch [source: Forestry Commission].
"Wild" (unregulated) camping is allowed in the park, plus there are five "bothies" scattered around, which are small, plain, unlocked structures anyone can use [source: The Galloway Forest Park]. Formal campgrounds can also be found nearby.
Big Bend National Park, Texas
Another International Dark Sky Park, you can see nearly 250 miles (402.3 kilometers) on a clear day in Big Bend, which is pretty impressive. But consider this: On a clear night in the park, you can spot the Andromeda Galaxy, which is 2 million light-years away. Besides the Andromeda Galaxy, you can gaze upon 2,000 stars and even find Antares, a reddish star that sits in the constellation of Scorpio [source: National Park Service].
So what makes Big Bend such a great star gazing spot? It's quite remote, for one, which means naturally dark skies. Plus, it rarely clouds over and is blessed with low humidity, which equates to prime viewing conditions. Unfortunately, a whole lot of air pollution floats into the park from Mexico and other parts of the United States during the warm summer months, so winter is the best time to visit. Just bring your coat and keep your eyes open; you don't need a telescope or binoculars to see the show [source: National Park Service].
The park operates three campgrounds, Chisos Basin, Cottonwood and Rio Grande Village; there's also an RV campground with full hook-ups at Rio Grande Village [source: National Park Service].
Aoraki/Mt. Cook National Park, New Zealand
Officials with the International Dark-Sky Association say New Zealand's South Island is one of the best star gazing spots on the entire Earth, period. The skies there are almost totally free from light pollution, which is why the group named a huge part of the island the world's largest International Dark Sky Reserve. So where, within this immense parcel of land, is the best of the best? Aoraki/Mt. Cook National Park and the Mackenzie Basin.
The area -- more than 1,600 square miles (4,144 square kilometers) -- is also collectively known as the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve, and sits on the island's central-eastern portion in the heart of the Southern Alps [source: Our Amazing Planet]. It's not a place for wimps; glaciers blanket 40 percent of the park, and with 19 peaks topping 9,843 feet (3,000 meters), it's considered a harsh land of ice and rock [source: Department of Conservation]. Camping options are limited. There's one campground in the popular Aoraki/Mt. Cook Village, White Horse Hill, which features toilets and running water. You can also "freedom camp" in designated areas for a night or two, or stay in one of 17 huts, largely used by mountaineers; you'll need climbing skills to reach them [sources: Department of Conservation, Mt Cook Mackenzie].
But if you make the trip, you'll be treated to crystal-clear night skies filled with stars and ringed by mountains. Telescopes are available nearby at The Hermitage hotel if you want to look for Saturn's rings, the moons surrounding Jupiter or the Magellanic Clouds. There's even a planetarium at The Hermitage, which offers Big Sky Stargazing tours [sources: Department of Conservation, The Hermitage].
Author's Note: 10 Great Camping Spots for Star Gazing
I'm not very good at stargazing. I can find the Big Dipper and the Little Dipper -- didn't we all learn the Little Dipper empties into the Big Dipper? -- and sometimes Orion's Belt. But even if I can't identify many constellations, I always enjoy looking up at a star-choked sky.
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