Photo courtesy Kristen Force
Humankind has long looked to the night sky for guidance. Early mariners navigated the open seas by charting stars in the sky, farmers around the world have relied on stars to guide the harvesting of their crops, and the constellations have been a source of instruction and ritual for Native peoples for thousands of years. Even today, who hasn’t made a wish after seeing a shooting star?
Today, most people won’t cross oceans or plant crops based on starry skies, but a collective love affair with stargazing persists—perhaps more strongly than ever, given technological advances that place powerful telescopes in the palms of amateur hands and mobile apps that help identify celestial wonders in seconds.
Across the American West, dozens of parks and public lands enhance that experience as officially designated International Dark Sky Places. The moniker, bestowed by DarkSky International, an organization that advocates against light pollution for dark night skies, is given to areas that preserve their starry night skies by restricting or altering the use of artificial lighting at night, enacting policies to temper the haze of light pollution and offering educational programming to the general public.
Michael Rymer, program associate with DarkSky International, said that even the simple act of stargazing connects us with a tradition that dates back generations. “We all have our different interpretations of the night sky, and I think that’s a very uniquely human trait,” he said. “We can all look at the same thing in our imaginations—depending on who we are, where we’re from, and who we’re surrounded by—and come up with different stories and meanings.”
While not a comprehensive list of International Dark Sky Places in the American West, here are five favorite places to see starry night skies, meteor showers, and even the farthest reaches of our galaxy—with or without a telescope.
Enjoy some of the darkest night skies in the United States across the Central Idaho Dark Sky Reserve. Recognized in 2017, the location became the nation’s first International Dark Sky Reserve and one of only 12 worldwide.
Spanning Idaho’s Sawtooth Valley and surrounded by the Sawtooth Mountains, the 1,400-square-mile reserve covers some of the state’s most beloved outdoor destinations, including Ketchum, Sun Valley and the Sawtooth National Recreation Area. So dark are the region’s night skies, it’s not uncommon to see the Milky Way while driving through the valley on state highways 75 and 21.
Photo courtesy Nils Ribi
In 2020, the community of Sunriver, with a population of 1,200, was named a Dark Sky Friendly Development of Distinction by DarkSky International. It was the first location in Oregon to receive this honor.
Sunriver sits about 17 miles south of Bend and has taken several steps to protect its night skies, such as limiting the number of streetlights and imposing light restrictions on buildings. The Sunriver Nature Center & Observatory is an ideal place from which to stargaze, with passionate astronomers on site to help visitors view meteor showers, planets and nebulae via the largest collection of telescopes available for public use in the United States.
Sunriver Nature Center & Observatory. Photo courtesy Kirsten Force
Chaco Culture National Historical Park sits in the northwestern corner of New Mexico and covers roughly 34,000 acres. Chaco Canyon, as it’s commonly known, was originally established to protect buildings constructed long ago by the Ancestral Puebloan people, but its dark night skies have themselves been a draw. Roughly 99% of the park is considered a “natural darkness zone” due to the absence of permanent outdoor lighting, and in 2013, it was designated an International Dark Sky Park.
Park officials have embraced the public’s collective love affair with stargazing. Between April and October, staff members offer educational programming which includes presentations on Chaco’s dark night sky and its connection to the Chacoans who lived in the area more than 1,000 years ago. Find telescope-assisted viewings of stars, planets, and other celestial wonders and on December 21, observe the winter solstice at Kin Kletso, a Chacoan Great House.
Photo courtesy Bettymaya Foott
Surrounded by the Salish Mountains, the Lost Trail National Wildlife Refuge encompasses thousands of acres and a variety of ecosystems, including wide-open prairies, craggy mountain peaks, winding rivers and quiet wetlands. But the refuge, which sits an hour west of Kalispell in northwestern Montana, is just as beloved for its nighttime beauty and was designated an International Dark Sky Sanctuary in 2022.
Park officials sought the designation partly to help protect its vast population of nocturnal animals, such as bats and owls, which gives viewers more to watch for while stargazing. At least once per summer, the Big Sky Astronomy Club leads star parties at the refuge’s visitor center.
Lost Trail National Wildlife Refuge. Photo courtesy John Ashley
Sixty miles northeast of San Diego sits Borrego Springs, a quiet desert community where palm trees and residents reside, and the Santa Rosa Mountains rise to the north. With almost no tree cover and little light pollution from nearby cities, Borrego Springs has transformed itself into one of California’s premier night-sky destinations, earning the designation of the state’s first International Dark Sky Community in 2009.
The town is surrounded on all sides by the 600,000-acre Anza-Borrego Desert State Park—an officially designated International Dark Sky Park. Named in honor of both the Spanish explorer Juan Bautista de Anza and borrego, the Spanish word for sheep, the park’s mountainous terrain is a geologic wonder featuring wide-open badlands, palm oases, canyons and the native bighorn sheep. A remote and wild landscape, the park makes for a pristine place to view the dark night sky.
Photo courtesy Kevin Key Photography, ©2023
Matt Wastradowski is an Oregon-based travel writer who has written for REI, Outside, and Willamette Week. He has written three guidebooks to date: Moon Oregon Hiking, Moon Columbia River Gorge & Mount Hood, and Moon Oregon.