Stargazer Guide to Dark Sky Camping – Where to Camp Under the Stars

Dark sky camping is the perfect way to unwind from artificial light overload of cities and even your own backyard. But, where can you enjoy stargazing without light pollution or sky glow or camp under the stars uninterrupted? While night sky viewing is getting harder to find, there are still plenty of places you can camp under the stars, study the constellations, and photograph the Milky Way!

Dark Sky Camping Locations in the US - Always On Liberty

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I’m still fascinated and mesmerized by the night sky just as when I stood my mid-watch as a Coast Guard navigator back in the early 1980’s.

I would plot our ship’s position and courses relative to the star Polaris (a star in the northern circumpolar constellation of Ursa Minor), as well as the moon and sun. Back then, this primitive method of navigation method was known celestial navigation.

Today however, professional worldly mariners all navigate using more technological advances of electronic global positioning systems (GPS). 

Sadly, the art of celestial navigation (and intense math) has mostly gone by the wayside. I laugh because most professional mariners today probably couldn’t navigate their way out of a paper bag without a GPS.

I’m lucky to say at least I had the opportunity to navigate like mariners did on the Spanish galleons and schooners of centuries past.

Now decades later, I still look up at the night sky with gazing wonder that takes me back to standing watch on pitch black nights with millions of diamond-like stars sparking down on me.

Now, I realize not everyone can on a ship to see the sensation I’m referring to. But here’s the good news! You don’t have to sail hundreds of miles out into the deep blue sea to see the constellations.

If you’re an appreciate nature and love camping, there’s plenty of dark sky camping locations that provides you much of the same experience. Well, minus the seasickness.

With the help from our Astronomy-loving RV friends, John and Brenda Njedlo (formerly GeoAstro), we’ll we’ll guide you to all the best places to camp under zillions of stars!

Stargazer Guide to the Best Places for Dark Sky Camping

Where You Can Camp Under the Stars and Milky Way!

Since the beginning of time, humans have looked up towards the stars. The bright pinpoints of light have been used as navigation tools, helped farmers determine when to plant and harvest crops, and are at the center of stories and myths from every culture.

Just one hundred years ago, anyone, no matter where they lived, could look up at night and easily see the Milky Way and its thousands of stars.

 

Many people have never seen our own Milky Way in the night sky. The image above shows the dramatic effect that light has on viewing the stars at night.

How Light Pollution Affects Wildlife and Ecosystems

“When we add light to the environment, that has the potential to disrupt habitat, just like running a bulldozer over the landscape can.” – Chad Moore, formerly of the U.S. National Park Service

differences in night sky due to light glow - Always On Liberty
Image by International Dark-Sky Association.

Today, over 80% of the world’s population lives under the inappropriate or excessive use of artificial light.

Also known as light pollution or sky glow, it interferes with millions of people’s ability to see the brightest stars in the night sky.

The Bortle Dark-Sky Scale measures the night sky’s brightness at a particular location. Class 1 is the darkest sky on Earth and Class 9 shows what the sky looks like from the inner city. 

Sadly though, light pollution is something that affects us all. Light Pollution Map shows an interactive map of the skyglow of the United States. It is easy to see why most observatories are located in the west and southwest where darker skies are easier to find.

Image from LightPollutionMap.Info showing the United States light pollution.

The International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) works to protect the night skies for present and future generations. Their mission is to preserve and protect the nighttime environment as well as our heritage of dark skies through environmentally responsible outdoor lighting.

They are the recognized authority on light pollution and is the leading organization combating light pollution worldwide.

McDonald Observatory in Fort Davis, TX launched its’ Dark Sky Initiative. Working with neighbors in the region, the initiative was started to preserve our dark night skies. The program promotes awareness of light pollution and simple solutions to help minimize sky glow.

How light pollution affects the Environment and Wildlife

Artificial light and even sky glow deeply affects our wildlife. It interferes with migration patterns of nocturnal animals who hunt or travel at night.

For instance, many insects are naturally drawn to light. However, artificial lights are detrimentally fatal. While most of us would rather camp without a million bugs all around, we need to realize the declining insect populations negatively impacts all species that rely on insects for food or pollination.

Some predators exploit this attraction to their advantage, affecting the food chain in unanticipated ways.

Another example, artificial light has been shown to disrupt the natural cycles of many different species, including birds and sea turtles.

But it goes even further. A growing body of evidence ties our brightening night sky to measurable negative impacts such as:

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How We Can Help Create and Preserve the Dark Sky

While most nature-conscientious campers like ourselves realize the impact we have on the environment. Unfortunately though, there are some people who camp who simply “don’t care”. Or maybe they don’t even realize the impact their lights have out in the wild or even in your own backyard.

I’m sure you’ve read about those RVers who brag about their super bright party lights on their RVs and campsite. They’re so bright it almost replicates that like the Las Vegas strip.

And then there’s those like us who prefer looking up at the stars with only the glow of the campfire instead of a million LED lights. This is precisely one of the reasons why we prefer to boondock away from cities and in the wild.

And while we can’t change their minds about turning off their lights, we can at least join in as proactive stewards of the environment. Instead of using bright exterior lights at our campsite or on our RV, consider installing covered directional lights on your camper.

Another great positive initiative is to install or place less light-intrusive motion sensor lights that only light when there’s movement outside to warn of activity.

To help even further, opt for a red lens flashlight instead of using white light flashlights. Not only does it have less impact on wildlife, but also, red lights help with your night vision so you can see the stars more clearly.

Last but not least, let’s just turn off all outside lights at night when you turn in for the night. One more positive measure, draw your RV’s or camper’s window shades.

Doing these small gestures will provide you and other stargazers a much clearer view of the cosmos and the beautiful Milky Way galaxy. But also, these suggestions help remove the negative impact on nature and the environment.

Where to Find Dark Sky Camping 

So now, let’s get to the good stuff; finding places to camp under the stars without light interruption.

We’ve found the best dark sky camping is in remote locations such as the desert southwest region of the United States where we boondock.

The further we get away from brightly lit cities and towns and where there’s less tree coverage, there’s far less light pollution. And unless there is a nearby forest fire or cloud cover, the dark sky heavens above twinkles like fairy lights or a disco ball.

So, let’s check out where some of the best camping spots are under impeccable dark skies! 

Certified IDA International Dark Sky Communities in the U.S.

Certified IDA International Dark Sky Communities are legally organized towns and cities that adopt quality outdoor lighting ordinances and undertake efforts to educate residents about the importance of dark skies.

Certified IDA International Dark Sky Parks in the U.S.

Certified IDA International Dark Sky Parks are publicly or privately owned spaces protected for natural conservation that implement good outdoor lighting and provide dark sky programs for visitors. 

As of January 2022, there are 195 listed certified International Dark Sky Parks (IDSP) in the world. There are over 160,000 square kilometers of protected land and night skies in 22 countries on 6 continents.

Of those, there are over 86 Dark Sky Parks in the U.S. You can see where these hidden gems are located on their interactive map.

Certified IDA International Dark Sky Reserves in the U.S.

Certified IDA International Dark Sky Reserves consist of a dark “core” zone surrounded by a populated periphery where policy controls are enacted to protect the darkness of the core.  

As of January 2022, there is only 1 Certified IDA International Dark Sky Reserve in the United States; located in Central Idaho.

Certified IDA International Dark Sky Sanctuaries in the U.S.

Certified IDA International Dark Sky Sanctuaries are often the darkest and most remote places in the world whose conservation state is most fragile.

As of January 2022, there are 9 Certified IDA International Dark Sky Sanctuaries in the U.S.

Today, our National Parks are home to some of the most spectacular night skies in the U.S. In fact, over 30 parks have been certified as International Dark Sky Parks.

You can join the celebration and learn more about exploring night in parks, protecting dark skies from light pollution, and what we do to manage this extraordinary resource of darkness. For more info, check out go.nps.gov/IDSW.

But as you see below, there’s also quite a few State Parks and dark sky campgrounds that partake in this amazing midnight viewing of stars and constellations:

NIGHT SKY STARGAZING PRO TIP ✰  Planning to go stargazing at one of our dark sky National Parks? Before you go, make sure you get the right pass to get you into the parks! Which National Park Pass Should I Get?

Attend a Star Party!

Who doesn’t love a good party? But star parties aren’t all about loud music and imbibing. Star Parties are cool venues put on by professionals and knowledgeable volunteers who share their passion of astronomy. They want to show why looking up at the constellations and stars is such an incredible high!

We encourage you to try to find a star party near you. In fact, we’ve even attended a few star parties ourselves and fell in love with this concept of learning; day and night! While we visited Capitol Reef National Park, I got to look through a high powered telescope to see solar flares sparking off of the sun!

Many star parties are often held at or near a National Park; many of which boast dark skies. Anyone can help support your National Parks, Monuments, and Historic Sites by attending talks, star parties, and other astronomy-related events.

Also, April is Global Astronomy Month. So, check out the many star parties in your area!

There is nothing more awe-inspiring than to look up into the night sky filled with stars and constellations. It makes us feel connected to each other and to the greater universe. It also makes you seriously wonder “is anybody out there?”.

We also encourage you to talk to amateur astronomers and take a look through their telescopes. And, search for local astronomy groups and clubs in the area of where you’ll go dark sky camping.

One word of caution though. Learning about the celestial bodies is may make you want to purchase a telescope to see and learn more about outer space!

NIGHT SKY STARGAZING PRO TIP  Want to know more about making the most of your National Park visit? Read our 32 Tips for an Amazing National Park Experience.

Must Have Stargazing Apps

You can download a free mobile app to help you locate stars in your night sky.

There are two good mobile apps to help you locate where the best stargazing dark skies are.

Light Pollution Map allows you to easily locate dark sky locations where the sky will not be affected by light pollution, allowing the best observance, star gazing, and photography of the night sky. (Screenshot below)

Screenshot of Dunbar Technology’s Light Pollution Map app
Screenshot of Dunbar Technology’s Light Pollution Map app.

Dark Sky Finder helps you locate nearby dark skies and also allows you to make a contribution by adding a dark site for others to enjoy. (Screenshot below)

Dark Sky Finder
The Dark Sky Finder app gives details of dark sky locations.

Other stargazing apps we recommend are  Sky Portal by Celestron, SkySafariSkyview Lite or Star Walk. While all of these apps are free, some may have inexpensive ad-free options for iPhone and Android users.

And lastly, stargazers like yourself can become a Citizen Scientist with GLOBE at Night or the Dark Sky Rangers and document light pollution in your neighborhood and share the results. Doing so contributes to a global database of light pollution measurements.

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Other Dark Sky Resources

Stargazing Tools to View the Stars and Constellations

    • National Geographic Night Sky of North America – A basic guide to the solar system, distant galaxies, exoplanets and deep space, satellites and spacecraft, the big bang, meteor showers, and moon phases. This book also features scores of sky and constellation charts for stargazers.
    • Night SkyStar Finder – The Night SkyStar Finder is a rotating planisphere that allows the user to recognize the constellations for any time of night, any day of the year. The sky appears to rotate (due to the rotation and orbital motion of the earth), so to be successful recognizing the constellations a beginner needs to know which stars are above the horizon at any time.
    • Stellarscope – The Stellarscope displays all the main stars and constellations of both the Northern and Southern hemispheres. Just find the right latitude adapter and microfiche star map, rotate the tubes to align the date and time, take aim, and start calling the stars by name.
    • Red Lens Flashlight – A red lens flashlight helps to make it easier for your eyes to adjust quickly to the darkness. This important stargazing tool is what you’ll need to light your path or read your stargazing guides.

 Plan your trip to camp under the stars!

If you’re planning on taking your camper or RV to any of these dark sky communities or State and National Parks, it’s important to plan ahead so your experience will be less stressful. You surely don’t want to end up on the wrong road with low overheads or roads that aren’t safe for RVs.

Trust me, through our 10 years on the road as full-time RVers, we’ve been there! So, we use RV LIFE Trip Wizard to get us to our favorite camping spots and campgrounds utilizing RV-friendly routes specific to our camper and travel preferences.

Learn more and sign up for the FREE 7-Day Trial.

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Wrapping up

Astronomy Telescopes at Star Party - Always On Liberty
Preparing for a night presentation at Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Make the clouds go away!

While that’s a lot of information to process, now you know where to look to enjoy dark sky camping in the U.S. And when you do, look up! You may find your own star to make a thousand wishes.

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