Discover five spots where nature’s headlamps – the stars and moon – are guaranteed to wow.
One of the great joys of camping is the clear night sky studded with bright stars in every direction. There are all kinds of apps to help you identify what you are seeing including the free SkyView – Explore the Universe. Point your iPhone or iPad at the sky to identify stars, constellations, satellites and more. For Android device users, try Sky Map.
Increasingly, you’ll find places with special programs to help you learn more about the night sky. Rock Creek Park in Washington, DC, for example, has the only planetarium in the National Park Service where rangers lead you on an exploration of the solar system. Tickets are free! There is also a Night Explorers Junior Ranger program where kids (5-12) can learn how to find the North Star, track the phases of the moon and more. Download the Night Explorer activity guide here. The National Park Service Night Sky website can help you explore.
Here are five favorite places to experience the starry skies at their best:
- Lake Tahoe, on the California/Nevada border has up to 300 clear nights a year. In fact, the reservoir is famous for stargazing because the sky is often perfectly reflected in the largest alpine lake in North America. Join a Tahoe Star Tour and see the sky through high-powered telescopes with experts helping you understand what you are seeing. Or check out Tahoe High Notes, a weekly calendar of mostly free nighttime events throughout the area. The Lake Tahoe KOA is surrounded by tall trees, has a heated pool and is just a few miles from the south shore of Lake Tahoe – the perfect post stargazing spot.
- The Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park in Gunnison, CO has Wednesday and Friday Astronomy Evening Programs where Sky Rangers and astronomers from the Black Canyon Astronomical Society present a program about the night sky after which you can check it out yourself with their telescope. Think stargazing close to the 1800-foot sheer drop of the canyon! The Montrose / Black Canyon National Park KOA is just 15 minutes from the park and close to everything southwest Colorado has to offer—mountain biking, hiking, rock climbing and more.
- Sedona, Arizona offers prime star gazing above the unusual, red rock formations where young Native American men would meditate in a Vision Quest ritual. Hike up to the energy vortex believed to be atop several formations to feel the spiritual power. On Sedona Stargazing nightly star tours, a professional astronomer points out Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, their rings and moons, to ages 6+ with state-of-the-art telescopes. Base yourselves an hour away at KOA Flagstaff, a green campground with an environmental learning center, easy access to the Grand Canyon and a beautiful dark sky.
- Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in Empire, MI, along the coast of Lake Michigan, offers wonderful opportunities for stargazing and a weekly Starry Starry Night program which teaches visitors about the locations of the stars and hear their legends. The program meets before sunset and will prepare you to stargaze afterward on your own. There are also monthly programs led by Park Rangers and the Grand Traverse Astronomical Society.
- Acadia National Park in Bar Harbor ME boasts some of the most pristine, starry night skies in the eastern United States. It’s still possible to see the Milky Way, something that’s impossible in cities or even suburbs. Come Sept. 22-25 for the 8th annual Acadia Night Sky Festival. The park has worked with the town of Bar Harbor to preserve the dark skies. Take a nighttime Kayaking tour in the park with guides who will identify what you are seeing. If you’re looking for a place to stay, Bar Harbor offers a pair of KOA options designed to suit all types of campers: Bar Harbor / Oceanside KOA and Bar Harbor / Woodlands KOA.
Don’t forget the binoculars!
Eileen Ogintz writes the syndicated column and blog Taking the Kids and is the author if The Kid’s Guide series for kids to major cities across the United States.
Looking for more great ideas to get kids excited about travel? Checkout Eileen’s Kid’s City Guides for tons of tips, facts, games and fun from traveling kids in the know.
Kyle McCarthy is co-founder and editor of Family Travel Forum, the online community trusted by family vacation planners since 1996. Ask her about more outdoors fun on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest and LinkedIn.