Space & Innovation

Amazing Astronomical Retreats in US National Parks: Photos

For the continental United States, a dark sky is never far away for all your amateur astronomy needs.

<p>The Milky Way arcs over Death Valley in California. Credit: <strong>National Park Service/Dan Duriscoe</strong><span></span></p>

While it's tough to see the stars from the city, many Americans don't have to travel too far to see the celestial sights from a dark location. There are now 11 certified dark-sky areas in the United States and you'd be extra lucky if you lived on or near the Colorado Plateau as eight of those areas are located there.

The International Dark Sky Association (IDA) encourages people all over the world to preserve the views of the stars; there's even an application process to get recognition for regions where great efforts are made to reduce the impact of light pollution. Check out the spectacular nighttime views at five of these U.S. dark-sky preserves.

1) Grand Canyon National Park (Nevada)

A starry night over the Colorado River as seen from Navajo Point, south rim, Grand Canyon National Park, Ariz. | Don Smith/Getty Images

The Grand Canyon just received provisional dark-sky status in an announcement made public Monday (June 6). The IDA said that the park had one of the most complex applications ever seen by the group, because there are so many lights on the rims and inside of the canyon. The park now has three years to change two-thirds of the park's lights to meet IDA's lighting requirements.

"Grand Canyon plans to complete the necessary lighting improvements to receive full IDA Dark Sky Park certification in 2019 -- the 100th anniversary of the national park," the IDA wrote in a press release.

2) Death Valley National Park (California)

Badwater Basin in Death Valley National Park under starry skies and lit by a full moon. | Jon Hicks/Getty Images

Death Valley is famous for being extremely hot during the summer, but that harsh climate gives it an advantage -- city dwellers don't want to be anywhere near the place. This means that many of its skies are practically free of artificial light. However, as cities such as Las Vegas continue to grow, its status as a "gold" (highest tier) dark-sky park could come under threat. The IDA said that brighter skies could also affect the local wildlife.

"Much of the night sky above the desert floor is near pristine and, in many places, offers views close to what could be seen before the rise of cities," the IDA wrote on its website.

3) Great Basin National Park (Nevada)

The Milky Way sets over Wheeler Peak in Great Basin National Park. | Dan Duriscoe/National Park Service

Great Basin is a dry place that has other precious things besides night-sky views. The park has a bunch of ancient bristlecone pine trees and a neat area known as the Lehman Caves, replete with features such as stalactites and stalagmites.

The park, the IDA wrote, is fortuitously situated because it has one of the lowest populated areas in the lower 48 states. "The typical basin-and-range topography of the Great Basin serves to help shield the site from skyglow from distant cities," the IDA added. "The result is a truly notable dark-sky resource worth protecting."

4) Natural Bridges National Monument (Utah)

The Milky Way over Owachomo Bridge at Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah. | Jacob W. Frank/National Park Service

If you want to see spectacular natural bridges, this park is definitely the place to be. These fragile, incredible structures are created when water moves through the canyon's stream bed. Over time, erosion makes them collapse.

In between gawking at the nearly gravity-defying structures, however, the IDA says that it's worth going because the park has an "almost perfect lack of light pollution." Like many other parks in the U.S., this park also prides itself on offering public astronomy programs.

5) Big Bend National Park (Texas)

The Milky Way is visible in a starry sky over the Chisos Mountains in Big Bend National Park, Texas. | Blaine Harrington III/Getty Images

Nestled near the border of Mexico, this U.S. national park is about as isolated as you can get. The IDA notes that this is one of the least-visited national parks in the lower 48 United States, and also that the park happens to be extremely far from most large cities. This makes it a great place to visit not only because of the neat night skies, but also because you won't have as much competition for camping sites.