Comet Neowise Near a Jayco RV at Dead Horse Point State Park
Comet Neowise at Dead Horse Point State Park | © Alison Takacs

Having spent countless hours on the road camping and RVing at campsites all across America, Alison and I have been fortunate enough to enjoy all kinds of dark skies. Stargazing is one of our favorite things to do while hanging out at a campsite.

In this “stargazing in the US frequently asked questions” page, we will answer some of the biggest questions many people have about stargazing in America.

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Is there anywhere with no light pollution?

There are plenty of places left in the U.S. where there is no light pollution, but the number of these places is shrinking every day. If you look at a dark sky map, simply look for Bortle 1 areas. These are the places with the darkest skies and potentially no light pollution. On most light pollution maps, the darkest gray color spots will be your darkest areas. Once you have located the Bortle 1 places, see if there are any small towns where there is potential for light pollution. If you don’t see any signs of civilization on the map, you stand a good chance of going to a spot with no light pollution.

Here are a couple of examples to help you understand:

Pick your favorite dark sky map and search for Elk City, Idaho. You will see it is a small town with a population of just over 100 people. It is dark blue on the map. If you travel a couple of dozen miles to the southeast, you will find extremely dark skies in the dark gray areas with no other towns nearby under Bortle 1 skies There is zero light pollution.

Take a look at the town of Baker, Nevada. It’s under Bortle 2 skies, so it starts off in an already dark spot. From here, you can head into the mountains of Great Basin National Park, which we have visited and can attest to the fact it is dark, or travel south down the 93 for dozens of miles. On your way down this completely empty road, you’ll find plenty of places to stop and enjoy extreme darkness.

How long after sunset do you stargaze?

The general rule for stargazing after sunset is typically 2 hours. This doesn’t mean you can’t see stars before 2 hours past sunset, it’s just easier to see a good amount of them as the daylight disappears. In our Dallas suburban neighborhood, I can usually see a few stars right after sunset, but it definitely takes a couple of hours to start to see the full amount. When we RV and stay in dark sky locations with low Bortle numbers, we have noticed essentially the same thing. Some stars are visible when the sun goes down, but the vast majority come out after a couple of hours when it is truly dark out.

Does the full moon affect stargazing?

The moon can have a huge impact on stargazing. Typically, the fuller the moon, the less stars you can see from the same location. Alison and I have found when the moon is full, it is very difficult to see most stars near it. Stars opposite the moon are also impacted, but to a lesser extent. When stargazing during the gibbous phases of the moon, many stars will also not be as visible. Crescent moons make it easier to see the majority of stars in your area and are better than full moons and gibbous moons. The best moon phase to view the stars is when it is a new moon and the moon is not really visible (or very faint).

What is the best time of night to stargaze?

The best time of the night to stargaze is whenever you get the chance!

Honestly though for the best experience, we prefer to stargaze at least a few hours after sunset when we are camping. The sky tends to be darker (depending on moon phases of course), and the campground is typically quieter. As we get closer to midnight, our eyes have fully adjusted to the light, everyone is asleep, and the overall mood just feels right.

Alison and I have also found it more enjoyable to stargaze in the very late evening versus the time before sunrise since it’s always tough to get up early to stargaze. If you are a morning person, you might find the opposite more enjoyable.

Also take into consideration when clouds will be moving in the area throughout the night. Weather can make one time at night better for stargazing versus than other times. Still, it’s fun to shoot the stars and observe them even when the clouds are out, so give it a shot!

Jayco RV at Oliver Lee Memorial under stars and clouds
Just after sunset at Oliver Lee Memorial State Park | © Alison Takacs

What time is the Milky Way visible?

The Milky Way is generally best viewed at least a couple of hours after sunset. This of course depends on the time of year you are trying to view it and in what hemisphere of the Earth you are located. Here in Texas, we typically see the denser core of the Milky Way in March pretty late at night (after midnight). As spring turns into summer and then to fall, the Milky Way is easier to see earlier in the night and even soon after sunset. Our Milky Way core viewing season usually ends near the end of October. 

What’s really interesting to see is how the angle of the Milky Way changes over the course of the year. You’ll notice it progressing from low to the horizon and more horizontal in the early and late months of the Milky Way season to pretty vertical in the summer which is the middle of the season.

The Milky Way Under a Bortle 2 Texas sky | © Alison Takacs

Can the human eye see the Milky Way?

The human eye can definitely see the Milky Way! If you have never seen it before, we highly suggest you take a trip somewhere with dark skies to see it. You will be amazed! If you are in the northern hemisphere, find a place with very little light pollution during “Milky Way season”. We have found this is usually between March and October in Texas. It can really change your perspective of your universe knowing you are just a tiny organism living on a small planet circle an average sized star in an average sized galaxy.

Where is the best place for stargazing in the US?

The best place to stargaze in the US is the darkest place near you! Look at a light pollution map to see hundreds of possible spots to visit, or try one of these ten places scattered across the US either we recommend, what the International Dark-Sky Association approves of, or what numerous astronomy experts prefer and not just from some random blogger that probably doesn’t enjoy this hobby regularly.

You can’t go wrong with any of these dark sky spots:

  1. Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, Maine – The darkest American skies east of the Mississippi.
  2. Cherry Springs State Park, Pennsylvania – It’s one of the darker spots to stargaze on the east coast, and one of the most famous.
  3. George Washington National Forest, Virginia – Work your way down forest roads to the east side of this park for dark skies near Spruce Knob.
  4. Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Superior National Forest, Minnesota – If you are looking for a dark sky sanctuary and also love canoeing, this place is perfect.
  5. Big Bend National Park, Texas – Out of all national parks in the lower 48 states, this one has the least amount of light pollution.
  6. Great Basin National Park, Nevada – You won’t be disappointed by how dark this very isolated park gets.
  7. Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming – Get away from the tourist spots and into the woods for some amazing stargazing.
  8. Steens Mountain Wilderness, OR – Get your 4×4, grab your telephone, and be ready to see some stunning skies.
  9. Dead Horse Point State Park, UT – Don’t let the name freak you out, it’s a beautiful park with beautiful night skies.
  10. Denali National Park, Alaska – Be prepared for a different kind of stargazing experience here with the Aurora Borealis dancing through the night.

Where is the darkest sky in the US?

The Milky Way Over a Jayco RV at State Forest State Park
The Milky Way Over our Jayco RV at State Forest State Park | © Alison Takacs

The darkest sky in the US is actually not one location regardless of what you might have seen in other articles. There are thousands of areas scattered all over the US with Bortle 1 skies, which means the darkest skies in America are luckily all over the place. To find these amazing stargazing spots, take a look at a dark sky map and look for the darkest gray areas. The further away from any towns, the better your chance is of finding very dark skies.

Also, look at the list created by the International-Dark Sky Association with great recommendations such as Big Bend, Massacre Rim, and Natural Bridge. There are numerous locations across America that can be counted as the darkest skies.

This is a picture is of a Bortle 2 sky for reference. Most people will find that the second level of dark skies feel exceptionally dark compared to where they live. Over 80% of Americans cannot see the Milky Way and live under very light polluted skies, so heading to areas anywhere in the gray on a dark sky map will be an awe inspiring experience. The darkest sky in the United States are great to visit, but most people won’t notice a big difference unless they stargaze regularly.

Which state has the best stargazing?

That’s like asking which child is your favorite. There are fantastic dark sky areas in at least half the states in the US, and it is difficult to narrow it down to just one. If you forced us to pick the best place for stargazing that we enjoy, regularly, it would have to be Texas simply because it is where we live. Also, it has a huge Bortle 1 sky area now protected as the Greater Big Bend International Dark-Sky Reserve that is the biggest on the planet as well as the dark sky sanctuary of Devils River State Natural Area. So, if you want great stargazing, a big area to choose from, and a nice landscape to enjoy, give Texas a chance.

Which state has the clearest skies?

Out of all the states in the US, two are extremely close for the title of the clearest skies: Nevada and Arizona. Both states have on average under 40% relative humidity, and both have minimal amounts of rainfall. With these two combinations of factors, stargazers have tons of chances to find clear skies for stargazing. Also, with plenty of desert in both Nevada and Arizona, it doesn’t take long to escape the city and find a quiet spot to enjoy the night sky.

Where in the US has no light pollution?

There are still many places left in the US with no light pollution, but that number is shrinking every day. If you look at a dark sky map, find the dark gray areas. These places have minimal to no light pollution. If you then travel to one of these spots and notice a very small town, head away from that town for at least 20 miles further into the dark gray area. This will put you in an area with no light pollution. 

When we have traveled for stargazing, which makes up a good chunk of our travel adventures, we have found areas with Bortle 1 skies (gray places on the map) and lots of mountains in the distance to be the best spots to find no light pollution. Far away mountains tend to shield any distant town’s light from reaching you, but you will lose the ability to see every star on the horizon. You will have to wait for the Earth to rotate during the night to see some stars rise above the mountains.

Several hours from our home in Dallas is one of our favorite places to visit, the Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge in Oklahoma. While it is not the darkest area in the US, it has mountains that provide some shielding from the light pollution of surrounding towns. We like to select campsites here that are mostly open for the best stargazing.

Star Trails Over Jayco RV at Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge
Star Trails in the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge

Where is the best place to see the Milky Way in the US?

The best place to see the Milky Way in the US is wherever you can find an area with low light pollution. You need to travel away from heavily light polluted cities to see the core of the Milky Way. Understand that the western part of the US typically has far more dark skies than the eastern US due to far fewer large cities scattered across this part of the country. We personally love viewing the Milky Way at Dead Horse Point State Park, because of the amazing dark skies and low humidity. It’s also under Bortle 1 skies, and has an incredible canyon you can include in your landscape astrophotography images.

Where is the Milky Way visible?

The Milky Way is the galaxy we live in, so the majority of the stars you see at night are the stars that make it up. If you want to see the Milky Way core, which is what most people mean when they simply say Milky Way, head to a darker area on a light pollution map. Bortle 4 skies and lower are the best spots to see the core. This is typically indicated by green on a dark sky map. Blue, purple, and gray on most maps are the darkest areas with the lowest Bortle numbers. In much of the northern hemisphere, “Milky Way core season” is from March to October when the brightest part of our galaxy can be seen at night.

How many dark sky cities are there in the US?

At the time of this writing, there are currently 23 dark sky “cities” in the US. This number is thankfully growing. Since the International Dark-Sky Association doesn’t specifically have a city category, we are basing this information on the dark sky communities category. It consists of one of our favorite places to visit for hiking like Ridgway, Colorado to some hometown areas in Texas like Blanco and Fredericksburg. Since most cities are not normally dark due to higher population, it’s very commendable these communities are making an active push to control their light pollution and also educate the public on the issue.

Just a normal night for the Takacs family | © Alison Takacs

What is the most light-polluted state in the US?

The award for most light-polluted state in the US is officially a three way tie between three states: Delaware, Connecticut, and Rhode Island. These three states don’t necessarily have the largest cities and are not loaded with cities in the highest Bortle classification of 8 and 9. What they do have is nothing but red, orange, and yellow areas on dark skies maps which means stargazing is far less than ideal all over every part of these three states. New Jersey and Maryland almost made the list, but these states have very small areas where they dip into the green. If you are looking for dark skies, Delaware, Connecticut, and Rhode Island are not great choices to see stunning skies even if they are nice places to visit for other reasons.

What is the most light-polluted city in the US?

The title of most light-polluted city in the US goes to Las Vegas. Even though mega cities like New York and Los Angeles are big and bright, Las Vegas has a large concentration of very bright lights in a small area. Its strip is so bright, it has been said to be the brightest single spot on Earth as seen from space. This part of Las Vegas even beats out extremely bright Hong Kong. Having visited these four cities before, I can definitely attest to the fact that they are all really bright, but the Las Vegas strip blows the other three away with its extreme light pollution. The one positive is that if you want to escape the city lights, you can drive to some very dark skies in less than an hour.

Takacs Family in front of Jayco RV
The Takacs Family

About the Authors

We are avid stargazers Jason and Alison Takacs also known as Roadtrippin’ with Takacs. With our two boys Preston and Grayson, we seek out some of the darkest skies in the country while also going on many incredible hiking and other outdoor adventures. As part-time RVers, we try to see as much of this amazing world as possible in our spare time and hope you will join us through this blog on RWT Adventures and other forms of social media as we explore the night sky and other natural wonders as hardcore astrotourists.