Montana’s skies are a treasure trove for stargazers. That’s why we RV across the Treasure State, seeking out the darkest skies for the best celestial views.
Unfortunately, light pollution is our nemesis on our adventures as it can wash out the starry jewels of the night sky.
As avid astrotouists, we have found that Montana offers vast landscapes where the stars still shine bright for us on our RV trips.
Understanding Light Pollution in Montana
Montana’s skies vary from the glow on the horizons near its cities and towns to the untouched dark of its national parks and forests.
Before we venture out, let’s get a handle on the Bortle scale. It’s our guide to measuring darkness and picking out the best spots on our stargazing map with level 1 being the best for astrotourism and 9 the worst.
We’ve included a detailed light pollution map to help you find that perfect spot between the cosmos and civilization in Montana. But, if you need a more detailed one, head over to our dark sky world map to find one that covers the rest of the world.
Montana Light Pollution Map
Dark Sky Areas: Low on Bortle Scale
Montana is full of fantastic spots to visit if you are looking for dark skies away from light pollution. Here are some places to look in each part of the state.
The northern frontier, speckled with natural wonders like the Whitefish Range and Cabinet Mountains, offer plenty of dark skies. The West Glacier region is a gateway to the stars. It stands out for its minimal light pollution.
You’ll also find that quiet towns like Eureka serve as perfect launchpads for a night under the stars in this part of Montana.
Beyond the urban glow, the southern skies near Bannack State Park and the Pioneer Mountains Scenic Byway offer plenty of tranquility. The Lima Peaks provide a celestial theater rarely disturbed by artificial light, making them a hidden gem for astrophotographers.
The vast prairies of eastern Montana, including areas like the Makoshika State Park near Glendive, offer uninterrupted views of the cosmos. Near the Little Rocky Mountains, the sky is a dark canvas where the stars shine with an ancient glow, barely touched by light pollution.
In the western valleys, the Sapphire Mountains cast their silhouette against the star-filled sky. The Ninepipe and Pablo National Wildlife Refuges are also notable, offering dark places for astrotourists to enjoy nature where nocturnal wildlife and starry skies coexist beautifully.
Central Montana’s skies are guarded by the Big Snowy Mountains and the Judith River Wildlife Management Area, where light pollution is minimal. The Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park is not only a geological marvel by day but a stargazing treasure by night with darkness both underground and above at night.
The Brightest Nights: Light Pollution Hotspots
Even though Montana is loaded with dark skies, it still has plenty of places to avoid if you are trying to fully enjoy the darkness.
Like most growing towns, Kalispell’s increasing size has brought light pollution, threatening the dark skies. Even so, retreats like the Stillwater State Forest provide nearby escapes to starry skies.
Bozeman’s expansion and Butte’s historical mining operations contribute to the glow. Luckily, a short drive towards the Tobacco Root Mountains can quickly lead to darker skies.
Billings, the largest city in Montana, casts a significant light dome to be seen for miles. The Musselshell Valley and surrounding areas offer some relief from this urban brightness.
The beautiful city of Missoula, with its university and cultural centers, brightens the western Montana sky. Head over to the Rattlesnake National Recreation Area where this nearby refuge allows stars to shine bright.
The central cities of Great Falls and Helena impact night visibility and contribute light pollution to this part of the state. Try visiting nearby Gates of the Mountains Wilderness which offers an escape to witness the stark beauty of the night untouched by city lights.
Geographical Influence on Stargazing in Montana
Montana’s stargazing potential is as vast as its landscapes, shaped by various geographic regions each offering unique night sky views for your astrotourism trips.
Rocky Mountain Region
This region, marked by towering peaks and alpine meadows, offers some of the clearest skies in Montana. We love Glacier National Park for stargazing because it’s actually an International Dark Sky Park. The park’s efforts to minimize light pollution ensure breathtaking views of the night sky, making it a must-visit for astronomy enthusiasts. It even offers unobstructed views of the Northern Lights on occasion.
The rolling hills and wide river valleys of the Great Plains offer expansive skies ideal for stargazing, especially in remote areas away from light pollution in Eastern Montana. Medicine Rocks State Park is known for its dark sky sanctuary status, highlighting the pristine conditions for night sky observation in the plains.
Running close to the Canadian border, this region offers uninterrupted northern views, where the aurora borealis occasionally dances across the night sky. This remote, less light-polluted areas provide excellent opportunities for viewing wide-open starry skies.
The Golden Triangle
An area famed for its grain, this region’s open fields may offer excellent dark-sky conditions. Just head to areas far from the glow of grain processing facilities. The open fields of The Golden Triangle agricultural area offer good conditions for dark skies, especially away from urban light pollution.
Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem
Including parts of Gallatin and Custer National Forests, this region’s high altitude and natural landscape offer stellar dark sky viewing opportunities. Yellowstone has stunning natural landscapes far from light pollution and provides fantastic stargazing opportunities. The park’s high elevation and clear air add to stellar night sky views.
Each of these regions contributes to Montana’s reputation as a prime destination for astrotourism, offering a range of settings from the rugged mountains to the sprawling plains for night sky enthusiasts to explore. We highly recommend it when exploring this part of the US.
Stargazing Tips and Gear
When planning a stargazing adventure in Montana knowing what to do and what to bring can transform a good experience into a great one. Here are a few stargazing tips and gear suggestions for you.
Timing and Location
The best stargazing experiences hinge on timing and location. Aim for nights when the moon is least visible (new moon phase) to maximize darkness.
As for location, Montana’s vast landscapes away from city lights are ideal. Places like Medicine Rocks State Park and Lost Trail National Wildlife Refuge, both recognized as International Dark Sky Sanctuaries, offer some of the darkest skies.
Weather and Sky Conditions
Before heading out, check the weather and sky clarity. Clear, dry nights provide the best visibility for seeing stars.
Acclimatize Your Eyes
Allow your eyes to adjust to the dark for about 20-30 minutes. Avoid looking at your phone or any bright lights, as this can hinder your night vision. Red light flashlights are useful for moving around in the dark without affecting your night vision.
Plan Your Viewing
Decide what you want to see beforehand. Whether it’s constellations, planets, or meteor showers, planning with a stargazing app or a star chart can enhance your experience.
Telescopes and Binoculars
A good pair of binoculars or a telescope can bring distant celestial objects into clear view. For beginners, binoculars are a more accessible starting point. Advanced stargazers might opt for a telescope with tracking capabilities to follow objects as they move across the sky.
Cameras and Tripods
For astrophotography, a DSLR or a mirrorless camera capable of long exposures is essential. A sturdy tripod and a remote shutter release can help avoid camera shake during those long exposures.
Star Maps and Apps
Physical star maps or apps like Stellarium can help you identify constellations, stars, and planets. Plus, they make the evening more interesting and give you something to talk about all night.
Comfort and Safety Gear
Bring warm clothing, a comfortable chair or blanket, and snacks. Always let someone know where you’ll be, especially if venturing into remote areas.
The vast Montana skies offer a canvas like no other, so make sure to use these tips and gear up properly on your next astrotourism adventure.
Conservation and Dark-Sky Advocacy in Montana
Montana’s efforts in dark-sky conservation are noteworthy, with two important locations recognized for their pristine dark skies and conservation. And, volunteers across the state are working hard to add more to the list.
Lost Trail National Wildlife Refuge
The Lost Trail National Wildlife Refuge has been designated as an International Dark Sky Sanctuary by Dark Sky [formerly the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA)] in recognition of its exceptional quality of starry nights and nocturnal environment. It shows the refuge’s commitment to protecting its natural value. The refuge was established in 1999 and conserves critical habitats of a wide range of nocturnal species. Conservation actions like surveying natural darkness and implementing dark-sky-friendly lighting practices have helped the refuge earn this designation.
Medicine Rocks State Park
Similarly, Medicine Rocks State Park has been recognized as an International Dark Sky Sanctuary. This made it the second dark sky site in Montana. This designation highlights the park’s extraordinary starry nights and efforts to preserve the night sky.
The park is known for its unique geological formations and provides an ideal setting for stargazing free from artificial light pollution. It took a collaborative effort from Montana State Parks, the Carter County Museum, and Visit Southeast Montana to earn this dark sky designation.
Public Outreach Events
The Big Sky Astronomy Club collaborates with Lost Trail National Wildlife Refuge to host public outreach events, including night sky presentations and telescope viewing opportunities. Check out their website if you are in the area and interested in helping out.
Wrapping It Up
By supporting conservation efforts and engaging with the natural beauty of Montana’s night sky, we can ensure that these skies stay pure for future generations. Enjoy your astrotourism trips in this phenomenal state!
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.