Remember the Fifty Nifty United States song? How it gives a cool nod to the niftiness of other states, but ends with UTAH IS THE BEST? Well now there’s proof. Dust off your beehives and raise your foam fingers, folks, because the International Dark Sky Association recently declared Utah the world leader in international dark sky parks. And while the IDSA might sound like a villain in a George Lucas film, they’re actually the good guys, on a mission to protect places where you can see the full razzle-dazzle of the night sky without the downer of light pollution. These increasingly rare places are called dark sky parks, and Utah leads the pack with nine (nine!) of them. So shine your state pride and get stargazing already, ogling the Milky Way while reminding everyone around you that in your cool, collected, respectful opinion, Utah really is the best.
Mesa Arch at Canyonlands / Mike Taylor
Canyonlands by day is a bananas panorama of red rock mazes, jewel-cut river canyons and needling spires. And with 567 unfurling miles of hiking, biking, rafting, and four-wheeling, it’s understandable why you wouldn’t want the sun to go down. But don’t worry, because the park really knows how to transition from day to evening, with a sparkly little black dress of night sky and bangles of spangled stars. In fact, Canyonland nights are so diamond-studded that the IDSA has given it top honors, declaring it a gold-tier dark sky park. (Think of it as Zagat rating for the star-conscious society set.) So roll out your mat, snuggle into your sleeping bag — tent-free, of course — and watch the magic unfold.
Mesa Arch at Canyonlands / Mike Taylor
This park outside Moab doesn’t want to brag or anything, but since you mentioned it, yes, it was Utah’s first state park to receive Dark Sky Park certification. So be humble and sit down already, taking in the vistas of nearby Canyonlands and the Colorado River as you wait for sunset. Because once that sun’s gone, the night sky goes full black coffee with a swirl of Milky Way, and the party really begins. Rangers come out of the red rock and lead stargazing night hikes, telescope programs, and constellation tours, allowing you to gawk at faraway galaxies, planets and asteroid belts with a very Leann Rimes kinda attitude of feeling small standing beside the ocean.
Dead Horse Tree / Mike Taylor
Around the geologic period of Land Before Time 11, a bunch of water got together and cut three magnificent stone bridges into the landscape near Lake Powell. Most earthly forces would have been satisfied with this accomplishment, but the area went further, padding its resume of natural wonders with some of the darkest night sky around. Lots of millennia later, the IDSA declared this overachieving area the world’s first dark sky park, and stargazers have flocked to worship ever since.
Owachomo Bridge at Natural Bridges
Back when the Europeans were just learning to cover up B.O. with garlic and a lifetime of bad dental care with pursed lips, the Pueblo people were busy erecting red stone castles and houses in a thriving prehistoric farming village of 2,500. When the village hit hard times, the residents abandoned it, which was bad for the prehistoric economy but has been great for modern stargazers. Because after all, who doesn’t want to stand next to a cliffside fortress and show off their constellation knowledge to anyone who will listen?
Welcome the nation’s capital… of STARGAZING. You might not meet your senators or representatives in your travels across the domes and folds of this remote-in-all-the-right-ways national park, but you’ll be so busy lobbying the stars to keep shining that you won’t even notice. So leave those Beltway blatherers to it; you’ve got constellations to gerrymander.
Cathedral Valley at Capitol Reef
It’s not Halloween, but don’t tell that to the hoodoos at Goblin Valley State Park, because they’re all dressed up to scare. But don’t be frightened — the monstrous little piles of rock that give this park its name aren’t going to eat you. In fact, they’re going to stay stock still while you get whiplash from following shooting stars and satellites across the night sky. After all, Goblin Valley is home to some of the darkest sides this side of nowhere, and that’s nothing to say boo about. (But seriously, is that goblin moving or is it just you?)
Three Sisters at Goblin Valley State Park / Mike Taylor
You may not have been to this mini-Bryce canyon in the rarified air of high-altitude southern Utah, but we hear it’s short for Cedar (Give Me A) Break(s) These Night Skies Are Incredible National Monument. Seriously, we really did hear that. We also heard that rangers lead some pretty show-stopping stargazing tours at this red-rock-meets-alpine-meadow national monument — which would be a perfect place to show off your knowledge of the area’s full name.
A bristlecone pine tree at Cedar Breaks
Sure, you’d consider yourself an astro-tourist, it’s just that your mom doesn’t like you putting so many miles on her Chevy Astro van every time you want to chase some stars. Problem solved! For residents of the Wasatch Front, there’s a new dark sky park in town, and it’s just a hop, skip and a jump from wherever you are. But wait… Really? A dark sky sanctuary smack dab in the middle of a metropolitan corridor? Yes, really. Thanks to the dark-sky advocates at the nearby state park, Antelope Island might be the closest places a city slicker can commune with the night. So check it out. Join rangers for star parties and night sky interpretive events. And getting the van is a lot easier if you invite your mom along. (Friends come and go; family is forever.)
Lightning striking Antelope Island
Beyond the hustle and bustle of the Wasatch Front, there’s a perfect little park with a patch of night sky just waiting for you. North Fork has long been touted as one of northern Utah’s premiere cross-country skiing destinations, but now you can get your kicks 24/7, skiing by day and stargazing all night. Just don’t ski and stargaze at the same time. Pine trees are unforgiving.
North Fork Park