Artist Vincent van Gogh said that seeing the stars made him dream. While his visions were swirlier than some, he may have been on to (or just plain on) something. In fact, maybe a trip to Utah would have inspired even greater works.
Here in the state filled with national and state parks, we have the highest concentration of ideal spots for stargazing in the world — 24 are even certified by the International Dark Sky Association. Where better to start a whimsical journey than stargazing in Utah?
For the best viewing, find an area with minimal light pollution — the artificial brightness from manmade bulbs make it difficult to see most celestial bodies. Because unlike Hollywood, the farther you get from the city, the greater number of stars you’ll see.
The stars of the Big and Little Dippers are iconic, of course, but there are literally millions more out there. Think the Milky Way is just a blur of murky white? Nope, there are individual luminous balls of gas, and you can actually see them when you visit the best places to stargaze in Utah.
Head at least 20-30 miles away from city centers for darker skies. Pick a mountain, any mountain. If you live in the suburbs, you could try encouraging your neighbors to turn off their exterior lights. Timing matters as well. Two weeks before a full moon, there’s less skyglow to interfere with your stargazing. A clear, cloudless night makes it easier to see, too, obviously.
All five national parks are ideal stargazing spots in Utah — no streetlights, stadium floodlights or glowing business signs for miles. So while viewing rock formations is amazing in the daylight, the parks become otherworldly once the sun goes down.
In Bryce Canyon National Park, for example, you can see some 7,500 stars on a moonless night. We don’t know who did the counting, but it’s probably pretty accurate. Volunteers host 100 astronomy programs there each year, and an annual festival in June, as part of one of the oldest programs in the U.S.
Utah has an abundance of state parks, too, with certified dark skies. Go for an evening or camp overnight, so you can keep gazing until your s’mores sugar rush subsides.
Just over 40 miles north of Salt Lake City, Antelope Island State Park is close enough to visit, but far enough from the city to give you an uninhibited view of the stars. It was certified a dark sky site in 2017, although the bison can verify it’s been that way for much longer. Stay the night in a designated campground and go to sleep with natural night lights.
A film location that’s perfect for aliens is certainly good enough for stargazing. Located in Green River, Utah, Goblin Valley is far from any artificial lights. Camp among the hoodoos for the night. The darker it gets outside the more you’ll realize, we’re definitely not alone.
About 35 miles east of Salt Lake City, Jordanelle State Park is nestled on the north side of Heber Valley. Watch as the sun’s final golden rays hit the Wasatch Mountains, then stick around as the sky becomes a palette of stars. The Rock Cliff Nature Area has the darkest skies.
Dead Horse Point State Park was the first in Utah to receive the International Dark Sky Park designation, back in 2016. The high plateau, far from any city, means ideal conditions for stargazing in Utah. Yeah, there’s something to see here.
When you want an up close look at the big picture, head to one of Utah’s observatories that are open to the public. Using the massive telescopes, you’ll see planets, moons and stars, as well as galaxies and nebulae. Best of all, they’re free and open to everyone, no reservations required. Many also host star parties and lectures during special heavenly events.
Visit the South Physics Observatory any Wednesday night to brush up on your knowledge of the universe and to take in some planets. There are star parties on clear evenings and lectures or demonstrations on the others. You’ll be outside, so dress appropriately.
If you’re new to celestial stargazing in Utah, experts can teach you about selecting, setting up and using a personal telescope. You can even get help with school science fair projects — astronomy related, of course. They don’t do volcanoes.
Managed by the Salt Lake Astronomical Society, the Stansbury Park Observatory Complex is home to four of the largest telescopes in Utah, including one built by a Utahn.
SLAS members often bring their own telescopes to share with the community, as well. The nonprofit group of astronomy enthusiasts meets at the Complex every month on the 3rd Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. (except December). You don’t have to be a member to attend the stargazing parties. But, if you understand why the place is affectionately referred to as SPOC, you might be one by the time you leave.
The Brigham Young University West Mountain Observatory is mainly for research, but members of the public may be able to reserve it. The private facility is located on West Mountain, on the southeast shore of Utah Lake. It has a 0.91-meter telescope.
Funded by donations, the Ashcroft Observatory serves as the home for astronomy students at Southern Utah University. It’s also open to the public — groups or individuals — every Monday night after sunset, weather permitting. A guide is always on hand to run the telescope and answer questions.
Even if you’ve only used binoculars to look at moon craters, you’re invited to share your appreciation for space with other enthusiasts. Join an astronomical society near you to take part in viewing parties and pick up some stargazing tips.