Sleeping in a tent with the Milky Way stretched across the night sky is a magical camping experience, yet it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find areas with dark enough skies to see the stars—especially near cities! The good news is there are a surprising number of parks and public lands close to forests and coastlines that are sheltered from the sky glow of nearby cities. Here are just a few places where camping under the stars is within an easy drive of many popular locations.
Psst … word to the wise before you see our list: If your goal is seeing stars, plan your camping trip around the time of a New Moon. That’s when the stars will be the brightest! See our Moon Phase Calendar here.
New York City
New York City might be the city that never sleeps, but it’s still possible to enjoy dark skies at Harriman State Park, roughly 50 miles north of the city. It’s possible to take the train from Penn Station to Secaucus Junction, then transfer to the Port Jervis line. Once at the west side of the park, you can to catch a shuttle the rest of the way.
You may set up a tent in many areas throughout the park, but there are also historic stone lean-tos and newly built structures that offer a unique place to spread out your sleeping bag.
To step a bit farther away from the city lights, travel less than two hours north to Big Buck Mountain Multiple Use Area near Kent. There are no designated campsites so it’s possible to hike in and find your perfect location for peace and quiet, along with a terrific view of the night sky.
Less than an hour southeast of Chicago on the south shore of Lake Michigan, Indiana Dunes National Park boasts dark skies beyond the city lights. Kemil Beach is one of the most popular places to see the stars for those staying or visiting the park, and Beverly Shores, a town that is surrounded by the national park is recognized as a Dark Sky Community by the International Dark Sky Association (IDA) for their success in protecting the night sky.
For those who wish to distance themselves a bit farther from the city, travel roughly two hours west to the Green River State Wildlife Area near Harmon, IL. This 2,500-acre park boasts mature treed areas, restored prairie areas, along with open wetlands that give visitors excellent views of the night sky.
Georgia is recognized for its dark skies by the IDA, and there are several observatories, such as Fernbank Science Center and the Georgia Tech Observatory, close to Atlanta. Only 33 miles north of the city, Acworth’s Red Top Mountain State Park is an excellent base for stargazing. Star programs are hosted by interpretative rangers who guide you through visible constellations during the summer.
Roughly an hour north of Dallas, the 29,000 acre Lewisville Lake is an excellent destination to camp and watch the stars. The distance from the city and the LLELA Nature Preserve provides a natural buffer to encroaching sky glow. Hidden Cove Park, which features a marina along the lake, as well as camping sites, is a good place to watch the night sky from your tent. For an evening hike to view the stars, the three mile long trail from Wynnwood Park to the shoreline is a terrific place to soak in the darker skies.
A couple of hours north of Los Angeles, Red Rock Canyon State Park offers primitive campsites and stunning views of the night sky looking away from the sky glow of the city. A geologic wonder, Red Rock Canyon is popular for hiking, particularly during the early part of the year when the wildflowers bloom, and is a go-to area for astrophotography.
Recognized as a Dark Sky Park by the IDA in 2021, Sky Meadows State Park in Delaplane is only 50 minutes west of Ashburn. They feature Astronomy for Everyone events, including the “Junior Astronomer’s” program, throughout the year as the park provides viewing opportunities surprisingly close to populated areas. For overnight stays, campers hike a mile along the Hadow Trail into the camping area, where they’ll share the area with Appalachian Trail hikers who are no strangers of the night sky on their multi-month trek.
With 34 islands and peninsulas to explore, Boston Islands National and State Park is the best place to see the stars close to Boston. Accessible only by ferry or private boat, recreationists enjoy this unique location that is rich in indigenous and early American history, along with a vibrant oceanside ecosystem. Primitive camping is available on several of the islands giving visitors a front row seat to a beautiful night sky.
With tide pools, old growth forests and plenty of places to spend time in the water, Deception Pass State Park north of Seattle is even more impressive during the night when views from the shoreline open the sky to stargazers. Camping is open throughout the year, but the Deception Pass Foundation host star parties towards the latter part of the summer.
A Final Thought
Even though 80 percent of the United States’ population cannot see the Milky Way from their backyard, by traveling just a short distance outside of the cities, it’s possible to set up your tent underneath a canopy of stars.
Join The Discussion!
Have you been to any of the locations listed above?
We hope this list inspires you to get outside and stargaze!
Amy Grisak is a freelance writer, blogger, and photographer specializing in gardening, local food, and stories about her home state of Montana. She enjoys sharing her experiences with self-reliant living and outdoor recreation. Her article on the "hugelkultur" gardening technique appears in the 2021 Farmers' Almanac. You can follow her topics on her site, AmyGrisak.com.