It’s a great time to be a UFO enthusiast. Every week, it seems, a new article or report fans the flames of the idea — increasingly popular, even among scientists — that life exists somewhere else in space. Often, the idea is a product of rough probability-crunching: Given how big the universe is, how many Sun-like stars and Earth-like planets there must be, one has to assume that, somewhere, water, oxygen, and temperate climates (and whatever else goes into the chemical-ecological soup that supports life) must be giving rise to organic forms, whether they be primordial-ooze amoebas or galaxy-dominating super-humans that will, sooner or later, set their sights on us.
Recently, though, scientists have begun to back the theory with evidence, namely in the form of newly discovered “Goldilocks” planets (planets whose climatological properties are comparable to Earth’s) that, theoretically speaking, are no less hospitable to life than our own Gaia.
Of course, the average space enthusiast can’t see much of this for himself. But there’s no doubt that the recent flurry of talk about space — what life might be lurking out there, when the manned Mars mission will happen, whether or not the multiverse theory has any credibility — has turned our eyes to the sky.
And it couldn’t be a better time, seasonally speaking, to tap into one’s old childhood awe of the cosmos. Summer is perfect for stargazing. Lying outside in the middle of the night, which in the winter nothing less than a hypothermic death wish, becomes, during July and August, a rite of passage. With just a little less than half of summer left to go, there’s still time to trade the star-obscuring light pollution of big cities and suburbs for the astronomer-friendly skies of campgrounds, beaches, and tiny road-trip stop-offs.
Here, we highlight the best places in America to stargaze. Who knows: Some of these locales are so telescopically dark and remote, you might just spot an E.T. and end all that alien-theorizing at once.
10. Griffith Park Observatory, Los Angeles
Good stargazing usually requires clear skies, which makes LA the odd man out on this list. What city is more polluted, by light and other toxins, than the City of Dreams? But even bonfire-bright cities deserve stargazing spots, and the Griffith Park Observatory is LA’s best answer to the remote (and admittedly inconvenient) stretches of Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah that top most stargazers’ must-visit lists. Situated on a hill overlooking Downtown LA, the observatory offers surprisingly pristine views of the night sky, and promotes astronomy education through school and public programs. The best part? Unlike most tourist spots in LA, it’s free.
9. Cherry Springs Park, Pennsylvania
Cherry Springs is the only park in the northeastern United States to receive a gold certification from the International Dark-Sky Association. Fodor’s calls it “one of the darkest spots east of the Mississippi.” Surrounded by more than 260,000 acres of state forest, the park offers solar viewing and stargazing events for its many astronomy-loving visitors.
8. Chaco Culture National Historical Park, New Mexico
This large park in northwestern New Mexico features the intact settlements of the Pueblo people, who lived the region as far back as 850 A.D. Thanks to its remoteness and lack of artificial light, visitors today can gaze at much the same sky as those early inhabits did. The park even has its own Natural Sounds and Night Skies division, which manages sound and light pollution and spearheads programs aimed at astronomy education.
7. Death Valley National Park, California
The 3.4 million-acre Death Valley National Park in California is one of the lowest and remotest spots in the United States and, by the same token, one of the least polluted by light. Like Cherry Springs, the park, the majority of which is protected under wildlife regulations, has earned a gold certification from the International Dark-Sky Association.
6. Natural Bridges International Dark Sky Park, Utah
The “natural bridges” of this park in Utah refer to rock formations that resemble overpasses. But, when the sun goes down, it’s the latter part of the park’s name that’s worth caring about. Dr. John Barrentine, an official at the International Dark-Sky Association, says the 12-square-mile park is “exemplary of the darkness of the Colorado Plateau” — meaning it’s got a night sky to die for.
5. Big Bend National Park, Texas
Managers at Big Bend National Park in southwestern Texas recently made efforts to maximize the park’s stargazing potential by reducing its energy and light consumption. They were duly rewarded when the Dark-Sky Association named it an official Dark-Sky Park in 2012. Bob Parks, the Dark-Sky’s executive director, told USA Today: “It’s probably the darkest park in the United States.”
4. Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah
Optimal stargazing requires clean, dry air, which means the remote Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah has an atmosphere practically designed for amateur astronomy. (This may explain the park’s possession of more than 100 “Dark Rangers,” who lead astronomy programs for visitors.) According to Fodor’s, on the best nights, the sky over Bryce Canyon boasts some 7,500 visible stars.
3. Denali National Park and Preserve, Alaska
Understanding the Northern Lights phenomenon — something about solar winds, magnetism, “mass ejection,” something? — may take longer than actually finding a good spot from which to see them. Though it isn’t the only location in the U.S. that offers a view of the Lights, Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska may be the best. Six million acres, four million of them federally protected, with only one road cutting through? Sounds to us like a stargazer’s dream.
2. Mauna Kea, Hawaii
If you decide to trek to Hawaii’s Mauna Kea, a nearly 14,000-foot dormant volcano on the state’s Big Island, just to look at the stars, you won’t be alone. The Mauna Kea Observatory is among the largest in the world, and “astronomers consider the stargazing atop [the volcano] to be the best on the planet,” according to Fodor’s. Regional light ordinances and a climatological phenomenon called “inversion” — whereby star-obscuring humid air is kept down underneath a layer of clouds, leaving the space above dry and prime for stargazing — help to secure the location’s standing among the sky-obsessed.
1. Kitt Peak National Observatory, Arizona
This observatory in Arizona contains, according to its website, “the most diverse collection of astronomical observatories on Earth for nighttime optical and infrared astronomy and daytime study of the Sun.” What does that translate to? Awesome skies, for one: Located near Tucson in the Sonoran desert, the area as a whole has a reputation for good stargazing. And, at the observatory, nightly and advanced observing programs allow visitors to scan the cosmos using the observatory’s world-famous tech. It just doesn't get any more beautiful than this.