Everyone knows that Santa makes his Christmas Eve rounds well after dark. But it’s hard to spot the glow of Rudolph’s nose or the glint of Santa’s red sleigh when city lights flood the night sky. This “light pollution” effect is the reason that very few stars are visible from urban areas, so to find dark skies that are full of stars—where you have the best chance of seeing Santa in flight—you have to get away from the city.
Winter is an especially good time to see the stars, if you can brave the cold. In most parts of the country, winter skies are clearer because summer haze is gone and humidity levels are lower. Here are six of the absolute best dark sky locations in the country, to inspire your midwinter nights. So grab a buddy and a few extra blankets, and go lay under the stars to spot the big man in red on December 24th.
1. Cherry Springs State Park, PA
Cherry Springs State Park is one of the best places on the East Coast for star gazing and Santa spotting. Jessie Hodge.
On a mountaintop in Northern Pennsylvania is a state park devoted to dark skies. Far from bright urban centers and emitting very little artificial light of its own, Cherry Springs State Park is bathed only in the natural glow of moon and stars. The 82-acre state park has hiking trails and campsites available, so you can explore the surrounding forest all day and all night. To spend just a few hours stargazing, there is a free Night Sky Viewing area where you can sit on a bench or spread a big blanket and catch Santa en route from the Big Apple!
2. Big Bend National Park, TX
Big Bend National Park in Southwest Texas includes a chunk of the Chihuahuan Desert. Alison I.
The National Park Service reports that Big Bend has the least light pollution of any other national park, meaning this is the place to come to escape the artificial lights that mask the stars. It’s a remote land of deep canyons and tall mountains, where the Rio Grande cuts through the Chihuahuan Desert on the border of Texas and Mexico—it doesn’t get much better than this. As one of the least visited national parks, venturing here will earn you a multitude of campsites, miles of trails, thousands of stars all to yourself, and if you’re really quiet, perhaps you’ll even hear the faint jingle of sleigh bells in the distance.
3. Grand Canyon National Park, AZ
Most of the crowds at the Grand Canyon don’t stick around after sunset. Grand Canyon National Park.
Though it is one of the nation’s most-visited national parks, the Grand Canyon is still an ideal place for stargazing. Crowds disappear after the sunsets, but the overlooks remain open for solitary viewing of moonlit vistas and star-filled skies. December can be particularly beautiful, when snow often blankets the rim and glows with reflected moonlight. If the Grand Canyon itself isn’t enough reason to put this park on your list, a unique nighttime experience should be what beckons you to this corner of Arizona. We also hear it’s Santa’s favorite, so there’s that…
4. Mauna Kea, HI
On Hawaii’s Big Island, you can hang out at the beach all day and then stargaze at night. Mark Ireland.
Santa even makes it to those tiny islands in the middle of the Pacific! And they’re actually not that tiny at all—the largest single mountain in the world is Hawaii’s Big Island! If measured from its base far beneath the Pacific Ocean, the peak of Mauna Kea is more than 33,0000 feet tall, rising to an astonishing 13,800 feet above sea level. This alpine realm sits high above the lights of the shoreline cities, providing an unparalleled perspective on the cosmos. The visitor center near the summit hosts a free stargazing program every night of the year, so you can gaze through telescopes in crisp air and will likely see snow during winter, feeling like you are a world away from the typically tropical island. Just remember, “Mele Kalikimaka is the thing to say on a bright Hawaiian Christmas Day…”
5. Big Pine Key, FL
You have to go to Southern Texas or Southern Florida to see the Southern Cross in the night sky in the continental United States. Big Pine Key Fishing Lodge.
In the Florida Keys lies one island with particularly beautiful coastline and especially dark skies. We’re talking about Big Pine Key, which is known for stargazing, and is the one of the only places in the continental United States to see the Southern Cross. Mariners used this constellation as a celestial compass to navigate the waters of the Southern Hemisphere long ago, and today, stargazers from around the world travel here to spot it. If you stay up all night waiting for Christmas morning, you can see the cross for yourself by looking due south just before dawn.
Whether you visit these places on Christmas Eve or on any other night of the year, expect to be bowled over with the brilliance of the universe. These are some of the best dark sky locations in the country, but you don’t have to rearrange your holiday plans just to stargaze. Wherever you are, just drive a short ways out to the country where you can spot a new constellation, pick out a planet, or see Santa’s sleigh sparkling across the night sky.
Originally written by RootsRated for Toad&Co. Featured image provided by Eddie Yip