Fun Fact Friday - Dark Skies Parks Near North America's 10 Large Cities


Alan Carrillo captured the night sky at California's Joshua Tree National Park.
Photo by Alan Carrillo from Unsplash

Each week I set out to research and document ten "fun facts" on a topic loosely based on the two books I've reviewed that week.  "Loosely" being the operative word. 

This week I reviewed Walking Home: Trail Stories by Celia Ryker, and Jo Marchant's The Human Cosmos: Civilization and the Stars.

A clear, unobstructed view of the night sky is an often remarked side benefit of camping out on overnight hikes, like the segment hikes Celia Ryker describes in her book. Looking up and marveling at the cosmos, counting shooting stars, picking out satellites passing overhead, these are rewards for a long day on the trail - if you can stay awake long enough! I still remember, years later, the clearest night sky I've ever seen - experienced from a Rocky Mountain campsite after a day of hiking  and exploring with a friend in southern Colorado. And, after reading Jo Marchant's book, you'll have a deeper understanding of the meaning and connection we humans have to the stars visible around us at night. 

This cosmic reward is special because sadly, as Marchant points out in her book, in most populated areas today there is so much artificial light that few if any stars are visible to folks at home. 

If you'd like to reconnect with the cosmos, you can take advantage of the inventory of "dark sky" parks that has been compiled by organizations like the Dark Skies Advisory Group (DSAG) and the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA). These groups and others are working to define a unified system for rating dark sky parks.  

My aim with this post is to provide information on dark sky parks nearest to the largest cities in North America, but you can access the complete list of designated parks here

Here then, the subject for this week's Fun Fact Friday - Dark Sky Parks Near North America's 10 Largest Cities:

Dark Sky Parks Near North America's 10 Largest Cities

Note - the parks mentioned in this list rely on Dark Sky Parks designations from the DSAG / IDA. The list of 10 largest cities in North America relies on ranking by Wikipedia. Because there currently are no DSAG / IDA designated Dark Sky Parks in Mexico or the Caribbean countries, only cities in the US and Canada are included in this list.
  1. New York City - There are two Dark Sky Parks at almost the same distance from NYC. One of the newest entrants on DSAG's list is Sky Meadows State Park in Virginia. There is also Cherry Springs State Park in Pennsylvania. Both are between a five and six hour drive away.
  2. Los Angeles - Less than a three hour drive from LA is Joshua Tree National Park, recently designated an IDA silver-level Dark Sky Park. If you're willing to go a little farther, a four and a half hour drive will take you to IDA gold-level Death Valley National Park, which boasts it has some of the darkest night skies in the US.   
  3. Toronto - In the Muskoka area, under three hours drive from Toronto, is the Torrance Barrens Dark Sky Preserve, which calls itself the first permanently designated Dark Sky Reserve.

  4. Chicago - Travel five hours by car north of Chicago and you'll come to Newport State Park in Ellison Bay, in far northern Door County, Wisconsin. It is the only IDA gold-level Dark Sky Park in the Midwest. 

  5. Houston - Four hours by car southwest of Houston is the IDA gold-level Enchanted Rock State Natural Area.

  6. Montreal - Just 233 km and a two and a half hour drive from Montreal is Mont-Megantic National Park, home of the world's first International Dark Sky Reserve.

  7. Philadelphia - Cherry Springs State Park, mentioned in the New York listing above, is the nearest Dark Skies Park to Philly, a five hour drive without tolls in northern Pennsylvania.

  8. Phoenix - Phoenix residents have several Dark Sky Parks to choose from, all within a four drive from the city. Near Flagstaff are three National Monuments, all of which carry Dark Sky Park designations - Walnut Canyon, Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument, and Wupatki National Monument, along with the IDA gold-level Grand Canyon National Park

  9. San Antonio - Like their fellow stargazers from Houston, San Antonio based amateur astronomers have a short trip to Enchanted Rock State Nature Area. Also nearby is South Llano River State Park, less than 2 hours away by car.
  10. San Diego - Just 86 miles from San Diego is the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, an IDA silver-level Dark Sky Park. The city of Borrego Springs, set in the middle of the park, was the second IDA International Dark Sky community, so named in 2009.
So there you have it. Ten cities, and more than 10 opportunities to do some stargazing in internationally recognized Dark Sky Parks. Are you a star gazer? Do you have a favorite night sky story? Leave a comment below.