My partner and I recently visited our first International Dark Sky Sanctuary. We just so happened to be passing through the very small town of Alma, New Mexico (just kidding, we went there on purpose. I don’t think anyone just happens upon Alma, New Mexico) and we found the Cosmic Campground just a few miles north of town.
There were only two other groups in the whole campground and we enjoyed some of the clearest night skies either of us has ever experienced. Shortly thereafter, we made our way to Flagstaff, Arizona, which is a designated “Dark Sky” city. This means that all the lights in the city are dimmed at dusk and there are no high-rises emitting unnecessary light into the atmosphere.
It makes for excellent viewing of the night sky and it made me realize that we could design a camping trip specifically around the stars and the night sky.
Camping Best Practices
One of the most important things to remember when camping with the intent of stargazing is that minimizing ambient light is of the utmost importance. In the Cosmic Campground, we set out to make a fire only to realize that doing so would undoubtedly compromise the experience of the other campers that weren’t doing so and had most certainly come there just to view the night sky unfiltered. So, if you’re going camping for the purpose of stargazing, the first rule is to prepare not to have a campfire.
Another best practice is to make sure you have a headlamp with a red light function. This will allow you to navigate around your campsite safely without emitting unnecessary light into the environment around you. Don’t make the mistake we made and not bring a headlamp at all, as you’ll be sure to knock something over or spill that precious cup of hot cocoa keeping you warm when you don’t have a campfire. Also, if you’re RV camping, be aware of keeping the number of lights on inside your RV to a minimum once the sun goes down.
Setting Up A Camera/Telescope
Where and how you set up your camera or telescope will largely depend on where you are and which features of the night sky you’re looking for. The good news is that you don’t need as complicated of a telescope as you see above in order to enjoy a crystal clear view of the night sky. But doing some research about what you might be able to see and where you should look to find it will only enhance your stargazing experience. Books like a Beginners Guide to Astronomy and 100 Things to See In The Night Sky are great resources if you’re a novice stargazer.
If astrophotography is your passion, make sure you set up your camera so that it will remain as still as possible while capturing those long exposures. Learning how to take great photos of the night sky is an art form that needs to be practiced and mastered if you wish to capture truly riveting photos. In this regard, it may be helpful to take a course on star photography, such as those offered by Dark Sky Destinations.
If you’re an astronomy novice, there are numerous constellations that you can pick out with your naked eye. Even if you make your stargazing trip without a huge telescope or expensive camera, you can still marvel at the sheer amount of stars in the sky at a dark sky destination. You can also venture to pick out shapes amongst those stars, just like our ancestors have been doing for thousands of years.
The most common and easily identifiable constellations in the night sky, once again, will depend on your location and the time of year that you take your stargazing trip. That’s one of the coolest parts of getting into stargazing. The night sky shifts and changes with the seasons. What you’ll look for in early spring will be totally different than what you’re able to find on your last fall trip before winter sets in. That said, be sure to check out a resource like this Constellation Guide before heading out so that you have a few common constellations in mind when the sun sets.
A Few Places to Visit
Aside from the Cosmic Campground outside of Alma, New Mexico (which is special because it’s FREE and at least 60 miles from the nearest city), there are many dark sky destinations in the US alone. These locations all offer fantastic stargazing, but some are better at varying times of the year. The best places for stargazing will largely depend on when you want to take your trip and how many other people are looking to take a trip to that location at the same time.
That said, here are a few other locations that you should consider for your stargazing trip. Natural Bridges National Monument is actually the first place to be named an International Dark Sky Park and their campground offers 13 sites that are available on a first-come, first served basis. It’s open year-round and each site is equipped with a picnic table, fire grill, and tent pad. But these sites don’t have water, electricity, or hookups, so you’ll have to be prepared to be self-sufficient for at least one night in that regard.
Another fantastic stargazing destination to check out is Twin Lakes State Park in Virginia. It’s a 548-acre park that is located about an hour southwest of Richmond. The park features 33 campground sites and 11 cabins for rent. All of the campground sites have water and electricity and the park offers a few sites that can accommodate RVs up to 36 feet in length.
More Stargazing Resources!
If you really want to get into stargazing on your next camping trip but aren’t sure where to start, there are a plethora of resources available online. For what it’s worth, I’d start by checking out this Astronomy Gear Guide and then seeking more expert help from there.
We wish you the best of luck in your next stargazing adventure!