Discover 10 off-the-beaten-path locations in the United States for night photography
When it comes to all kinds of photography, social media has a dark side. Someone uploads a fabulous image and within weeks there are thousands of copy-cat photos taken from the same location. It’s the same within niches like astrophotography, too, with so many identical images popping-up on Instagram and elsewhere of nightscapes taken in iconic places such as Arches National Park and Death Valley National Park. However, if you want to take original nightscapes then you do have a lot of options in North America.
Here are some of our top tips to get you started…
1 Grand Tetons National Park, Wyoming
It’s one of the most famous places in the US for landscape photography yet not nearly as popular with astrophotographers. Even the famous and much-photographed Mormon Barn is rarely captured at night. Elsewhere in the Jackson Hole Valley you’ll find picturesque landscapes at Jenny Lake, Oxbow Bend and Schwabacher's Landing.
If you want the darkest night skies possible then always plan an astrophotography shoot between Last Quarter Moon (which rises after midnight) and New Moon (where there’s no Moon in the night sky). Since the crescent Moon sets shortly after sunset you can also go for the first two or three nights after the New Moon. Circle this monthly 10-day ‘astrophotography window’ in your calendar.
2 Greater Big Bend International Dark Sky Reserve, Texas
In 2022 the Greater Big Bend International Dark Sky Reserve was announced. The largest International Dark Sky Place to date, it’s the only one to incorporate protected lands across an international border, including regions of both the US and Mexico. The choicest area is Big Bend National Park, itself already an International Dark Sky Park, which has the least light pollution of any national park in the US.
Night Sky Rangers in the Big Bend National Park conduct lectures, host star parties and organize moonlight walks. You can stay in Big Bend Observatory and visit the professional McDonald Observatory nearby.
3 Cherry Springs State Park, Pennsylvania
While it’s the Colorado Plateau in the US southwest that gets much of the attention from astrophotographers it is possible to find dark skies closer to the east coast. A prime spot is Cherry Springs State Park, which is surrounded by the vast Susquehannock State Forest. There’s a dedicated Night Sky Public Viewing Area, Overnight Astronomy Observation Field and even a Big Dipper Lodge and a Little Dipper Lodge. However, you will have to book a Galaxy Pass well in advance.
Each June the Astronomical Society of Harrisburg (ASH) stages the Cherry Springs Star Party while September sees the Central Pennsylvania Observers (CPO) host the Black Forest Star Party. Both events are held in the Overnight Astronomy Observation Field.
4 Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah
Although it's famous for its incredible spire-shaped rock formations, huge natural amphitheater and strange protruding hoodoos, astrophotography from the high altitude Bryce Canyon is strangely rare. That’s despite some excellent observation points – such as Sunrise Point, Sunset Point, Inspiration Point and Bryce Point – and 24 hour access. The visitor’s center at the entrance regularly hosts astronomy lectures and stargazing sessions.
A rare “ring of fire” annular solar eclipse will occur over Bryce Canyon National Park – and across southwest US – for 2 minutes 15 seconds on October 14, 2023. You’ll need solar filters to safely photograph it.
5 White Sands National Monument, New Mexico
The arid southwest of the US might have deserts, but if you’re after a beautiful foreground of sand dunes for a nightscape image then head to White Sands National Park in southern New Mexico. Little-visited, it’s a playground for astrophotographers because there are no specific places where photographers make a beeline for. Dunes Drive road is where to explore, though do watch the gypsum sand, which can get everywhere.
If you want to photograph the Milky Way then plan an astrophotography shoot during that ‘astrophotography window’ between May and October. That’s when it’s possible to see the bright galactic core in the southeast, south and southwest.
6 Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota
If you want to shoot the northern lights then head to Alaska or northern Scandinavia … or Voyageurs National Park in Minnesota. If geomagnetic activity is high then the auroral zone often stretches down to 48° North along the US-Canada border. A remote wilderness region of lakes and forests, Voyageurs National Park is low on light pollution and high on dramatic vistas. Visit between September and March for the best chance of northern lights.
Photographing the northern lights is relatively simple. You’ll need a fast lens (f1.8-f4) on a tripod and you also need to be comfortable using manual mode. After focusing on a star using Live View or by trial and error, try ISO 800 or 1600 for a clean shot and experiment with shutter speeds of between five and 25 seconds depending on how bright and fast-moving the aurora are.
7 Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
Though hardly a ‘secret’ spot, few visitors know that one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations is now an International Dark Sky Park. It’s all down to a lot of work removing and replacing lighting, primarily in Grand Canyon Village on the South Rim, which used to be very bright. Despite improvements, if you want seriously dark skies then escape all the development and get yourself to the remote Desert View or Lipan Point.
Grand Canyon’s darkest skies are from the canyon floor, where lights from the villages on the North Rim and the South Rim are blocked, though the steep sides mean you do also get a much narrower view of the night sky.
8 Crater Lake National Park, Oregon
About halfway between San Francisco in California and Portland in Oregon is Crater Lake National Park, a massive body of water in the caldera of a volcano that collapsed almost 8,000 years ago. The northern side of the Rim Road is ideal for composing night sky vistas that include the Milky Way. If the water is still then look for reflections of the stars.
The same “ring of fire” annular solar eclipse visible from Bryce Canyon on October 14, 2023 will also be seen from Crater Lake, and for a much longer 4 minutes 18 seconds.
9 Dead Horse State Park, Utah
One of the most famous places for astrophotography in the US is Canyonlands National Park. Specifically the Mesa Arch. However, very close by is Dead Horse State Park, a much lesser known and very small park above a picturesque gooseneck in the Colorado River. It’s got a great southerly aspect and an excellent (and very dark) Kayenta Campground.
If you want to take photos of the Moon, the Milky Way or the setting/rising Sun behind a famous landmark, sign, or building then use PhotoPills. This app for smartphones will give you the exact sight lines for all of this for any time and place on our planet.
10 Great Basin National Park, Nevada
Just 92,893 people travel each year to Great Basin National Park near the Utah border, but its remoteness and unpopularity is a plus for astrophotography. An International Dark Sky Park, it has remote campsites and ranger-led stargazing programs. Key astrophotography locations Mather Overlook on the scenic drive, the Baker Archaeological Site and the crystal clear views of the stars from atop Wheeler Peak. While you’re there take a day trip to the stunning Lehman Caves.
The same “ring of fire” annular solar eclipse that will go over Bryce Canyon and Crater Lake on October 14, 2023 will also be visible from Great Basin National Park. The annular phase will last for 2 minutes 34 seconds.