Red Rock & Dark Skies: Stargazing the National Parks
Serene sanctuaries of natural darkness dominate this Utah corridor after the sun goes down. Hit the road for a celestial feast of awesome sights, sounds and skies. Whether you’re a first-time traveler or have experienced red rock before, pay attention to how it comes alive under a dark night sky. This road trip through southwest Utah takes you to four of Utah’s best place to see the Milky Way — Capitol Reef National Park, Kodachrome Basin State Park, Bryce Canyon National Park and Cedar Breaks National Monument.
Two of these dark sky locations are certified International Dark Sky Parks, certified by the International Dark-Sky Association. Take advantage of star parties for optimal viewing and ranger-led interpretations to guide you through the night sky.
The highlight of this four-day trip is the nighttime, and each night will have you staring at the heavens and filled with awe. While this itinerary has some of the most popular daytime experiences, it's also like nothing you've ever done before. Do everything you'd normally do — hike, climb, hang out — but when the stars come out, you won't be going to bed.
If you’re planning this trip in the summer, the Milky Way will be as spectacular as ever. During New Moons, the sky will be at its darkest and the stars will really shine, in Utah, one of the best places to see the Milky Way.
Embrace the spirit of Astro Tourism as you escape from the city lights and commotion. There’s a big, beautiful dark sky out here for the viewing and the dark sky locations to treasure this astral adventure are suggested below.
- Capitol Reef Petroglyphs
- Hiking Capitol Reef
- Capitol Reef Dark Skies
Linger for breakfast or brunch in vibrant downtown Salt Lake City or get right on your way to your first Mighty 5® destination. When you get close, enjoy your cruise on the Capitol Reef Country Scenic Byway, or if you're not tired of time on the road, continue your scenic drive on a recommended route. If you're ready to stretch your legs, park the car and take off on a day hike, ideally through one of Capitol Reef National Park's slot canyons. Meander your way back in time for dinner (or a pie at nearby Gifford Homestead) and set your sights on the stars. They're worth the wait and a little less sleep. It's time to experience the Milky Way served up Capitol Reef style. Camp in the national park or overnight in Torrey.
Petroglyph panels throughout the park depict ancient art and the stories of people who lived in the area from approximately 600 to 1300 A.D. Venture through Capitol Reef to see various panels and take your guess at what these works of rock art represent.
There are many excellent day hikes in Capitol Reef Country, ranging from easy to moderate, with a handful of strenuous adventures. Aside from the broad, sweeping vistas, seemingly endless landscape, and limitless sky and desert rock, Capitol Reef is less crowded than nearby national parks — and no less spectacular.
You may be a bit tired after your day of hiking and adventure, so go ahead and take a power nap after dinner as long as you set your alarm clock for 3 a.m. for some awe-inspiring star
gazing. As a certified International Dark-Sky Park, there is so much more you need to see in Capitol Reef when the sun goes down.
- Hell's Backbone Grill
- Lower Calf Creek Falls
- Kodachrome Basin Star Gazing
Photo: Prajit Ravindran
Whether you take the morning slow or fast, find your way to Zagat-rated Hell's Backbone Grill in Boulder, which happens to be a convenient midway destination between today's stopping points. If you want, stop in at the Anasazi State Park Museum. The best news of the day? The entire day's drive is along the famous All-American Road: Scenic Byway 12. This overlook-full drive is one of the most fascinating stretches of road in the country. If you have a hike in you, make it Lower Calf Creek falls. Wear yourself out, but not so much that you can't stay up for another outstanding night of stargazing in Kodachrome Basin (an astrophotography favorite). Stay at one of Kodachrome Basin's campgrounds or in nearby Cannonville where cabins and villa rentals are available.
An iconic meal for an iconic road trip. This Zagat-rated, organic-farm-to-fork restaurant in Boulder, Utah, serves regionally-based cuisine. The varied menu receives rave reviews from happy patrons for its blend of Western Range, Pueblo Indian and Southwestern flavors. The proprietors source from their own organic farm and heirloom fruit trees. Reservations are recommended, so call ahead before you decide to stop in.
At the lower falls of Calf Creek, a clear stream descends 126 feet into a pool, where happy folks take a swim after a 3-mile hike that is relatively flat, but frequently very sandy. It’s 6 miles total, and a great introduction to the Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument.
Follow the lead of an astrophotographer and take to Kodachrome Basin State Park for an intimate star gazing experience. Even if Kodachrome film has all-but-disappeared in the digital age, the landscape of Kodachrome Basin is timeless. Whether taking photographs or just looking up, Kodachrome Basin is a don't miss on Utah's dark sky list.
Photo: Prajit Ravindran
- Navajo Loop Trail
- Bryce Canyon Lodge
- Dark Skies of Bryce Canyon
Photo: Prajit Ravindran
Take a quick drive from Kodachrome Basin to Bryce Canyon National Park, your second Mighty 5® destination of the trip. Explore Bryce Canyon on a scenic drive or take a memorable hike on the Navajo Loop trail. This trail is a beautiful loop any time of day or year, but Sunset Point is a great place to be as the sun descends below the horizon — with only the rocky hoodoos to keep you company. Check in to Bryce Canyon Lodge and enjoy rustic accommodations and tasty food in a beautiful setting. In the evening, catch a ranger-led astronomy program or experience the dark sky splendor in your own way. Additional lodging options include in-park campgrounds or in Bryce Canyon City when planning an evening of stargazing in Utah.
It's never a bad idea to catch a sunset from a place named Sunset Point. This 1–2 hour moderate loop trail traverse the rim at Sunset Point point down to the floor of Bryce Canyon. Along the way you'll see favorite hoodoo formations such as Wall Street, Twin Bridges and Thor's Hammer.
Bryce Canyon is the ultimate place to experience the splendor of the night sky. Protected by a special force of park rangers and volunteer Utah astronomy enthusiasts, Bryce Canyon is known as the last grand sanctuary of natural darkness and has one of the nation's oldest astronomy programs.
Photo: Prajit Ravindran
- Shakespeare Festival
- Cedar Breaks National Monument
- Cedar Breaks Star Gazing
Photo: Adam Clark
If it suits your fancy, take a break from the outstanding performances of the natural world and experience culture at the Tony award-winning Utah Shakespeare Festival in Cedar City. After catching a performance or two and a bite to eat, switch from the theater to a natural red rock amphitheater at Cedar Breaks National Monument. The final certified International Dark Sky Park of the trip, Cedar Breaks is a perfect place to reflect on the famous Shakespeare line "All the world's a stage," as you lay on your back, look up and enjoy a final star show. Too tired to drive home? There’s great high-elevation camping at Cedar Breaks' Point Supreme Campground or terrific resort lodging at nearby Brian Head Resort. (Road closed in winter.)
From June to October, Cedar City welcomes the world to its Tony Award-winning Utah Shakespeare Festival. Thousands converge on the campus of Southern Utah University to participate in renaissance festivities and see Shakespearean productions rotating nightly. The Fest also presents modern plays.
The rim of Cedar Breaks is above 10,000 feet and looks into a natural amphitheater plunging 2,000 feet below, taking your eyes for a colorful ride through arches, hoodoos and canyons. Stunning views are common on these hikes so keep your camera nearby. It’s also a certified Dark Sky Park, which means the nights are like nowhere else.
Cedar Breaks National Monument is one of the best dark sky locations for stargazing in Utah because of its ideal viewing conditions. Rangers host weekly star parties throughout the summer complete with telescopes to view planets and other objects within the solar system.