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As children, we’re often taught to identify a handful of celestial sights: the three stars of Orion’s Belt, the bowl and handle of the Big Dipper or the mountainous shape of Cassiopeia. It’s a nice skill to have in your back pocket when the night sky offers up its beauty, and there’s no time like the COVID-19 era to get outside and learn how to navigate the stars. Here are five destinations in the West that are great for constellation spotters of all ages and skill levels.
Central Idaho Dark Sky ReserveFolks have long traveled to Idaho to ski its mountains and raft its rivers. But the state is also home to the only International Dark Sky Reserve in the U.S. — a giant swath of remote wilderness that rewards intrepid visitors with pristine night skies. Set in the Sawtooth Mountains in central Idaho, the reserve is best accessed via the towns of Stanley in the north and Ketchum and Sun Valley to the south. In fact, the highway that connects these areas makes for a fantastic evening drive with stop-off points for star viewing. Check the reserve website to find dates of future celestial events, such as meteor showers and eclipses.
Sleep Here: Redfish Lake Lodge in Stanley has newly renovated cabins near the lake — guests can see the stars above and their reflections in the water below. Fishing, biking and swimming are among numerous other activity options for families.
The Grand Canyon and Sedona, Ariz.The vast deserts of Arizona offer a general lack of cloud cover and light pollution that make them an ideal destination for budding astronomers. Every June, the Grand Canyon Star Party brings hundreds of enthusiasts to the eponymous park for celestial viewing on giant telescopes, plus nightly informational programs by volunteer astronomers (the 2020 event went virtual due to COVID-19).
Clients in Sedona, meanwhile, can opt for a private stargazing experience with Evening Sky Tours, a local operator that hosts events at dark-sky sites within 20 minutes of town. Through powerful telescopes — each family group or “pod” has its own for the night for safety purposes — guests view the moon, star clusters, planets and more. Children must be at least 6 years old to participate.
Sleep Here: For a more do-it-yourself experience, book clients in a “Stargazer” tent at the Valle, Ariz., location of Under Canvas. This glamping location will host guests from April to October in 2021, and stargazing-related programing will be announced closer to its opening.
Canyon Point and Bryce Canyon, UtahBryce Canyon National Park’s robust astronomy offerings may be on hold due to the pandemic, but nearby operator Dark Ranger Telescope Tours is hosting private and customizable stargazing experiences. Clients can use some of the operator’s 19 telescopes to spot stars, planets and more. Astrophotography workshops can be booked, as well.
Sleep Here: Perhaps the most luxurious stargazing spot in the U.S., Camp Sarika by Amangiri opened this past summer as part of the exclusive Amangiri resort in Canyon Point, Utah. Taking advantage of its remote location, the camp has placed telescopes at each tented pavilion to help guests explore the glittering night skies. Private fireplaces complete the experience, so the kids can prep s’mores under the stars, too.
Jackson Hole, Wyo.Beloved local outfitter Wyoming Stargazing helps Jackson Hole visitors explore the area’s exceptional night skies. It hosts numerous public (and free) events, though many have gone virtual in 2020. With safety guidelines in place, private bookings are available and include hotel pickup and return, as well as two hours of telescope time. Guests can cozy up in camping chairs and blankets while they learn from leading astronomy educators.
Sleep Here: If your clients would rather let the stargazing experts come to them, book a room at Spring Creek Ranch, which hosts biweekly astronomy nights led by none other than Wyoming Stargazing. The naturalist who leads the on-site events will answer questions about space and teach guests to use astronomy apps on their smartphones. The property also offers year-round wildlife safaris the kids are bound to love.
Joshua Tree National Park, Calif.This treasured national park is a great place for kids to climb rock formations and traverse friendly trails. Come nightfall, the stars aim to upstage even the captivating Joshua trees. Clients who want to enjoy the view without lugging their own equipment should book an experience with Palm Springs, Calif.-based operator Sky Watcher Star Tours. Its two-hour program is great for guests 6 years and older, and includes all the necessary items: a telescope, binoculars and a picnic basket full of snacks — plus chairs, blankets and pillows to make guests feel right at home.
Sleep Here: For a luxurious and family-friendly stay (with stargazing included), consider booking a room at The Ritz-Carlton, Rancho Mirage. Although it’s 45 minutes from the national park, the property features its own powerful telescope (available weekend nights for stargazing and afternoons for solar watching), plus fire pits and s’mores fixings for the little ones.