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Astrotourism: 7 Best Places to Stargaze and Where to Spend the Night

Dark skies-lover Becca Blond travels around North America in search of the best places to stargaze and where to spend the night.

I’m staring through the lens of a powerful telescope, looking deep into the swirling twinkles that make up the Orion Nebula. My guides in this astrotourism adventure, Dakota Hyde and Reagan Crowley, are telling me the light I’m seeing is from some 1,344 years ago.

Mind. Blown.

Nebulas are star-making factories after all. While this particular nebula is close enough to be seen with the naked eye, checking it out through the telescope is a more intense experience. Doing so lets you see details and colors beyond just white light in the night sky.

The telescope is one of two onsite at the Huntsville Astronomic and Lunar Observatory (HALO), which is set up inside a silo with a retractable roof on the grounds of the Compass Rose Lodge in Utah’s Ogden Valley. The lodge sits at the edge of International Dark Sky Association designated North Fork Dark Sky Park. This is an area in the Ogden Valley that’s worked hard to preserve its night skies for stargazing by limiting light pollution.

Whether it’s chasing eclipses or the northern lights across the globe, full moon parties in dark sky parks or discovering galaxies far, far away through the lens of a telescope, astrotourism is trending in travel. Some 80 percent of Americans cannot even see the Milky Way, but with these seven hotels, you’ll see the night sky in a brand new light.

Fairbanks, Alaska

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Many a travel bucket list includes seeing the northern lights and you can cross that one off without a passport by heading to Fairbanks, Alaska. The city sits within the auroral oval by the North Pole in which the Aurora Borealis can be viewed between September and mid-April. There are a number of good observation areas on the outskirts of Fairbanks, but to look for the mysterious flickering green and purple lights from the warmth of a natural outdoor hot spring, you’ll need to book a room at the Chena Hot Springs Resort. The resort is located in a wilderness area about 60 miles northwest of Fairbanks. If you’re flying in and don’t want to drive, however, Chena Hot Springs makes life simple with a roundtrip airport shuttle service for a set fee — $130 one-way for a single guest and $65 per person for two or more guests, also each-way.

Open for more than a century now, Chena was popular with prospectors during the Alaska Gold Rush days. They swore it cured their aches and pains after long days panning for gold. Today the resort has soaking options in natural outdoor hot springs, an adults-only rock lake—the Aurora looks particularly captivating reflecting off of it—and an indoor family pool and hot tubs. Nights are spent chasing the northern lights, but by day there are also lots of activities on offer. These vary by season. In summer you can book horseback riding, fishing or ATV excursions, while in winter there are options for dog-sledding, ice-fishing and cross country skiing among others.

Chena Hot Springs Resort

7.5 Good (264 reviews)
Very good Location 8 / 10
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Mauna Kea, Hawaii

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Head to Hawaii’s Big Island for an epic astrotourism experience on a dormant volcano. Rent a four-wheel drive (4WD) and ramble over to the 13,803-foot summit of the dormant Mauna Kea volcano. Located just south of Waimea, it’s a stunning spot to watch the sunset.

While atop the summit, check out the visitor’s gallery at the W.M Keck Observatory, where exhibits describe the research and operations at the world’s largest observatory for optical astronomy. Visitors cannot use the telescopes here, but there’s a viewing area with partial views of the in-house done and Keck I telescope—one of the largest optical and infrared telescopes in the world

If you don’t have a 4WD, you can still explore the 9,200-foot basecamp in any vehicle. Here you’ll find the Mauna Kea Visitor Information Center, which offers free stargazing programs after dark as well as plenty of info on the island’s culture, geology, and environmental features. By far the coolest aspect of stargazing here, however, is its unique location near the equator that makes it the only spot in the United States where you can see major Northern and Southern Hemisphere constellations at once.

On the beachside of the volcanic mountain, you’ll find the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, which is a good place to stay while exploring this area. Set on a white sand beach, this five-star resort is a romantic favorite that sees many a destination wedding. It offers tropical contemporary rooms and suites but the real highlights are found with al fresco onsite amenities. Play 18 holes on a one-of-a-kind championship course or get pampered with a Balinese-inspired treatment at the swanky onsite Mauna Kea Spa by Mandara.

Mauna Kea Beach Hotel

Top rated
9.2 Excellent (508 reviews)
Excellent Cleanliness 9.3 / 10
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Ketchum, Idaho

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Part of the area surrounding the Central Idaho Dark Sky Preserve, the city of Ketchum is another top astrotourism destination. It’s one of only 11 cities in the U.S. to have the coveted International Dark Sky Community designation, making a commitment to reducing light pollution through ordinances. An example is one ordinance that requires street and building exterior lights to be pointed downward, so you can see what’s in front of you when walking outside at night. Holiday light displays also come with restrictions, but thanks to these regulations, you can lay on your back and look up at the Milky Way and surrounding constellations and see them sparkling brighter than anyone living in a concrete jungle can fathom.

The Hotel Limelight celebrates Ketchum’s dark sky status with free monthly Star Gazing Planetarium Nights that feature a presentation by a local astronomy enthusiast and a mobile planetarium to teach you about the constellations you can view with your naked eye outside.

Hotel Limelight Ketchum

9.1 Excellent (204 reviews)
Excellent Cleanliness 9.5 / 10
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Acadia National Park, Maine

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Some of the darkest skies in the eastern United States are found along Maine’s rocky coastline and the islands just off it like Mount Desert—home to Acadia National Park. Look up and trace thousands of brilliant stars into constellations with your finger. This area is the largest expanse of naturally dark sky east of the Mississippi and one of the few places in the Northeast that the Milky Way can be seen.

In late September, the Mount Desert Island communities host the five-day Acadia Night Sky Festival. The astrotourism event is a celebration of everything about dark skies and manages to combine music, science, poetry, art, and stargazing events for a holistic festival experience.

Bar Harbor is Mount Desert Island’s anchor town. Here you’ll find the old fashioned style Bar Harbor Grand Hotel. The four-star hotel is a replica of the legendary 19th-century Rodick House Hotel that once served as a favorite hotel with the country’s rich and famous. The original burned to the ground, however, during a 1947 wildfire that consumed much of island’s real estate. So all that remains today is this elegant look-a-like. The Bar Harbor Grand offers period decor in its rooms and suites and great amenities like a heated swimming pool, which is a rarity for Maine. Keep in mind that like most properties in Bar Harbor, it closes for the winter.

Bar Harbor Grand Hotel

Top rated
Bar Harbor, 2.9 miles to Acadia National Park
9.0 Excellent (1260 reviews)
Excellent Cleanliness 9.4 / 10
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Los Cabos, Mexico

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Los Cabos, at the southern tip of Baja California, is a stellar stargazing destination thanks to clean, dry desert air, and low levels of light pollution. At the ultra-luxe Las Ventanas al Paraiso, you can stargaze with a private telescope set up on the balcony of your room, whether you book one of their most basic junior suites or the exclusive three-bedroom presidential villa. At the Oceanview Rooftop Terrace Junior Suite, guests have access to a private rooftop hot tub for soaking between telescope sessions. If you want to understand more about what you’re seeing, the in-house astronomer can help you out.

Rooms also boast wood-burning fireplaces, and in some cases, private Jacuzzis or rooftop sundecks. The hotel is also known for its attentive staff who will even unpack your suitcase, should you wish.

Head out to the pool area for more pampering—butlers will deliver books, magazines, drinks, and sunscreen directly to your sun lounger. When it comes time for dinner, grab ceviche and Mexican tapas in the Sea Grill, which is just one of three on-site restaurants.

Las Ventanas al Paraiso, A Rosewood Resort

Top rated
9.7 Excellent (398 reviews)
Excellent Service 9.6 / 10
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Huntsville, Utah

In the small town of Huntsville about a 45-minute drive from Salt Lake City, the recently opened Compass Rose Lodge is home to the aforementioned HALO observatory and guests can arrange to go up for guided celestial sessions most nights. They also have astro-imaging equipment attached to their telescopes that allows for photographing the rings of Saturn or a remote galaxy.

Compass Rose Lodge is a family-owned boutique hotel with just 15 rooms. Son Dakota handles observatory sessions, while mom and dad, Jeff and Bonnie Hyde, are behind the meticulously curated design throughout, including the lounge area where striking samples of art and old ski memorabilia co-exist harmoniously.

Compass Rose doesn’t have a full-service restaurant onsite, but they do serve aromatic roasted coffee from Australia and snacks throughout the day at the First Lift Coffee shop. They also set out a complimentary breakfast spread (yogurt, cereal, fruit, bread and some pastry choices) in the mornings in a separate dining space.

For dinner, most head across the street to the Shooting Star Saloon. It’s Utah’s oldest bar, in operation since 1879 (it managed to survive prohibition) and serves a very simple menu that’s written on the napkin holder. Don’t expect too much variety, which is part of this spot’s charm. If you have a serious appetite, the Star Burger is a house favorite — it’s two beef patties topped with melted cheese and grilled Polish Knackwurst.

Compass Rose Lodge

8.6 Excellent (25 reviews)
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Jackson Hole, Wyoming

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Sitting at the edge of Grand Teton National Park in a sparsely populated region, the valley surrounding the town of Jackson and the Jackson Hole ski resort is another top stargazing destination. In the town of Jackson, you’ll find Wyoming Stargazing, which is a nonprofit organization dedicated to making astronomy accessible to everyone. Check out their website to find out about upcoming stargazing and astro-focused experiences.

Surrounded by the craggy peaks of the Tetons, Spring Creek Ranch is a remote mountain hideaway that runs astronomy nights led by a local expert for guests. Beyond the night skies, they run “wildlife safaris” to scout out and photograph elusive local animal residents from moose and elk to bears and wolves. There’s also a myriad of other outdoor activities dependent on the season including fly-fishing, snowmobiling, and horseback riding.

Accommodations are in comfortable cabin-style rooms, suites, and villas. Grab dinner with Grand Teton views at the onsite Granary Restaurant. The menu focuses on authentic Rocky Mountain ingredients like trout and elk. Try the Pan Seared Idaho Trout, which comes with a flavorful green chile goat cheese pudding, bacon jam, and tomato oil drizzle.

Spring Creek Ranch

8.3 Very good (1438 reviews)
Excellent Location 8.9 / 10
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Feature photo by Greg Rakozy on Unsplash