Beneath the Stars: Stellar Places to Hike and Camp

When I was little, my dad and I used to look at the stars together from our front yard – sometimes with a telescope, sometimes with the naked eye....

When I was little, my dad and I used to look at the stars together from our front yard – sometimes with a telescope, sometimes with the naked eye. He taught me the names of the stars in Orion and how to follow Orion’s belt to Taurus to the Pleiades. As I got older, we started going on camping and hiking trips together. My favorites of those trips have always been the ones where we could see the most stars.

Even if you don’t have somebody well-versed in astronomy to accompany you, I highly recommend these trips as a place to camp if you wish, hike if it takes your fancy, and above all, look up!

Yosemite National Park is the natural place to start for anybody who loves interacting with the earth in any way. Located in the Sierra Nevada mountains in Northern California, Yosemite is huge. It covers nearly 1,200 square miles and has thirteen campgrounds as well as a variety of less rustic lodging, so it’s impossible to explore it all in a single trip.

I went to Yosemite as a young child, but I’ve only been once in recent memory, when I was fourteen. My father and I, along with some family friends, camped in Porcupine Flat and hiked every day, most notably summiting Mount Dana (13,061 feet). A hundred feet from where we pitched our tent was a clearing with a wide, flat rock where I would lie and watch the stars. It was the first time I’d seen a sky like that, so heavily set with stars that I could hardly find constellations I knew. It was also the first time I saw the Milky Way.

The beauty of Yosemite is wide and varied, but I am particularly fond of her rocky cliffs and mountains, Half Dome being one of the most famous. I don’t know how bad the light pollution is near the hotels, but once you’re in the campgrounds, the sky is allowed to sparkle in the absence of artificial light. Go check it out.

Santa Catalina Island is one of the Channel Islands off the coast of Southern California. The island has one city on it, Avalon, as well as a few unincorporated villages. A large part of the island remains wilderness – tamed for the tourists’ sake to some degree, but still wild. Lodging ranges from camping to hotels to vacation rentals, and there are an abundance of activities like glass bottom boats and snorkeling.

I visited Catalina with my sister and grandfather, and we didn’t camp for my grandfather’s sake, but my knowledge of the Catalina sky comes from the flying fish tour we took. The boat went out after dark and circled around to the side of the island opposite from Avalon. When we’d reached the turnaround point of the tour, far out onto the ocean, the guide turned off the boat’s lights. Because Avalon’s lights were blocked by the rest of the island, the same incredible sky as I’d seen in Yosemite appeared above us.

Unfortunately, Catalina is the most touristy of these three locations, but if you’re less fond of rustic camping – or if you want to go with someone for whom camping is inaccessible – I highly recommend it. The ferry over to the island takes about an hour, so I don’t recommend planning an activity as soon as you arrive if you’ve taken Dramamine for seasickness. (Yes, I fell asleep during our glass bottom boat tour.) Whatever you do on Catalina, make sure you find a way to get away from Avalon and see the stars.

Glacier National Park is located in Montana, and its beauty rivals Yosemite’s in every way. There’s often snow on the ground, even in the summer at higher altitudes, so come prepared. Glacier, like Yosemite, has thirteen campgrounds as well as cabins and hotels, so you should be able to find the lodging that fits you. If you’re able and comfortable doing so, I highly recommend camping. Glacier is a place of powerful wilderness, and camping allows you to place yourself right in the middle of it all.

Although I took a train through Montana once, from which I could see Glacier, my visit to the park took place four and a half years ago as my graduation present. My father and I camped for a week, split between two different campgrounds, and hiked all over the park. The most popular highlight of the park is Going-to-the-Sun Road, which crosses the park and is closed during the winter due to snow. When we arrived in July, it had only just opened for the year, so be aware!

Once again, the spectacular sky was best visible from the campgrounds. There’s much less artificial light, so it’s perfect for stargazing. The temperature drops pretty low at night, even in the summer, and the chill makes the stars seem all the brighter. Sitting under the stars in Glacier was a powerfully spiritual experience, but even if spirituality isn’t your cup of tea, the sky is still something to behold.

Stars are visible everywhere, of course, not just the Western United States. I certainly don’t mean to claim that these three places are the only good place to engage in a little amateur astronomy! I’d love to hear from you. Tell me your favorite places to see the stars in the comments!

Image Courtesy of Joshua Tree National Park, via Wikimedia Commons