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Red Rock & Dark Skies: Stargazing the National Parks

National parks keep getting better after dark.

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 places to see the Milky Way — Capitol Reef National Park, Kodachrome Basin State Park, Bryce Canyon National Park and Cedar Breaks National Monument. (Please see note below for spring travel).

Three of these dark sky locations are certified International Dark Sky Parks, certified by the International Dark-Sky Association (Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef and Cedar Breaks). Take advantage of star parties for optimal viewing and ranger-led interpretations to guide you through the night sky. You'll also pass through Utah's first International Dark Sky Community, Torrey, at the gateway to Capitol Reef.

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. Discover more about stargazing in Utah and find tips on what to pack or when and where to stargaze.


Note: If visiting in the spring, the road to Cedar Breaks National Monument, at 10,000 feet above sea level, may still be closed for the winter. To extend this trip, consider adding a day in the beginning for a stop at the IDA-accredited International Dark Sky Park Goblin Valley State Park.

Day 1 224 Miles
  • 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.

Capitol Reef Petroglyphs

Ancient art can sometimes be a hard sell for kids, but these displays, featuring interpretations of bighorn sheep, deer, dogs, snakes and more will keep the kids entertained with a game of “I Spy” as you navigate the boardwalks to each viewing platform.

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Hiking Capitol Reef

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.  

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Capitol Reef Dark Skies

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.

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Day 2 115 Miles
  • 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. 

Hell's Backbone Grill

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.

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Lower Calf Creek Falls

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.

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Kodachrome Basin Star Gazing

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

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Day 3 22 Miles
  • 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. As the second certified International Dark Sky Park of the trip, during moonless and clear nights at Bryce, 7,500 stars will welcome you to their domain. Additional lodging options include in-park campgrounds or in Bryce Canyon City when planning an evening of stargazing in Utah.

Navajo Loop Trail

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. 

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Bryce Canyon Lodge

Enjoy rustic accommodations, a great menu, the best access to stunning sunrises and sunsets on the Rim Trail, and the dark Utah skies at Bryce Canyon Lodge. It’s the only lodging option within the Bryce Canyon National Park boundary. Image courtesy dmitri_66 on Flickr.

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Dark Skies of Bryce Canyon

As an accredited International Dark Sky Park, 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

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Day 4 98 Miles
  • 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.)

Spring travelers: S.R. 148 to Cedar Breaks National Monument closes for the winter. Please see the overview at the top for an alternate destination or visit the Consortium for Dark Sky Studies' events page to find Library Star Parties, hosted by Cedar Breaks Dark Rangers, in Springdale and Cedar City during International Dark Sky Week.

Shakespeare Festival

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.

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Cedar Breaks National Monument

This majestic 2,000-foot deep natural amphitheater calls to mind its big brother Bryce Canyon to the east with huge spires shaped over millions of years of wind blowing through the canyon. Because it’s an official Dark Sky Park, camping nearby is a must do, especially if you can attend a ranger-led stargazing program during the summer months at this certified Dark Sky Park.

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Cedar Breaks Star Gazing

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.

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