Beyond the bright lights of Las Vegas and Reno, Nevada is among the most sparsely populated states in the US—and most of this sprawling, high desert land stretches beneath extraordinarily dark skies.
The state is home to two dark sky parks, as designated by the International Dark Sky Association–an organization dedicated to combating light pollution. It also has a state-sponsored astronomy route, Park to Park in the Dark. The route connects Death Valley National Park in the west and Great Basin National Park in the east, with several rural towns in between, along US-95 and US-6.
[et_bloom_locked optin_id=optin_6]The Northern Nevada Railway in Ely, meanwhile, is home to a popular Star Train, which transports passengers along a historic route in Nevada’s Great Basin, with a detour to peer at the sky though high-powered telescopes.
The Silver State is a prime destination for some of the country’s best stargazing. Here are 5 spots of note among Nevada’s sprawling landscape for admiring the dazzling vastness of space.
Best spot for getting off the grid – Massacre Rim
Massacre Rim Wilderness Study Area is one of only 13 Dark Sky Sanctuaries in the world, so it’s truly one of the darkest places on our planet. Located in Northwestern Nevada, about 230 miles north of Reno, it’s also extremely remote with no paved roads, no Wi-Fi, and no nearby conveniences. So, pack accordingly!
While the Northern Paiute traversed this land for countless generations, it’s now public land managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Whether hiking, backpacking, or horseback riding, you’ll encounter archaeological sites with petroglyphs, volcanic plateaus, the 1,200 foot tall Massacre Rim, and stunning nighttime skies.
The Massacre Rim sanctuary is so destitute that it calls for a high-clearance 4-wheel-drive vehicle (don’t forget an extra spare). If you’re not quite ready to rough it and prefer to stay on paved roads, you’ll find traditional lodging—as well as dark skies—at the Rockin’ TD and Old Yella Dog ranches, one hour northwest in the ghost town Vya.
Best spot for casual stargazing and families – Tonopah Stargazing Park
Whether you’re just passing through on a road trip or you’ve booked lodging–like the haunted Mizpah Hotel or the kitschy Clown Motel–the tiny mining town of Tonopah has been nationally recognized for its dark skies. It even has its very own park dedicated to stargazing.
Located 211 miles from Las Vegas off US 95 in the desert beyond Ray Tennant Drive, the Clair Blackburn Memorial Stargazing Park is for professional astronomers and amateurs alike. It resembles a patio in the desert (with seating) and it’s a great spot to set up a telescope or examine stars with the naked eye.
Since the park is close to civilization, it’s ideal for casual stargazers or families with finicky kids and teens who would rather spend the evening staring at a computer screen. The park is best accessed at dusk and is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, other than weather-related closures.
Best spot for seeing stars (and UFOS) – Rachel
Where better to gaze at the stars and ponder the mysteries of the universe than the small town of Rachel, known as the UFO Capital of the World. Located on the south side of the official Extraterrestrial Highway, Nevada State Route 375, it’s the closest town to the infamous Air Force base, Area 51.
About 147 miles from Las Vegas, Rachel is a must-see destination for UFO hunters and stargazers from all over the world. There are alien-themed attractions, including the highly-photographed E.T. Highway road sign at the US-93 and NV-375 junction, and dark nighttime skies along the entire 98-mile stretch.
Lodging is available in Rachel at the Little A’Le’Inn, home of the famous alien burger. There are also places to stay in Alamo on US-93. Or you can camp out under the sky—you never know what you’ll see.
Best spot for organized activities – Great Basin National Park
Great Basin National Park, near the Utah border, is home to ancient bristlecone pine trees, bustling wildlife, bodies of water, and the fascinating Lehman Caves. As a designated Dark Sky Park, it offers a variety of programs like nighttime ranger-led tours and special events dedicated to stargazing, including an annual Stargazing Festival in September.
The Astronomy Amphitheater, near the visitor’s center, is an ideal spot for sky-watching, as is Mather Overlook (when Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive is open). But pretty much anywhere in the park where you can see the horizon will reward you with starry skies. You may even be able to spot the International Space Station as it flies over the park every 93 minutes, give or take.
Located 295 miles from Las Vegas and 387 miles from Reno, Great Basin National Park offers a handful of campsites for a fee. There are also several places to stay and stargaze just a few miles away, such as the aptly named Stargazer Inn & Bristlecone General Store, a charming oasis in the nearby town of Baker.
Best spot for writing the next great American novel – Ike’s Canyon Ranch
Ike’s Canyon Ranch sits among 67 acres of sage, juniper, and pinyon pine-spotted canyons, creeks, and trails in the foothills of the Alta-Toquima Mountains in central Nevada. Located at 3350 Ike’s Canyon Road, Manhattan, it beckons visitors with its wide open skies, lack of light pollution, and opportunities to ogle the Milky Way.
Once a stagecoach stop between the towns of Austin and Belmont, the restored retreat sits in this sparsely populated central point of Nevada–around 250 miles in the opposite direction from both Las Vegas and Reno. It’s accessed via a dirt road about 30 miles off Nevada State Route 376, between Austin from the north and Tonopah from the south.
Best visited from June through September, the ranch–which offers solo and group writers’ retreats– runs almost entirely on solar and hydro power. Be sure to take a plunge in the ranch’s wood-fired hot tub or head out to Spencer Hot Springs, a natural hot spring on public land, located about 25 miles from the ranch.[/et_bloom_locked]
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