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    Best Observatories in the US - ESO:José Francisco Salgado
    Space on Earth

    22 of the Best Observatories in the U.S. to Visit in 2022

    While everyone can enjoy the wonders of the night sky from their backyard or a nearby dark sky destination, there’s nothing quite like visiting an observatory. Observatories offer awe-inspiring views of objects in our solar system and deep space.. Often what we can see at these astronomy centers is better than you’ll ever see on our own, even if you own a telescope.

    Additionally observatories usually include programs where amateur or professional astronomers can teach you about all those amazing things you’re seeing. But wait: How do we know which observatory to visit? Which are the best observatories in the U.S.?

    In this post, you’ll learn about the best observatories across the U.S. from the East Coast to the West – from the Pacific Northwest to New England to the Southeast. Whether you live near one of these great observatories or are planning a trip, consider spending an evening at one of these – the 22 best observatories across the United States.

    This post was originally published in December 2019, and was re-ranked and updated in January 2022.
    Featured photo credit: ESO/José Francisco Salgado (www.josefrancisco.org)

    The Best Observatories in the U.S.

    Before jumping into the complete list with all the details, I thought it helpful to share a table showing my ranking of the best observatories across the U.S. This list of observatories was pulled from TripAdivsor, and the score was calculated using each observatories score, number of reviews, and percentage of “Excellent” reviews. The “Change” column was created comparing this list to my original one – which was put together by a third-party company (and pretty inaccurate, as you can see from how many observatories moved around a lot!).

    Here’s the list of the best observatories in the U.S.:

    Rank
    (2022)
    ObservatoryScore
    (# Reviews)
    Change
    (from 2020)
    1Oregon University Observatory11.70
    2Mauna Kea10.85↑12
    3National Air & Space Museum10.62↑2
    4McDonald Observatory10.58↓2
    5Griffith Observatory10.40↑1
    6National Radio Astronomy Observatory10.35↓3
    7Goldendale Observatory10.31↑8
    8Bishop Museum10.22↓1
    9Kitt Peak National Observatory10.13↓6
    10Lowell Observatory10.08 (1951)New
    11Cranbrook Institute of Science10.08 (179)↑9
    12Golden Pond Observatory10.08 (70)↑4
    13Museum of Science9.99↓4
    14Mount Wilson Observatory9.90↑5
    15Adirondack Sky Center & Observatory9.81↑3
    16Orlando Science Center9.77↓6
    17Lick Observatory9.72 (82)↑6
    18DuPont Planetarium9.72 (24)↑4
    19Cincinatti Observatory Center9.59↓11
    20Chabot Space & Science Center9.50↓9
    21Chamberlin Observatory9.36↑3
    22Frosty Drew Nature Center and Observatory9.23↑3

    Now I’ll go into greater detail about each one and how/when to visit. If there are any observatories you think I missed that should be on the list, let me know in the comments!

    1. Oregon University Observatory

    Best Observatories in the U.S. - Sunriver Observatory

    Sunriver’s elevation, pitch-dark surroundings, and crystal clear air make it the perfect place to witness a meteor shower, get a glimpse of globular clusters, nebulae and deep space binary stars, as well as our closest star, the Sun.

    The Oregon University Observatory in Sunriver is open for public Night Sky Viewing on Wednesdays and Saturdays and Daytime Solar Viewing on Wednesday to Sunday. With over 30 telescopes from Tele Vue refractors to a 30-inch Newtonian, don’t be surprised if you want to try and peek through them all – or at least the one’s they’re using any given day or night! Entry is $10 per person.

    2. Mauna Kea

    Best Observatories in the U.S. - Mauna Kea

    The best astronomical observations in the world are happening in Hawaii, high atop the sacred mountain Mauna Kea. It is home to some of the most scientifically productive telescopes in the world, making Hawaii an international leader in astronomical science. 

    While the majority of the Mauna Kea observatories are closed to the public, you can stop by the Mauna Kea Visitor Information Station (VIS) to inquire about access to the summit during the daylight hours – and some tours get access after dark.

    3. National Air & Space Museum

    Stargazing near Washington D.C. -National Air & Space Museum - Mr.TinDC via Flickr
    Photo credit: Mr.TinDC via Flickr

    From 12pm-3pm on every Wednesday to Saturday, visitors at the National Air & Space Museum in Washington D.C. can view the wonders of the sun and the universe at the Phoebe Waterman Haas Public Observatory.

    Staff are on hand to help observe the Sun, Moon and other objects in space using solar-filtered telescopes. White-light telescopes show a view of the Sun’s surface and the hydrogen-alpha (red light) and calcium-K (purple light) telescopes show the Sun’s atmosphere, too. Entry is free.

    4. McDonald Observatory

    Best Observatories in the U.S. - McDonald Observatory - Christian Obermeier via Flickr
    Photo credit: Christian Obermeier via Flickr

    Every Tuesday, Friday and Saturday evening, the McDonald Observatory Visitor Center opens for Twilight and Star Party programs. The Twilight Program is a theatre-based session led by the centre’s education staff, while the Star Parties offer access to several telescopes in the Rebecca Gale Telescope Park.

    During these events, visitors receive a guided orientation in the open-air amphitheater. Then you’ll rotate through various telescopes to view stars or planets targeted by staff. Entry costs $15 per person.

    5. Griffith Observatory

    Stargazing in Los Angeles: Griffith Observatory by Dave Sizer
    Photo credit: Dave Sizer via Flickr

    Colonel Griffith J. Griffith left funds in his will to build a public observatory in Los Angeles because he believed in the transformative power of observation. Since opening in 1935, Griffith Observatory has fulfilled his vision by offering public telescope viewing through the historic Zeiss telescope, historic coelostat (solar telescope), and portable telescopes on the lawn.

    Free public telescopes are available each evening the Observatory is open and skies are clear with knowledgeable volunteers available to help guide visitors. If you want more guidance, public star parties are held monthly at Griffith Observatory; the dates vary throughout the month, can be found on the Griffith Observatory website, and are free to attend.

    6. National Radio Astronomy Observatory 

    Best Observatories in the U.S. - NRAO

    The NRAO Visitor Center features an award-winning documentary narrated by Jodie Foster, who starred in the movie Contact which filmed here back in the 1990s. You can also explore exhibits describing radio astronomy and the Very Large Array – affectionately known as the VLA.

    If you want to visit, the VLA hosts three free guided tours on the first and third Saturdays of each month at 11am, 1pm, and 3pm. These guided tours last about 50 minutes and take visitors to areas behind-the-scenes at the VLA. The First Saturday Tour event culminates in an evening of free Guided Night Sky Telescope Viewing at the Etscorn Observatory on the Campus of NM Tech located in Socorro. The night-time event begins at dark and lasts two hours.

    7. Goldendale Observatory 

    Best Observatories in the U.S. - Goldendale Observatory

    The Goldendale Observatory in Washington State recently underwent its first major refurbishment in 46 years and now includes an advanced learning centre to compliment the iconic observatory dome. A limited schedule of public nights and request visits will be running through the soft launch of the newly refurbed observatory (until the end of 2019). Admission is free, but a park pass is $10 for the day.

    8. Bishop Museum

    Best Planetariums in the U.S. - Bishop Museum - Daniel Ramirez via Flickr
    Photo credit: Daniel Ramirez via Flickr

    Hawaii is spectacular for stargazing and the Bishop Museum’s J. Watumull Planetarium was the first planetarium to open in all of Polynesia (geographically speaking!). The Chronos II star machine provides one of the most vivid, realistic recreations of the night sky available today, with 8,500 pinpoint stars and realistic, bright planets.

    The Stars Tonight show (first Saturday of the month) offers public viewing through the observatory telescope and from the observatory deck – weather permitting. The cost is $10 per person.

    9. Kitt Peak National Observatory 

    Kitt Peak National Observatory - P. Marenfeld:NOAO:AURA:NSF
    Photo credit: P. Marenfeld/NOAO/AURA/NSF

    Kitt Peak National Observatory is home to one of the largest arrays of optical and radio telescopes in the world. In addition to conducting ground-breaking astronomical research, the Visitor Center programs are open for daytime guided tours and a variety of evening stargazing programs. 

    Kitt Peak runs a number of different public astronomy programs throughout the year, including a Nightly Observing Program, the small group Dark Sky Discovery program where you can look through the telescopes, and even an Overnight Telescope Observing program. These typically every night of the year except July 15th to September 1st, which is commonly known as ‘monsoon season’ in Arizona.

    10. Golden Pond Observatory

    While the reason that Golden Pond is on this list is because of their observatory, there’s also a planetarium on-site – very handy if the skies over southwestern Kentucky happen to be cloudy on the day and night you visit. Golden Pond Observatory (& Planetarium) is located within Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area, which has helped preserve the night sky in addition to the natural wonders of the area.

    If you’re planning a visit, the Planetarium is open everyday with the exception of Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Days; planetarium programming changes frequently, making it great for return visits. The Observatory is open select Saturdays throughout the year (check their website for a schedule) as well as for Star Parties during the summer months.

    11. Cranbrook Institute of Science

    Best Observatories - Cranbrook Institute of Science

    Living in – or traveling to – the Great Lakes State? As you might imagine, being surrounded by water is generally a good thing for reducing light pollution, but Michigan is so big that you can still find plenty of the dreaded stuff near the state’s big cities. Despite this, Cranbrook Institute of Science – located on the outskirts of Detroit and one of Michigan’s great natural history museums – has an observatory where you can view the night skies.

    The observatory is open Friday nights throughout the year, weather permitting, as well as Sundays during the day for safe solar viewing.

    12. Lowell Observatory

    Best Observatories - Lowell - Teemu008 via Flickr
    Photo credit: Teemu008 via Flickr

    I’m not quite sure how, but Lowell Observatory didn’t make my list when I first wrote it – I’m correcting that today by adding this famous Flagstaff observatory in its rightful place among the best observatories across the country.

    As you might know, Lowell is famous as the place where Pluto was first discovered – and where astronomers first found evidence of the expansion of the universe. While this historic site is hallowed for many enthusiasts, it’s still a working observatory today and hosts a number of public events in addition to offering daily admission and stargazing opportunities.

    13. Museum of Science

    • Location: Boston, Massachusetts
    • Website: mos.org

    The Astronomy After Hours program at Boston‘s Museum of Science are run every Thursday evening in July and August, and Fridays in October. At these events, you’re invited to view stars, planets, the moon and other astronomical phenomena from the museum’s Gilliland Observatory, on the roof of the parking garage. Even better, these events are free to attend!

    14. Mount Wilson Observatory

    Best Observatories - Mount Wilson - chripell via Flickr
    Photo credit: chripell via Flickr

    Located high in the hills near Los Angeles – not too far from NASA’s JPL facility – Mount Wilson Observatory is one of the preeminent observatories in California, despite having to contend with Los Angeles’ notorious poor air quality and light pollution. That hasn’t stopped the astronomers at Mount Wilson, where scientific discoveries are made; perhaps the most famous is Edward Hubble’s discovery that the Andromeda Galaxy was its own galaxy separate from our Milky Way!

    Unfortunately, Mount Wilson doesn’t offer evening events as it’s a working facility, but you can attend a tour during the day on Saturdays between early April and late November – and the facility is open every day for visitors who don’t care about a tour.

    15. Adirondack Sky Center & Observatory

    Best Observatories in the U.S. - Adirondack Sky Center & Observatory

    Far north in upstate New York, Adirondack Sky Center and Obesrvatory is blissfully distant from the bright lights that make New York City a tricky spot to see the stars. This facility is relatively new – and still growing, as they plan to build a new visitor center with all kinds of information about the wonders of the night sky that you can enjoy by day before attending one of their evening observing events. For now, it’s just those night sky viewings available every clear Friday during the summer (and alternating clear-skied Fridays during autumn/winter/spring).

    16. Orlando Science Center

    Atop Orlando Science Center sits a domed observatory. From there, you can see wonders such as the four moons of Jupiter, the rings of Saturn, and deep sky objects – galaxies, nebulas, and binary star systems, oh my!

    Peer into the cosmos at Star-Studded Evenings with the Crosby Observatory’s 10″ Byers refracting telescope for an out-of-this world experience. These events typically occur on Friday and Saturday nights when the skies are clear, and the cost is $10 per person.

    This family-friendly evening (perfect for ages 7+) is the perfect way to see the moon, Saturn, Jupiter and stars. Program held rain or shine, viewing is weather permitting. The entry fee $7 per person.

    17. RPSEC Observatory at DuPont Planetarium

    • Location: Aiken, South Carolina
    • Website: usca.edu

    While you might wonder why a planetarium makes the list, it’s actually the attached observatory that you want to plan a trip around. Located at the University of South Carolina in Aiken, the DuPont Planetarium is housed in the Ruth Patrick Science Education Center – and that same building has an observatory on its roof that is open after the final planetarium show on clear Saturday evenings. Once you reach the roof, you can peer through the 16-inch Bechtel Telescope to discover wonders with your own eyes that you’ve just seen on the planetarium dome.

    18. Lick Observatory

    Best Observatories in the U.S. - Lick Observatory

    Lick Observatory is perhaps my favorite observatory on this list – in part because I’ve had the chance to visit and learn so much about it. Inspired by an amateur astronomer who became friends with James Lick, Lick Observatory is located high in the hills above San Jose, in the South Bay of the San Francisco Bay Area. While the area certainly struggles with light pollution, astronomers use the facilities several different telescopes to conduct research nightly. Visitors can explore the campus by day and even take tours of the historic telescope domes.

    Also it’s worth noting that Lick Observatory was threatened by wildfires recently, so the drive up/scenery has changed a lot. Thankfully, the facilities were unharmed and the telescopes are all still operational.

    19. Cincinatti Observatory Center

    Best Observatories in the U.S. - Cincinnati Observatory

    Open on Thursday, Fridays, and some Saturdays throughout the year, the Cincinnati Observatory Center’s Astronomy Evenings typically include short astronomy presentations on a wide variety of topics, a short tour of this National Historic Landmark and then time for stargazing through the 1845 telescope.

    20. Chabot Space & Science Center

    Stargazing in San Francisco: Chabot Space & Science Center by Erik Fitzpatrick
    Photo credit: Erik Fitzpatrick

    Nestled in the Oakland hills of the San Francisco Bay Area, Chabot’s three large historic telescopes offer a unique way to experience the awe and wonder of the universe. The observatory deck offers breath-taking views 1,500 feet above the Bay.

    Experience spectacular night sky viewing on Friday and Saturday evenings; during the summer months, telescopes open once the skies are dark.

    21. Chamberlin Observatory

    You might wonder if an observatory in the heart of the city is even worth visiting – but Chamberlin Observatory in Denver is still worth a stop, even during the daytime! This observatory dates back to 1894, and is beautifully constructed; even better, it’s still an operational observatory today, with public events on Tuesdays and Thursday nights all year long. While the observatory doesn’t have the telescopes (or dark sky quality) for gazing into deep space, it’s a great opportunity to see the Moon and various planets more closely, making this a fantastic public outreach facility.

    22. Frosty Drew Nature Center and Observatory

    Stargazing near Boston - Frosty Drew - Robert Izzi via Flickr
    Photo credit: Robert Izzi via Flickr

    Last but certainly not least, don’t overlook tiny Rhode Island if you’re planning to visit all of the best observatories in the U.S. While the Eastern Seaboard and New England are not known for their dark sky quality, Frosty Drew Nature Center and Observatory still give visitors a chance to explore the wonders of space. The facility holds events year-round, even in chillier winter months, and celebrates other astronomical events when they occur and are visible (like eclipses!)

    As you can see, the best observatories stretch from coast to coast across the United States. From California to Washington and Rhode Island to Florida, there are great opportunities for you to visit an observatory and learn about the wonder of the night sky. All you need to do is find the one closest to you – or add one on to a trip you’re already planning!

    Which of these observatories would you most like to visit? Let me know in the comments!

    Share this to help others enjoy the night sky!

    Valerie is the founder and editor of Space Tourism Guide. She decided to start the site after realizing how many friends and family had never seen the Milky Way, and that space tourism was going to unlock the next great travel destination: space!

    4 Comments

    • Mickey Fratesi

      Ralph Buice Jr Observatory has its own light pollution. One had better prepare themselves to “not see” the Milky Way standing outside most of the observatories listed(especially the ones east of the Mississippi). You can see the brightest stars , planets and moon but for the most part the power of these telescopes is lost due to light pollution. Thank you, Valerie for this site but I thought it only fair to let people know what is happening.

    • Joseph

      I’m shocked that you didn’t mention the Yerkes Observatory with the largest Refractor in the world
      40″ lense and much more. In Michigan.

      • Valerie Stimac

        Thanks for mentioning them, Joseph… but isn’t Yerkes in Wisconsin? I’ll be sure to take a look when I update this post for 2023.

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