Space on Earth

The 10 Best Observatories in the U.S. to Visit in 2024

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.?

Best Observatories in the US - ESO:José Francisco Salgado
Photo credit: ESO/José Francisco Salgado (www.josefrancisco.org)

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 15 best observatories across the United States.

This post was originally published in December 2019, and was re-ranked and updated in December 2023.

The Best Observatories in the U.S.

Best Observatories in the U.S. Map
Click to interact with the map.

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 observatory’s score, the number of reviews, and the percentage of reviews marked as “Excellent.” The “Change” column compares the list to last year, showing how observatories might be becoming more popular.

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

Rank
(2024)
ObservatoryScore
(% Excellent)
Change
(from 2023)
1Mt. Lemmon SkyCenter Observatory9.90New!
2Oregon Observatory at Sunriver9.70New!
3McDonald Observatory8.95↓1
4Griffith Observatory8.86↓1
5Yerkes Observatory8.81 (80%)↓1
6Bishop Museum8.81 (65%)↓1
7Tellus Science Museum8.77New!
8Museum of Science8.72↓2
9Lowell Observatory8.63↓1
10Green Bank Observatory8.59 (75%)New!

In the table above, observatories that received the same score were ranked by percentage of “Excellent” scores on TripAdvisor – higher Excellence scores won the higher ranking position. (That’s the number in the parentheses in the Score column.)

In addition to the tie for 5th place (Yerkes Observatory and Bishop Museum), there was a tie for 10th place with Green Bank Observatory (new this year), National Radio Astronomy Observatory (#7 in 2023), and Kitt Peak National Observatory (#10 in 2023); I did not include these other two observatories, though they have made the list in years past – so they’re obviously good too!

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. Mt. Lemmon SkyCenter Observatory

Let me kick this post off with an honest admission: when I first posted this list several years ago, the data came primarily from some public relations company who claimed they had complied the data from the same sources I use today to come up with my list… but over time, I’ve discovered they were missing some big and fastastic observatories from their data set. I’ve since created my own, and crunch the numbers myself to ensure that when I say these are the “best observatories in the U.S.,” I’m actually right about that.

For those of you who know and love astronomy, it should therefore come as no surprise that the Mt. Lemmon SkyCenter outside Tucson – one of the nation’s best cities for limiting light pollution –, Arizona – one of the nation’s best states for protecting dark skies – tops the list.

Operated by the University of Arizona, the SkyCenter is a real gem for astronomy enthusiasts. It’s home to two of the largest telescopes available to the public anywhere in the Southwest: the Schulman 32″ and the Phillips 24″ telescopes – and during the five-hour SkyNights programs they offer, you’ll have plenty of time to learn about and gaze through both.

All astronomy programs at the SkyCenter are by reservation only, so if you want to visit the #1 observatory in America this year, plan ahead!

2. Oregon Observatory at Sunriver

Best Observatories in the U.S. - Oregon Observatory

I had the chance to pass through Sunriver, Oregon, this past year as part of a trip to experience the new “Oregon Dark Sky Trail,” and to be honest, the town itself didn’t do much for me (it was a nice spot for lunch though!). It turns out, it’s what happens after sunset that makes Sunriver a great spot for the astronomically inclined – and the timing of my trip didn’t work for that. (So that’s on me!)

The Oregon Observatory is located in the heart of Central Oregon, on the eastern side of the Cascade mountain range. Protected from coastal clouds by the mountains and with a decent elevation and dry climate (you’re actually on a giant volcanic plateau in this part of Oregon), the Oregon Observatory excels at being accessible.

They offer public astronomy nights 2-3 times per week (at least during the winter months when I’ve just checked) that offer a 90-minute astronomy experience including plenty of time to look through the ‘scopes and admire whatever happens to be overhead when you’re visiting.

Bonus: If you’re staying in the area for a few nights, be sure to visit the Hopservatory at Worthy Brewing in Bend (about 20 minutes up the road). It’s a more casual – but still totally cool – urban astronomy experience.

3. McDonald Observatory

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

Open to the public on Tuesdays through Saturdays, the McDonald Observatory Visitor Center offers a number of astronomy programs each evening – this is great to see after a few years of limited programming due to the pandemic.

Your choices include solar viewing (at 1pm daily), a guided tour of the facility (2pm daily), and two-hour, multi-telescope star parties (7pm on Tuesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays). There are – on occasion – also 36″ “Special Viewing” nights whne a smaller group has the opportunity to use the largest public ‘scope available.

4. 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.

5. Yerkes Observatory

Best Observatories in the U.S. - Yerkes Observatory

If you map out all of the observatories that made this year’s list of the best observatories in the U.S., you might notice a pattern: the vast majority of them are near the coasts. While this is in part because that’s where the majority of Americans live, it also means that’s where you’ll encounter some of the worst light pollution… so it’s well worth seeking out places that aren’t as affected by this when trying to get a good night of stargazing in.

That’s where Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay, Wisconsin shines – no pun intended. The Yerkes Observatory actually began on a rooftop in Chicago in 1882, which is today one of the worst major U.S. cities for stargazing; a decade later, the observatory moved out of the city to neighboring Wisconsin and much better dark skies.

Today, you can visit Friday through Monday during the day to learn about Yerkes Observatory’s history and research, or keep an eye on their events page for special opportunities to come see the night sky from this historic Midwest observatory.

6. Bishop Museum

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; this program is called the Hawaiian Sky Tonight and is offered almost daily.

As for stargazing from the rooftop observatory, the summer 2024 schedule hasn’t been released yet – but in years past, the Stars Tonight show (which has been offered the first Saturday of the month in the past) offers public viewing through the observatory telescope and from the observatory deck – weather permitting. The cost is $10 per person.

7. Tellus Science Museum

Apollo 1 Capsule photo from Rob DiCaterino via Flickr

Located 45 minutes outside of Atlanta (or an hour out of Chattanooga), Tellus Science Museum is a gem at the southern end of the Appalachian Mountains. You might not expect an awesome science museum out here away from bigger cities, but here it is – and that remoteness makes for some great astronomy opportunities.

In addition to the onsite planetarium that is open to the public daily, the Tellus Observatory is a lovely addition for families who want to learn about the stars. The 20-inch telescope is ideal for viewing objects within our solar system, and is open during various astronomy events (published on the museum’s events page here).

8. Museum of Science

Best Observatories in the U.S. - Boston Museum of Science

The Astronomy After Hours program at Boston’s Museum of Science typically run every Thursday evening in July and August, and Fridays in October; the 2024 schedule hasn’t been announced yet, but I think this page will have the details if you want to bookmark it.

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!

The Museum of Science also has a planetarium with some incredible shows; “God, Science, and Our Search for Meaning”

9. 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 to 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. In 2020, the observatory added a 24″ Dyer telescope, which makes for great deep space gazing if you make a visit.

10. Green Bank Observatory

Nestled in the heart of Appalachia in West Virginia – much like Tellus Science Museum – Green Bank Observatory is primarily a research facility, home to the world’s largest fullest steerable radio telescope. But it wouldn’t be on this list if there weren’t great things for visitors to do, too – and that’s where the Science Center comes in!

At the Science Center, there are a few exhibits, but it’s also where you can arrange a bus tour that will take you out toward the telescopes and teach you about them; there’s a 3-mile self-guided walking option too if you prefer to get some exercise after the long drive to reach the facility. Additionally, there’s a gift shop and cafe so you can make at least a half-day of your visit.

Bonus: National Air & Space Museum

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

As of late 2023, the Phoebe Waterman Haas Public Observatory is closed indefinitely as part of a large-scale renovation project. It is expected to re-open in 2026. I chose to leave it on the list as a “bonus,” as it remains one of the highest-rated observatory experiences in the U.S.

There you go: 10 of the most incredible and best observatories in the U.S. which you can plan a visit to 2023. Which of these observatories would you most like to visit this year? Let me know in the comments!

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Valerie is the founder and editor of Space Tourism Guide. She grew up in Alaska, has lived across the U.S., and traveled around the world to enjoy the night sky from many different perspectives. Join her on this journey to explore space right here on earth.

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