Among the states of the Southwestern U.S., New Mexico is often overlooked – especially when it comes to stargazing and astronomy. While professionals and amateur enthusiasts know that the Land of Enchantment is great by day and has astounding dark skies, most folks who just want to see the stars are more likely to end up looking at sites in Arizona, Colorado, and Utah. And yeah, those states are great – but there’s no experience quite like stargazing in New Mexico.
From ancient ruins to geological wonders, New Mexico provides the perfect backdrop to look up and admire the wonders of the universe. While stargazing in New Mexico, you’ll get a sense of the vast galactic clock that has been ticking since before time – and the marks that have been left by planetary forces and humans too.
If you’re planning a trip to New Mexico and curious about stargazing in this fascinating but oft-overlooked state, read on. You’ll discover over twenty of the best stargazing sites across the state, from state and national parks to places where you can join a star party.
Featured photo credit: John Fowler via Flickr
1. Aztec Ruins National Monument
While its name suggests a connection with Aztecs, nothing could be further from the truth. Located in northwestern New Mexico, the Aztec Ruins National Monument was the home of the ancient people of the Southwest, the Ancestral Puebloans. The site features stunning preserved structures that the Pueblo Indians built and inhabited, including a 900-year old ancestral Pueblo Great House of over 400 masonry rooms. Puebloans had a deep connection with the cosmos, and their constructions are a testament to that. Puebloans built the Aztec West great house in alignment with the solstices. Visitors can observe the alignment of the north wall of Aztec West with the sunset position on the western horizon (check website for dates.)
Since Aztec Ruins National Monument is far from any major cities, it also makes an excellent spot to go stargazing in New Mexico. Seeing how the Milky Way rises into the night sky above ancestral Pueblo ruins is an unforgettable experience.
2. Bandelier National Monument
Bandelier National Monument is another top New Mexico stargazing spot. The site protects over 33,000 acres of gorgeous rugged canyon and mesa country, plus evidence of the Ancestral Pueblo people, who lived here from approximately 1150 CE to 1550 CE.
Bandelier National Monument has amazing night sky programs throughout the year. They last an hour and take place at the Juniper Campground Amphitheater parking lot. Rangers and astronomy volunteers share all their knowledge about the cosmos and help guests get the best views of the stars. During the day, you can explore the relics of the ancient communities that once inhabited these lands. There’s wildlife galore besides the archaeological site (you can even see tarantulas in autumn!) at Bandelier National Monument.
3. Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge
Founded in 1939, Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge is a top spot to watch the migration of the Sandhill cranes in the fall. Many people don’t know that it is also an excellent place to go stargazing in New Mexico. The Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge has 57,331 acres of wilderness. So you won’t have trouble finding dark areas to set up your telescope and surf the night sky.
If you’re into birdwatching, make sure you visit the refuge during the day. You’ll find a plethora of wildlife roaming around, including 358 species of birds. The Refuge is famous for being home to tens of thousands of cranes, geese, and ducks who winter here each year.
4. Capulin Volcano National Monument
Capulin Volcano National Monument sits in one of the darker parts of the U.S. It offers stunning views of New Mexico dark skies. The International Dark-Sky Association named Capulin Volcano National Monument a Gold Tier Dark Sky Park in 2016. During the summer months, their staff holds stargazing sessions on most Saturday nights. They also hold dark-sky viewing sessions during Fall, Winter, and Spring, although you should check their website to see the specific dates. It’s perfect if you’re a beginner since they provide you with giant telescopes to see planets, galaxies, nebulae, and other amazing sights. Depending on the time of the year, you can see the Milky Way spread out over Capulin.
They also have a Dark Sky Viewing Area open all night for using telescopes or binoculars if you’d like to do a stargazing session on your own. If you can, join a Ranger for a moonlight hike of the volcano rim! The volcanic rim offers panoramic views of four different states and one of the darkest night skies in the country.
5. Carlsbad Caverns National Park
Set in the Chihuahuan Desert, Carlsbad Caverns is famous for its limestone caves, rock formations, and hiking trails. Beneath the park is 83 individual caves, with the Carlsbad Cavern as the main attraction. Carlsbad Cavern features an impressive limestone chamber: the Big Room. The largest chamber in North America, the Big Room is almost 4000 feet long, 625 feet wide, and 255 feet high.
However, not all the action happens beneath the park. When the sun sets, rangers invite everyone to join the Star Walks and the meteor shower viewing.
They also host Moon Hikes for those who want to see the Earth’s only natural satellite in all its splendor. While they are not holding any right now, the park also hosts Telescope Programs during the summer months. Make sure you check out their website for any updates.
6. Chaco Culture National Historical Park
Stargazing and studying the night sky isn’t a new activity in Chaco Culture National Historical Park. Chacoan people, a prehistoric Pueblo culture that inhabited these territories, already had a strong relationship with the sky and collected vast knowledge on lunar and solar cosmology. Cosmology was crucial in Chacoans’ lives, and they even erected their buildings in relation to the cycles of the sun and moon. You can easily see this through the buildings’ orientations, internal geometry, and the petroglyphs they carved.
Today, Chaco Culture National Historical Park continues with the stargazing legacy Chacoan people left by protecting its naturally dark night skies. On August 19, 2013, the International Dark-Sky Association designated Chaco Culture an International Dark Sky Park. They host plenty of Night Sky Programs on Friday and Saturday evenings to educate people on the importance of dark skies. Before diving into the telescope viewing, rangers and astronomers give presentations on archaeoastronomy and cultural history.
7. City of Rocks State Park
City of Rocks State Park gets its name from the sculptured rock columns and lanes resembling city streets that make up the landscape. The rocks are the result of a volcanic eruption 34.9 million years ago. However, the stunning landscape with sculptured columns we see today results from water erosion over millions of years.
The park offers activities for every taste, including mountain biking, wildlife viewing, birding, and, of course, stargazing. At an elevation of 5,259 ft, the City of Rocks State Park sits beneath some of the best dark skies in New Mexico. It was the first New Mexico State park to have its own observatory! Inside, there’s a 14’’ Meade Telescope. With the National Public Observatory, The park hosts one Star Party per month. Astronomers give guests laser-guided presentations of the night sky for two hours and invite them to look through the telescope.
8. Clayton Lake State Park & Dinosaur Trackways
Another top spot to go stargazing in New Mexico, Clayton Lake State Park, is New Mexico’s first International Dark Sky Park, earning the title back in 2010. It is for good reason since the park becomes a haven for stargazers at night.
The park is famous for housing over 500 fossilized dinosaur footprints and tail prints and its beautiful eponymous lake. Thanks to its privileged location in the northeastern plains, the park is far from the yellow haze of light pollution that obstructs night sky views. The skies are so pristine that you can even spot constellations like Ursa Major.
For stargazers’ delight, the park opened its observatory in 2006, hosting dark sky parties. It features a 12 x 16-foot building with a retractable roof that houses a computer-operated telescope (12 inch Meade) and remote television monitor so groups can admire the star-studded sky.
9. Cosmic Campground
Amateur astronomers won’t find a better place to hold their stargazing session than Cosmic Campground. Sitting off of U.S. Highway 180, Cosmic Campground is a 3.5-acre site with an important astronomical heritage. In 2016, this small campground became the first International Dark Sky Sanctuary in North America. As you might know, sanctuaries are the darkest and most remote locations to stargaze. There’s very little artificial light which ensures the dark skies can emerge in full force.
While you’re free to find a spot and set up your telescope, Cosmic Campground hosts star parties during the summer, where professional and amateur astronomers show visitors celestial phenomena. The night sky is so dark that visitors can see the Milky setting over Cosmic Campground with the naked eye.
10. Dark Skies New Mexico
Dark Skies New Mexico is an astronomer’s dream. No matter your level, if you have a passion for the night sky, you can’t miss this place. Located in a remote area of Animas, NM, Dark Skies New Mexico has no light or atmospheric pollution. Its pitch-dark skies allow stargazers to see the stars like they never have before. So much so that Dark Skies New Mexico has become a popular destination for astrophotographers who chase the perfect shot of the Milky Way.
Once you arrive (make sure you follow the directions on their website), find a comfortable spot to set up your telescope. However, the naked eye can observe the celestial wonders above without a telescope. The hosts offer the main ranch house, studio apartments, and RV hookups for guests who want to spend the night. During the day, the owner provides plenty of fun activities, like horseback riding.
11. El Malpais National Monument
With over two-thirds of the monument protected as proposed wilderness, it is easy to find large swaths of land unhindered by light pollution.
Dramatic ancient lava flows, towering cinder cones, and underground lava tubes are the first things that come to mind when thinking of the El Malpais National Monument. However, this location also sits under some of the darkest skies in New Mexico. El Malpais National Monument comprises 114,276 acres, and over two-thirds of those acres are wilderness. As you can see, you won’t have trouble finding plenty of areas offering pristine night skies.
If your main goal is to observe the Milky Way, the Lava Falls, Big Tubes, and El Calderon trailheads provide some of the best seats there. You can also participate in the monument’s ranger-led night sky programs or star parties. Check out their website to learn about upcoming night sky events.
12. El Morro National Monument
El Morro National Monument is a prime spot for history buffs who want to revisit the relics of travelers who passed through it during their journeys. Thanks to its oasis-like water source, El Morro became a popular resting place for travelers who left their marks. You can see over 2,000 signatures, dates, messages, and petroglyphs that Ancestral Puebloans, Spanish and American travelers carved over the sandstone bluff.
At night, El Morro National Monument becomes a hotspot for stargazers, and not by mere chance. Its remote location, clean air, and high elevation provide excellent conditions to surf the night sky.
Also, El Morro has put a lot of effort into protecting its dark skies and educating visitors about their importance. In December 2019, the International Dark-Sky Association named El Morro a certified International Dark Sky Park (IDSP). The park hosts numerous night-sky events throughout the year and plenty of stargazing parties to see the Milky Way stretching across the sky.
13. Etscorn Campus Observatory
The exceptional Etscorn Campus Observatory is at the New Mexico Tech campus. The observatory is home to the New Mexico Tech Astronomy Club. This student group focuses on operating the observatory and hosting private and public star parties throughout the year, with the annual Enchanted Sky Star Party as the most popular.
Like most observatories, the campus authorities built the observatory strategically, as far as possible from light pollution, making it one of the best spots for stargazing in New Mexico. The observatory features outstanding facilities. They have numerous telescopes, including a 20-inch Dobsonian inside a 15-foot dome and a Celestron C-14 on a Paramount GT-1100 mount.
14. Fort Union National Monument
Located north of Watrous in Mora County, Fort Union National Monument is another excellent spot for stargazing. It sits within a sweeping valley of short grass prairie and preserves the second of three forts the U.S. Army constructed in 1851.
Besides preserving the monument, the site has excelled at preserving the quality of its dark skies. In 2019, Fort Union National Monument became an International Dark Sky Park. As such, Fort Union hosts interpretative dark-sky programs featuring both naked-eye astronomy and observations through telescopes throughout the year. It is an excellent spot to stargaze if you have children, with park rangers inviting families to surf the star-filled sky over the Monument. During colder months, you’ll witness an impressive sky full of stars and the Milky Way above the adobe ruins at Fort Union.
15. Hyde Memorial State Park
Hyde Memorial State Park was New Mexico’s first state park and is a popular spot for stargazing, hiking, and camping. Despite being located just north of Santa Fe, it’s still an excellent place for stargazing. The Sangre de Cristo Mountains act as a barrier, mitigating the light pollution coming from Santa Fe. Unlike other parks, Hyde Memorial State Park is a stunning place to visit any season, and it has fun activities to do year-round. Hyde Memorial State Park is also a nice place to spend the night. The park offers excellent group facilities and fifty campsites along the Little Tesuque Creek.
16. Magdalena Ridge Observatory
Located at 10,600 feet in the Magdalena Mountains of the Cibola National Forest, there’s no doubt that the Magdalena Ridge Observatory offers exceptional views of the night sky. Magdalena Ridge Observatory is a multi-use research and educational observatory. The New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology (NMT) conducts classical astronomical research with the observatory’s 2.4-meter telescope.
The Magdalena Ridge Observatory opens its door to the public and offers tours and stargazing events throughout the year. Bear in mind that they’re not hosting any events due to Covid regulations. Still, keep an eye on their website for further updates.
17. Rio Grande del Norte National Monument
Rio Grande del Norte National Monument is a top spot to go stargazing in New Mexico. Located at an elevation of 7,000 feet, the monument sits far enough from light-polluted cities. It has over 242,555-acres of rugged landscape, so you have a plethora of spots to set your telescope.
Besides stargazing opportunities, Rio Grande del Norte National Monument offers a ton of recreational activities. Wildlife viewing, rafting, fishing, hiking, and mountain biking are more popular ones. If you want to spend the night, The Wild Rivers Recreation Area at the confluence of the Río Grande and Red River includes many campgrounds. The Orilla Verde Recreation Area also has campgrounds near the river’s edge.
18. Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument
As you can see, New Mexico is home to exquisite night skies all around. Perhaps, that’s why you can find a lot of International Dark Sky Parks here. It turns out that Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument is also one of them. The International Dark-Sky Association designated the central New Mexico monument as an International Dark Sky Park in 2016. Part of why the monument enjoys pristine dark skies is due to the Manzano Mountains, which curtails the skyglow and light pollution of Albuquerque and metropolitan areas along the I-25 corridor produce.
Salinas Pueblo Missions preserves 17th-century Spanish mission churches, which means you can enjoy ancient history and exceptional dark skies simultaneously. Salinas hosts many dark-sky events at its three archaeological sites—Abó, Gran Quivira, and Quarai. The Gran Quivira has the best seats to see the sky, and you can easily spot stars, planets, and the Milky Way with the naked eye.
19. Valles Caldera National Preserve
Located at the heart of the Jemez Mountains in northern New Mexico, Valles Caldera National Preserve is every outdoor lover’s dream. The result of a volcanic eruption 1.25 million years ago, the preserve features huge mountain meadows, abundant wildlife, meandering streams, and stunning night sky views. It’s one of the newest International Dark Sky Parks, earning its designation in 2021.
Unlike other locations, the preserve offers regular, ongoing 24-hour access to stargazing via six large pull-outs along Highway 4. It also hosts many astronomy programs and nighttime recreation activities, like full moon hikes. They post their events on the website’s calendar and via social media.
20. Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge
The Southwest’s first urban wildlife refuge, Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge, is a prime spot to go stargazing. Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge is just 7 miles south of the city center of Albuquerque, and it has served as an urban oasis for both wildlife and people. The refuge comprises 560 acres of restored habitat for wildlife habitat and migratory birds. Since its opening, its main goal has been to prove that people and wildlife can coexist sustainably.
A few years ago, the preserve also wanted to show that people can depend less on lighting to have an enriching outdoor experience. The refuge staff has installed warm white and yellow lights to reduce the unnatural blue light that deters nocturnal animals. They also installed motion sensors and shields on light fixtures.
21. Very Large Array
Located on the Plains of San Agustin, the Very Large Array is a world-leading astronomical radio observatory. It has 27 radio antennas layed out in a Y-shaped array. Each antenna has a diameter of 82 feet. Given the antenna’s size and disposition, they act like a single telescope, stretching 22 miles across. The Very Large Array Radio Telescope facility is only two hours away from Albuquerque.
Its construction began in 1973 after NRAO astronomers realized they needed an array of radio dishes to complement the work of their giant, single-dish telescopes. While they’re not offering tours due to Covid regulations, the Very Large Array provides a self-guided walking tour to explore large, informative signs and the base of one of the giant dish antennas. It used to be open to the public for tours on the first and third Saturdays of the month.
22. White Sands National Park
The 275 square miles of glistening wave-like dunes of gypsum sand are enough reason to visit White Sands National Park. Hiking through the rippling dunes is an otherworldly experience. However, hiking isn’t the only memorable experience in White Sands National Park. The park is also home to incredible, unobstructed views of the night skies.
White Sands National Park offers primitive backcountry camping in the heart of the dunes for stargazers who want to spend the night there. While it fits more adventurous stargazers, it might be worth considering since the park’s operating hours vary by season. Those who want to stay late without camping must request a permit to stay late and watch the night sky.
Do you know of any other great places for stargazing in New Mexico, or have questions about these ones? Let me know in the comments!