When it comes to stargazing in the United States, it’s harder to see the stars the further east you go. Unfortunately, more extensive development has led to a lot more light pollution; this in turn has made it hard to enjoy a night of stargazing since you can see fewer stars near urban areas – and must drive further to reach the few pockets of truly dark sky that remain.
So it goes for most of the Eastern Seaboard from Maine to Florida, though there are a few nice places for stargazing in Virginia – especially if you’re willing to travel either to the coast or inland away from cities like Richmond, Arlington, and Virginia Beach.
In this post, I’ll share some of the best spots for stargazing across the Commonwealth of Virginia. If you call Virginia home, you likely have heard of a few of these – though you may discover some new areas worth exploring on your next stargazing adventure. If you’re willing to hop in the car and spend a night under the stars, these are the places to go, from the coast to the Appalachians.
Featured photo credit: John Brighenti via Flickr
Assateague Island National Seashore
Assateague Island National Seashore’s scenery is worth visiting by itself – prepare to see wild ponies and horses roaming freely. The gorgeous national park features miles and miles of beaches that make it a phenomenal place for stargazing in Virginia. It offers multiple camping locations and options, including oceanfront tent camping during the summer. During the day, you can take a dip in the ocean or explore its winding trails through marshland, dunes, and pine forest.
This is also one of the great spots to see a launch from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility when one of those is happening.
Grayson Highlands State Park
Photo credits: Virginia State Parks via Flickr
Most people travel to Grayson Highlands State Park for its alpine scenery. However, you should add it to your list of Virginia stargazing spots.
The national park governs 4,502 acres and is home to alpine-like peaks that reach over 5,000 feet high. During the day, you can explore nature and even fish on the mountain streams. The park’s remoteness and size guarantee you’ll find a nice spot to glance at celestial objects. You can also stay over for the next day as the park offers lovely cottages and cabins. Adventurers can sign up for a camping night full of astronomical fun!
Those looking to experience prime stargazing in Virginia should head to Highland County. Located east of the Mississippi River, Highland County is a refuge of solitude and nature brimming with unspoiled nature and breathtaking scenery due to its small population. Thanks to its low light pollution, Highland is a top dark sky area to discover constellations and planets.
The Charlottesville Astronomical Society hosts several astronomical events here throughout the year. You can check out their Facebook page or simply grab your telescope and venture into the dark sky on your own.
James River State Park
Protecting the night sky in Virginia has become an important goal for many authorities and communities. Perhaps, that explains how Virginia has the most Dark Sky Parks east of the Mississippi, with the James River State Park as one of them. The gorgeous park received its Dark Sky Park designation in 2019.
In conjunction with Lora and Val Callahan, the park staff worked for years to introduce measures that reduce light pollution, including changing light bulbs making special light fixtures and posters to promote the dark sky program to their visitors. You can check out the park alone or join one of the programs with astronomy groups to see the dark sky.
Lake Anna State Park
Lake Anna State Park is another place worth planning a trip to catch a glimpse of the dark sky. The pro is highly popular during the summer months when locals flock to swim at the lovely beach or get their legs moving by hiking a few trails.
Since it is fairly rural, you can find decent spots for stargazing at the park as long as you avoid popular areas. The park is open from 7 a.m. to dusk, so you don’t have to spend the night watching the stars. If you want to spend a few days here, you can stay overnight in one of their cabins, yurts, or lodges. Camping is also available.
Meadows of Dan
Located in Patrick County, Meadows of Dan is a fantastic (yet mostly unknown) place to go stargazing in Virginia. Meadows of Dan is a tiny community with lots of rural charm. Outdoor lovers can check out Fairy Stone State Park for their stargazing sessions. The park features cabins, yurts, lodges, campgrounds, and plenty of darkness.
If luxury is more your thing, book a night at the Primland Resort, a luxury boutique resort in the middle of a 12,000-acre mountain estate. The resort has an on-site Observatory Dome and hosts the Come Starwalk at Primland programs using their Celestron CGE Pro 1400 telescope to show guests the night sky.
Natural Bridge State Park
While you may have heard of Natural Bridges in Utah, it turns out that Virginia has its own location of the same site– and it too is a great spot for stargazing!
As the name suggests, natural bridges are pretty much Natural Bridge State Park’s main attraction. That couldn’t be further from the truth, though! The park is home to pristine dark skies. In 2007, Natural Bridge State Park became the first International Dark Sky Park, thanks to its commitment to protecting the beauty of the dark sky. There’s no shortage of space to go stargazing at the park.
The trails are open day and night, and you can set your telescope pretty much anywhere you want. You can also stargaze from their parking lots and campgrounds or attend the stargazing programs park rangers host in spring and summer.
Natural Chimneys Park
Daytime landscapes at Natural Chimneys Park are breathtaking, with towering limestone formations creating dramatic geologic views. The night is no less beautiful. Natural Chimneys Park enjoys pitch-dark skies and low light pollution, thanks to the Allegheny Mountains in Augusta County, which block much of the light coming from nearby communities. Seeing the stars against the limestone formations is a show you don’t want to miss. You can stay overnight to make the most of your visit to the park and enjoy their recreation opportunities.
Rappahannock County Park
Rappahannock County Park is another of Virginia’s dark sky parks. Designated in 2019, Rappahannock County Park reached a “silver tier” level of darkness. For an entire year, park volunteer staff measured the quality of the park’s night sky, organized several educational dark sky events, and engaged in a collaborative effort with the Rappahannock League for Environmental Protection (RLEP) to replace unshielded outdoor lighting in the County with dark-sky compliant fixtures. Besides beautiful skies, the park offers a quiet area for picnicking, hiking, outdoor activities such as butterfly counting, birding, and trout fishing.
Shenandoah National Park
Shenandoah National Park might not be as dark as other parks in the area. However, their night sky is definitely one of their best assets. The park offers tons of activities for stargazers or astronomy enthusiasts. You have the Exploring The Skies astronomy presentations, Night Skies programs with amateur astronomers, and Twilight Hiking with Shenandoah Mountain Guides. They also host a Night Sky Festival. If you rather stargaze in solitude, the Big Meadows area, near the Rapidan Fire Road, and the amphitheater in the Skyland area make good places for stargazing.
If you want to go stargazing in Shenandoah National Park, I have a whole guide to help you plan your trip.
Sky Meadows State Park
Sky Meadows State Park is Virginia’s newest International Dark Sky Park, having earned its designation in 2021. The 1,862-acre park has become a unique resource of dark sky near to an urban environment – it is about an hour outside of the Washington, D.C. metro region.
Luckily, the park’s astronomy program has returned in winter 2022. You can check out their Astronomy for Everyone on the events calendar to see their upcoming events on February 5, March 5, April 30, and May 28.
Staunton River State Park
Staunton River State Park was Virginia’s first International Dark Sky Park in 2015. Similar to other areas, the park’s staff went to great lengths to ensure they diminished light pollution. They have a fantastic outdoor lighting policy that minimizes light pollution, by outreach to the local community, and by hosting and promoting the Staunton River Star Party for guests to enjoy stargazing and camping. Every year, the park hosts an annual star party, which more than 140 visitors from across the region attend.
Have any questions about these places for stargazing in Virginia – or know of others I should add to this list? Let me know in the comments!