The Best Vacation Spots for Stargazing
Mackinaw City, Michigan
The Headlands was declared as one of only 10 official Dark Sky Parks in the world by the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA), an organization dedicated to preserving the nighttime environment. Get there at dusk to catch monthly sunset picnics led by resident star expert Mary Stewart Adams. These unique campfire meals are free and feature folk and fairy tales that she's tailored to each night's celestial makeup.
Grab a Bite: Sample Great Lakes whitefish, the region's specialty, in the Chippewa Room at Audie's Restaurant in Mackinaw City. Delivered fresh daily, it's available broiled, planked, stuffed, encrusted, cajun or Asian-style ($22).
The Mauna Kea Visitor Information Station atop the 9,300-foot perch of Hawaii's tallest mountain, Mauna Kea, hosts a nightly stargazing program featuring a cosmic tour of the universe -- with an astronomer pointing out stars and constellations with a green laser beam. Don't miss the 13,796-foot summit: It's home to 13 of the world's largest telescopes. Bonus: The show is free!
Grab a Bite: On the drive up to Mauna Kea, detour to nearby Waimea to try the regional cuisine of Merriman's, which gets much of its produce and seafood from local sources. The spicy fish taco with guacamole and charred tomato salsa are a must ($13).
Founded in 1894, Lowell Observatory still houses its first permanent telescope, the Clark, used to discover the expanding universe. Each year, 80,000 visitors come to learn how the solar system formed. The lesson features a multimedia show, combining stargazing and the music of Mannheim Steamroller. Flagstaff became the IDA's first international Dark Sky City after enforcing ordinances to reduce artificial-light glare with great effects. The lesson is $11 for adults and $4 for kids.
Grab a Bite: Bigfoot BBQ is a funky dive with neon lights and gas-station decor. Try the award-winning barbecue or a Smokin' Bulldawg: smoked andouille sausage topped with brisket, Bigfoot sauce, onions and cheese ($9).
At Cherry Springs State Park, serious stargazers often stay up all night taking in the 360-degree views of Astronomy Observation Field. Strict no-lights-allowed rules improve conditions and make it ideal for spotting falling stars -- meteor showers can bring as many as 60 an hour! At the Night Sky Viewing area, visitors can revel in views of the Milky Way and identify other constellations with the backlit summer-sky map. A view from the Astronomy Observation Field is $12.
Grab a Bite: Brick House Café & Deli, a mom-and-pop establishment in nearby Galeton (814-435-2444,) offers burgers, wraps and stuffed sandwiches. Try the hot mesquite honey-roasted turkey panini ($7) with homemade chili ($4).
Bryce Canyon, Utah
At Bryce Canyon National Park, the canyon's pink and orange rock formations create a surreal backdrop for viewing 7,500 stars from this park's remote location. Need help? Bryce Canyon's Dark Rangers -- expert volunteers and staff -- are at the ready to help you find the Big Dipper. Don't miss the 12th Annual Astronomy Festival (May 17 - 20), where visitors can see model-rocket launches and peer through more than 50 telescopes, with a grand finale of a rare annular solar eclipse, in which the moon is this close to covering the sun. Take in the views from your car for $25 for a weeklong pass.
Grab a Bite: Pizza Place, a local favorite, is a 10-minute drive away. Try the BBQ Chicken Pizza Family Special ($25) on the outdoor patio for wow-worthy views of Aquarius Plateau.
At Home Backyard Stars Tips
Have a stellar celestial night without getting in the car!
Tip #1:Download a smartphone app to identify stars, or grab a star-finder wheel like Night Sky by David Chandler Company ($12, davidchandler .com for stores).
Tip #2: Head to the backyard with a flashlight, a thermos of hot cocoa and a cozy blanket, like the Zip-n-Go, which has a waterproof underside ($59, zipngoblanket.com)
Tip #3: Cover your flashlight with red cloth to cut glare and help your eyes adjust to the dark, then "touch" the stars with a MiracleBeam Green Laser Pointer ($30, amazon.com).