The ultimate Pacific Northwest stargazing road trip
This guide first appeared on Roadtrippers in May 2019.
Encompassing the areas of British Columbia, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington, the Pacific Northwest is a vast region of the Americas with towering mountains, awe-inspiring volcanoes, and seemingly endless coastal beaches. The Pacific Northwest is notorious for its natural beauty—and its cloudy, rainy weather. Don’t let that stop you from visiting if you love stargazing, though. During the warm weather months of June through September, the Pacific Northwest is blessed with clearer skies and you can take full advantage of them at countless hideaway spots with pockets of dark sky overhead.
This meandering stargazing itinerary through the Pacific Northwest will lead you to dark skies and the natural wonders that help protect them from urban development and light pollution. When planning this trip, remember to pay attention to moon phases; to get the best stargazing experience, you’ll want to put the New Moon right in the middle of your itinerary.
1. McDonald Park
It’s rare to find a great pocket of dark sky near a major city. The McDonald Park Dark Sky Preserve is one such area, less than an hours’ drive from Vancouver. The Fraser Valley Astronomy Society hosts regular events in this park along the Fraser River. The best night to visit is when the astronomers from the group are present, so you can enjoy a guided tour of the constellations and other visible objects. This all makes it an ideal starting point for your Pacific Northwest stargazing road trip – and an easy beginners’ night to get acquainted with the night sky.
Because of its close proximity to urban development, you have plenty of options for overnight parking and amenities before you set out for more rural stargazing spots.
2. Lake Wenatchee State Park
Next, we’ll cross the Canada-U.S. border and head into the heart of the Cascade mountains to reach Lake Wenatchee. During that time, even the highway is a pleasant route past the towering northern Cascades and rolling fields of the Skagit Valley as you approach Seattle. Once you turn east toward your destination, give yourself time to make the winding climb up Highway 2.
Lake Wenatchee is a favorite spot for Seattleites who want to get away from the city lights and experience the dark skies in the mountains. By day you can enjoy the panoramic views of those mountains reflected in the lake, and see the stars reflected twice on clear nights of stargazing from the shores.
Don’t forget to take a quick afternoon trip to nearby Leavenworth, a Bavarian-inspired town that will inspire you to plan a European road trip next.
3. Johnston Ridge Observatory
Johnston Ridge Observatory is the primary visitor center for Mount St. Helens. This notorious volcano is located in southwest Washington, and brings out travelers to hike the slopes, learn about geologic history, explore the lava tubes that cut through the mountain, and even go stargazing. Because of the volcano’s 1980 eruption and ongoing minor activity, there is virtually no development in the area, and light pollution is minimal. (In fact, any light pollution you will see comes all the way from Portland, Oregon!)
While you can’t find overnight accommodation at Johnston Ridge itself, there are great options along Interstate 5, which is the main arterial from Seattle to Portland. From I-5 it takes about an hour to drive the out-and-back Highway 504 to Johnston Ridge, so keep an eye on sunset and drive times to plan the optimal stargazing session without staying up all night.
4. Trillium Lake
Once you cross into Oregon, turn east away from Portland’s bright lights toward Mt. Hood. Mt. Hood is another of the Cascade Mountains’ volcanoes (like Mt. Baker, Mt. Rainier, Mount St. Helens, and Mt. Adams, all of which you can see along this route), and Trillium Lake is a good vantage point for the mountain—by day and by night.
Trillium Lake is a popular stargazing spot from Portland, because the lake reflects the starry sky and Mt. Hood on a good night. The only overnight options at Trillium Lake are non-electric if you’re up for roughing it one night; otherwise, there are good accommodations in the towns east of Portland.
5. Cannon Beach
Bypassing Portland entirely, head west to the Pacific Coast. Cannon Beach has a bit more light pollution than other stops on this itinerary, but it has plenty of amenities and is a good halfway point for a night or two. You have multiple options of where to park for the night and can re-stock any supplies you need in this seaside city’s markets and shops.
The most famous sight in Cannon Beach is towering Haystack Rock, a massive formation just off the coast. This rock is a popular spot for stargazing and astrophotography (as well as daytime photography), so on a clear night you can expect to see others enjoying the view, too.
6. Crater Lake National Park
Crater Lake is a volcanic crater, not caused by a meteorite, but don’t let that keep you away. Like Johnston Ridge Observatory in Washington, Crater Lake is a pristine stargazing location—but there are almost no amenities in the area, so you’ll have to park and drive over an hour to reach the lake for stargazing (and an hour back out that night once you’ve finished admiring the night sky). Popular daytime vantage points around Crater Lake also make for great stargazing spots. See the stars twice: once in the sky, and again reflected in the lake’s calm waters.
7. Alvord Desert
Turning inland, it’s time to leave the Pacific coast behind. This also means leaving behind the big city lights of Vancouver, Seattle, and Portland. Eastern Oregon and central Idaho, where you’re headed next, have far less urban development and thus less light pollution.
As its name suggests, the Alvord Desert is an astonishingly empty part of southeast Oregon. At night, you can see the full bowl of the sky overhead with minimal light interference. And since this destination isn’t on most road trip itineraries, any company you have will likely be from fellow stargazing enthusiasts.
The nearest formal overnight options are over an hour away, but you can find spots to set up for the night on the surrounding roadsides. Be aware that as a desert, the Alvord can be scorching by day and cool at night. Bundle up to make the most of your stargazing session without catching a chill.
8. Craters of the Moon National Monument
Any place with “moon” in the title is surely good for stargazing. The otherworldly landscape of Craters of the Moon National Monument & Preserve brings visitors by day to see the strange rock formations; Apollo astronauts even trained here as part of their pre-flight preparations.
At night, Craters of the Moon is an excellent stargazing spot since it is federally protected land and there’s virtually no development in the area. Your best options will be along Highway 26 and near the visitor center at the northern end of the preserve.
9. Central Idaho Dark Sky Reserve
Saving the best for last, end your Pacific Northwest stargazing road trip in the Central Idaho Dark Sky Reserve. Rather than a single location, this dark sky reserve encompasses parts of the Sawtooth Mountains and even the communities of Ketchum and Sun Valley. It’s a great spot to stop for a few nights as you catch your breath from this itinerary.
Within the dark sky reserve, you can drive or hike to secluded mountainous spots or calm lakeshores to watch the stars whirl overhead. This is currently the only International Dark-Sky Association certified reserve in the Pacific Northwest, so it’s one of the darkest areas of protected night sky in the whole region.
Take this trip yourself
Making your way from Canada down through Idaho offers breathtaking beauty and natural bounty. In addition to checking off some national and state parks, this route provides ample opportunity to get your fill of astronomy and experience many starry nights (we think even van Gogh would be impressed with this one).
Photo Credit: Kris Wiktor / Shutterstock; Jerry Meaden / Wikimedia Commons; Bala / Wikimedia Commons; Reywas92 / Wikimedia Commons; Tay Ham Photography / Shutterstock; Marisa Estivill / Shutterstock; Wollertz / Shutterstock; Sosobra / Wikimedia Commons; Acroterion / Wikimedia Commons