When was the last time you truly saw the stars? Looked for shooting stars and named the constellations? Woke up early enough to see a spectacular sunrise? Depending on where you live, you may have ample opportunity for stargazing, as well as great sunset and sunrise viewing year-round. If you have a harder time getting away from the bright skylines of your hometown or city, you’re in good company—as few as one in 10 Americans live in areas where they can see the estimated 2,500 stars that should be visible under normal conditions.
If you’re craving that delicious feeling of solitude one gets as the dawn breaks over a new day or as you stare up into an infinite universe, consider a trip to the Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon or Zion National Park. These national parks and nearby monuments boast some of the darkest skies remaining in the 48 contiguous United States and will mesmerize you with their wealth of stars and their stunning sunrises and sunsets. Here, even without the aid of binoculars or a telescope, your naked eye can view countless stars and the Milky Way—even some planets. In the right conditions, you may even see the rings of Saturn with standard binoculars.
Here, we take a look at the best spots for sunset and sunrise views, as well as stargazing in our favorite Southwest national parks. Ready to go? Check out this canyonlands trip with Natural Habitat Adventures, which visits these parks and more.
The Best Places for Grand Canyon Pictures and Nighttime Views
One of the most iconic things you can do in the Grand Canyon is get up early enough to watch the sun rise or extend your day until the sun sets. And there is no dearth of outstanding viewpoints for either time of day. The following are some of the best spots to take in sunrise and sunset in the Grand Canyon:
South Rim Sunrise
- Mather Point, in Grand Canyon Village
- Yavapai Point
- Yaki Point
South Rim Sunset
- Pima Point (also offers a great view of the Colorado River)
- Mohave Point
- Hopi Point
- Yavapai Point
North Rim Sunrise & Sunset
- Cape Royal
- The Grand Canyon Lodge and its patio
- Bright Angel Point
- Point Imperial
East Rim Sunrise & Sunset
- Horseshoe Bend
As for stargazing and photos of the Grand Canyon at night, you’re in luck. The park was designated an International Dark Sky Park in 2019, recognizing that it has some of the most pristine dark skies in the world. The hottest spots for stargazing at Grand Canyon are:
- Moran Point
- Lipan Point
- Mather Point
- Desert View Watchtower
- Bright Angel Point
Bryce Canyon Sunrises, Sunsets & Stargazing
Look up—in Bryce Canyon, you can see as many as 7,500 stars on a moonless night. Here in Utah’s fourth national park to receive a dark-sky certification from the International Dark Sky Association, you can gaze up from the canyon’s otherworldly red-rock hoodoos into the Milky Way, stretching across the sky as far as you can see. Look for Venus and Jupiter, sometimes shining brightly enough to cast a shadow. Some of the best viewpoints are:
- Sunrise Point (northern side of Bryce Amphitheater and as lovely for sunset as it is for sunrise time)
- Sunset Point (also great for sunrise)
- Thor’s Hammer
- Inspiration Point
- Bryce Point
- Paria View
Stargazing is taken seriously here, with thrice-weekly astronomy programs during the spring, summer and fall presented by the park’s Astronomy Ranger and volunteers. During most of these sessions, you can stargaze with provided telescopes. Amateur astronomers, take note: You may like to visit during Bryce Canyon’s annual Astronomy Festival.
Where to Catch the Best Zion National Park Sunrises and Sunsets (and Where to See Stars)
In 2021, Zion National Park joined nearby parks in becoming a certified International Dark Sky Park—which recognizes the park’s exceptional night skies as well as astronomy-based interpretive programming provided to visitors. The park has installed night-friendly fixtures at the Zion Canyon Visitor Center, Zion Human History Museum, Zion Lodge and campgrounds that cast light downward instead of up into the sky, further improving Zion National Park’s stargazing experiences.
For stargazing and viewing the sunrise and sunset, Zion National Park visitors should check out the following:
- Canyon Junction Bridge
- The Watchman Trail
- Canyon Observation Point (requires a hike in and out, but well worth it)
- Angel’s Landing/Big Bend
- Canyon Overlook
- The park museum’s patio (also good for sunrise—just move to the back patio for the best sunrise views of the Temples and Tower)
- Pa’rus Trail
- South and Watchman campgrounds
- Kolob Canyons Viewpoint
Tips for Sunrise and Sunset Pictures and Nighttime Photography
Now that you know where to find the best sunrise, sunset and star views, here’s what to know about capturing the best photos. Check out this webinar for more nighttime photography know-how and this webinar on photography in the American Southwest.
- Come before when the sky is darkest, the week of the new moon or the week prior to the new moon.
- Check the sunset and sunrise time so you can plan your arrival accordingly, particularly if there is a hike involved or if it’s a particularly touristed spot.
- Consider arriving up to 90 minutes before sunset and staying at least 10 minutes afterward for the best views.
- Check the weather beforehand, particularly overcast conditions and rain (but remember that dramatic cloud formations can add great depth to your photos and rain saturates the amazing red and orange colors of the desert and canyons).
- Bring a tripod if possible—this will help you maximize the available light.
- Bring a headlamp for safely finding your way back to your vehicle after dark (or to the sunrise point in the dark).
- Check the astronomical viewing forecast to determine when it is best to view the night sky.
- Bring a star chart or a planisphere to help you find the constellations.
- Use a headlamp with a red light, which is best for night vision (and what astronomers use).
- Bring a wide-angle lens (anywhere between 16 and 24), particularly useful when attempting to catch the wide amphitheater of Bryce Canyon.
Intrigued by the wondrous light, dramatic views and endless night skies of the American Southwest? Load up your photo gear and take advantage of the canyonlands and these International Dark Sky regions, protected as such so that we may reflect upon our tiny part in geological history.