Your Yellowstone bucket list might include wildlife watching in Lamar Valley, seeing Old Faithful erupt and strolling past Mammoth Hot Springs’ travertine terraces, but is stargazing on your list? Thanks to a lack of light pollution, Yellowstone National Park has some of the most beautiful night skies you’ll ever encounter. On clear nights, the skies overhead are filled with thousands of stars. As a bonus, when the sun sets the crowds disperse giving you an unparalleled sense of solitude at some of the park’s most iconic features.
Read on to learn all the best stargazing tips like when to go, and how to see the stars without leaving your glamping tent at Under Canvas Yellowstone (www.undercanvas.com/camps/yellowstone/).
Can You See the Milky Way from Yellowstone?
While any night without clouds is worth checking out the starry skies, there are a few times throughout the year that are more spectacular than others. April through October, the Milky Way is visible over the park, and you can usually spot it with your naked eye. Look at the calendar and choose a night with a new moon (or as close to it as possible) when the night sky is darkest and the stars illuminate. Download an app like PhotoPills which will show you when the galactic core (the part of the Milky Way with the most contrast) will rise and where to look in the sky.
Another great time to stargaze in the park is during a meteor shower. The Perseid meteor shower in mid-August is usually one of the highest concentration shows of the year. Chances are you’ll see dozens of meteors if you catch the peak of the shower on a clear night. This is also one of the warmest times of year in Yellowstone, meaning you can enjoy stargazing without being too cold.
Best Places to Stargaze in Yellowstone
At 8,859-feet tall, Dunraven Pass is the highest road in the park and has incredible views of the night sky. Park at the Dunraven Pass Trailhead, located along Grand Loop Road, and enjoy the stars on a clear night. Be sure to pack extra layers as it will be colder here than lower elevations.
This trailhead accesses Mt. Washburn but we do not recommend hiking this moderate-to-difficult peak in the dark. Instead, stick to the parking lot and save the trail for the daylight hours. Grizzly bears frequent this area so be sure to carry bear spray with you when stargazing and avoid this area in September and October when the bears are getting ready to hibernate.
Upper Geyser Basin (includes Old Faithful and Castle Geyser)
There are few things as stunning as looking at the stars through a steaming geyser. Upper Geyser Basin is a great place to do just this. Relax on one of the benches near Old Faithful, which are remarkably empty at night, and stargaze while you wait for the famous geyser to erupt. The show occurs every 65-95 minutes. From Old Faithful, follow the bike path on foot to Castle Geyser, which erupts every 14 hours. Check www.nps.gov/yell/planyourvisit/geyser-activity.htm for the National Park Service’s prediction of when Castle, Old Faithful and other Upper Geyser Basin features will erupt. You can continue farther down the path to get away from the lights of the Old Faithful complex if you’re up for a longer walk.
The bike path is a perfect place for stargazing near geysers because it’s flat, wide and doesn’t get too close to any thermal features that are hard to see at night. On the other hand, navigating the boardwalks after dark can be treacherous if you can’t see your footing so avoid it with small kids and people with unsure footing and if you do venture out, bring a headlamp.
Mammoth Hot Springs
Located just inside the park’s North Entrance, Mammoth Hot Springs’ other-worldly travertine terraces become even more fantastic under the stars. Head to the upper terraces loop with a headlamp and catch incredible views of the stars over the park.
Be sure to bring a headlamp as navigating the boardwalks can be precarious in the dark. You won’t be able to see the stars well with your headlamp on, so find a good place to stop and stargaze before turning it off and letting your eyes adjust. A headlamp with a red light setting will help preserve your night vision in the dark.
Madison Amphitheater Astronomy Program
Check out the Stars Over Yellowstone summer astronomy programs at the Madison Amphitheater. You’ll learn from some of the top astronomers from around the country. Find the Milky Way, Saturn, craters on the moon, the center of the galaxy, star clusters and nebula with telescopes. Bring a flashlight.
Due to modified park operations in 2022, the park is not offering any pre-scheduled ranger programs. When visiting the park, check at the local visitor center or message boards to see what activities are being offered.
How to Take Night Photos in Yellowstone
While stargazing with your bare eyes is an incredible experience, your camera can often capture even more details than you can pick out on your own. Many smartphones can capture night skies, but it’s hard to compare to a DSLR or mirrorless camera when it comes to capturing the stars. Bring a camera that has the ability to manually focus, take 30 second exposures and has an ISO of at least 3200. A wide angle lens with a fast aperture will get you the best shots. You’ll also want to make sure you have a steady tripod, a shutter release cable and a headlamp (ideally with a red light) so that you can keep your camera steady and see the settings in the dark.
After you set your camera up on your tripod and set your focus, start with your settings at ISO 3200, a shutter speed of 30 seconds and your aperture as wide as it will go. Be sure not to touch your camera while it’s taking the picture.
Hopefully you’ll get some great shots right off your camera, but enhancing them in a post-processing software like Adobe Lightroom will help you create images that are truly incredible. Here you can increase the highlights and decrease the shadows to make the stars pop, change the white balance so that the colors look like how you saw them in real life and use the dehaze slider to help cut back on any light pollution or atmospheric haze that dulled your photo.
Want to learn more about photographing starry night skies, the Milky Way, sunsets and sunrises? Check out our Night Sky Photography online course.
Where to Sleep Under the Stars
Located 15 minutes from Yellowstone’s West Entrance in West Yellowstone, Mont., Under Canvas Yellowstone is the perfect place to stay if you want to see the stars. Not only is it located close to the park so you don’t have to drive too far in the middle of the night to stargaze at Old Faithful and Dunraven Pass, but on-site amenities allow you to get incredible night sky views without even having to leave the property.
Under Canvas Yellowstone sits on a Montana ranch along the shores of the Madison River, far away from city light pollution. This outdoor resort features individual safari-inspired tents with luxury furnishings, an on-site restaurant, adventures, nightly programming and more. Low-level lightning is used throughout the camp, minimizing additional light pollution meaning the night skies just outside your tent are spectacular. Enjoy them around a community fire pit with complimentary s’mores, on your tent’s private deck or even from your own bed if you book the Stargazer tent. This option is perfect for those who want to see the stars without having to bundle up. A viewing window above the king bed lets you watch for shooting stars, the Milky Way, or even the elusive Northern Lights without having to get out from under the covers. The tent also features a private ensuite bathroom and a wood burning stove.
Learn more and book your stay to see the stars at www.undercanvas.com/camps/yellowstone/