PORTLAND — There are few experiences as humbling as staring into the cosmos. But while most of the stars above our cities and towns are obscured by the light we emit, it’s easy enough in Oregon to drive off into darkness to discover their greater beauty.
Most national forests and natural spaces will give you some good view of the stars, but if you really want the darkest skies you should search the map made by Dark Site Finder, a website designed to aid stargazers and photographers.
Zoom in on Oregon and you’ll see the expected sources of light pollution, emanating from all our biggest cities (the Willamette Valley, generally speaking, is not a great place to see stars). But the map also shows low-level light pollution across much of the state, leaving only a single patch of pure darkness in remote southeast and central Oregon.
Within that area there are several places to get a clear look at the cosmos, with campgrounds, hot springs, hotels and lookout towers in which to stay the night. Almost all of it is found in the high desert ecosystem, but the region isn’t just an empty expanse: Along the way, you can stop at incredible natural sites and see places teeming with wildlife, finding wonder by day and night.
1. Steens Mountain
The highest point in Oregon east of the Cascades (excluding the Wallowa Mountains), Steens Mountain is a towering hunk of land that lords over the southeast corner of the state. It makes a great scenic drive and is known for its remote campgrounds and wilderness hiking, as well as surprisingly colorful fall foliage. With scenic beauty and ample places to stay the night, Steens might just be the best stargazing spot in Oregon.
2. Alvord Desert
Located on the southern side of Steens Mountain, the Alvord Desert deserves its own spot on this list due to the sheer difference in experience. A flat, expansive playa, the Alvord is so open and barren that you can drive on it, set up camp practically anywhere and enjoy the night sky. Late summer and fall months are usually the best times to visit.
3. John Day Fossil Beds
The John Day Fossil Beds is a complex of incredible natural attractions that burst with color in the daylight. The Painted Hills (one of the Seven Wonders of Oregon) and Blue Basin (a Seven Wonders runner-up) alone rank as some of the strangest and most beautiful sites in the Northwest. The fossil beds also happen to lie under some of the darkest skies in the state, which you can experience at the many campgrounds around the area.
4. Hart Mountain
Hart Mountain is found due west of the Alvord Desert, and like Steens Mountain it’s another of Eastern Oregon’s towering land masses (technically called fault-block mountains). The area is known for its wild antelope refuge, natural hot springs and, of course, dark skies. You can also make a trek through the scrubby desert wilderness to the top of Warner Peak. There are two primitive campgrounds at the mountain, but backcountry camping is also allowed.
5. Fire Lookouts
There are more than a dozen fire lookouts on public land that you can stay in around Oregon, and three of them happen to lie in the darkest area of the state. The Hager Mountain, Bald Butte and Drake Peak lookouts are all found in the Fremont-Winema National Forest under dark skies in Southern Oregon. Stargazing from a lookout should definitely be on your Northwest bucket list.
6. Summer Lake
Summer Lake is a large but shallow alkali lake in south-central Oregon, home to large flocks of migratory birds. The lake itself is within the patch of perfect darkness in Oregon, though the tiny nearby community of Paisley does emit a little light. Summer Lake Hot Springs, a popular resort, is right on the boundary of that light pollution, but it should be minimal enough to see plenty of stars.
7. Christmas Valley
Christmas Valley, a remote town in central Oregon, is close to several fascinating natural attractions, including Fort Rock, Lost Forest and Crack-in-the-Ground. It’s also home to the Christmas Valley Sand Dunes, a popular spot for off-highway vehicles. The area is smack in the middle of Oregon’s dark spot, though there aren’t many places to camp there other than Green Mountain Campground north of town.
8. Malheur National Wildlife Refuge
One of the very best birdwatching spots in Oregon, the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is also a great place for stargazing. Drive and hike across the high desert refuge by day, then stay the night at Page Springs Campground, at campgrounds on Steens Mountain or at the Frenchglen Hotel to watch the stars come out in full force.