Light pollution is to blame, of course, and yet some towns and cities are better (or less-bad) than others for stargazers to go out into their backyards and look up.
A new survey by RTA Outdoor Living has come up with a list of which cities in the US are the best for stargazing.
To be clear, none of these cities are ideal for stargazing. They are all light-polluted. But if you have to live in a city—which most of us do—this research can help you understand just how it ranks relative to others in the US.
The research doesn’t just take into account light pollution levels and the resulting darkness (or otherwise) of the night sky.
“While light pollution impacts stargazing, because of the fact that most U.S. cities experience high levels of light pollution we analyzed a number of other factors,” said Kalina MacKay, a research assistant for RTA Outdoor Living.
It also ranks cities on the number of clear nights per year, their elevation (which has a direct impact on the quality of the night sky), the amount of recreational spaces where people can go stargazing, and the number of astronomical observatories and astronomy groups there are in the vicinity.
A good example of how the research should be interpreted is Los Angeles. “LA’s high ranking can be largely attributed to its accommodating weather—an average annual temperature of 65.5 degrees Fahrenheit means stargazers can comfortably sit outside on most nights without getting too cold or hot—and the high number of observatories in the city,” said MacKay.
LA’s light pollution radiance value for 2020—163.81 watts per centimeter squared (W/cm2)—is far from ideal but still below the average (193.12) for the cities analyzed.
Ditto Las Vegas, which ranks highly despite having one of the highest light pollution values (296.09)—just behind NYC, Charlotte, and Detroit. “Other factors such as its high elevation (2001 ft) and high percentage of land used for recreation (20%) helped to earn Vegas the #7 spot as a top city for stargazing,” said MacKay.
However, it’s Phoenix, Arizona that ranks as the #1 city in the US for stargazing thanks to its high elevation and high number of astronomy groups. Phoenix was the fastest-growing big city in the United States between 2010 and 2020, so surely it’s light-polluted?
It is, but you can find excellent stargazing spots in the desert around Phoenix—and its 1,086 ft. elevation helps reduce atmospheric distortions.
San Francisco is the least light-polluted in the top three, with Washington D.C. getting into the top three largely because of its 14 observatories.
However, Virginia Beach, VA is the city with the least light pollution in the US with a 94.7 radiance.
At the other end of the scale is Charlotte, North Carolina, which ranks as the worst city for stargazing in general, though Detroit comes out as the more light-polluted.
Best U.S. Cities for Stargazing
- Phoenix, AZ
- San Francisco, CA
- Washington, DC
- San Diego, CA
- Austin, TX
- Los Angeles, CA
- Las Vegas, NV
- Minneapolis, MN
- New Orleans, LA
- Chicago, IL
Worst U.S. Cities for Stargazing
- Charlotte, NC
- Detroit, MI
- Miami, FL
- Richmond, VA
- Indianapolis, IN
- Milwaukee, WI
- St. Louis, MO
- Cincinatti, OH
- Philadelphia, PA
- Birmingham, AL
Other gems from the research include the fact that New York City has the most observatories, Phoenix and Chicago have the most astronomy groups and New Orleans has both the least amount of rain and the most recreational areas.
Wherever you live and however light-polluted you think your city is, never ever use that as an excuse not to go stargazing. Just get outside and look up this week—we’re on the cusp of some of the best and darkest night skies of the year, and you’ll be surprised how many stars you can see.
Wishing you clear skies and wide eyes.