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By Jayme Muller

August 16, 2021

Title graphic for a study on the best U.S. cities for stargazing

Whether wishing upon a shooting star or dialing in a high-powered telescope to make out the Andromeda constellation, stargazing is a backyard activity we can all enjoy. It’s an awe-inspiring activity that slows time to a crawl, allowing us to enjoy good food, company, and the glittering sky—now, that’s what we call dinner and a show.

However, for millions of Americans who live in major U.S. cities, several geographical factors can make or break the stargazing experience—sometimes forcing crisp constellations behind a muted slab of gray sky. Light pollution, temperature, elevation, and more play a role in our ability to make out stars in the night sky. What’s more, local astronomy groups and observatories can deepen the experience of gazing up at the Milky Way.

Because the pastime of celestial admiration pairs so well with a handmade meal prepared in an outdoor kitchen, we wanted to find out which U.S. cities are best for stargazing.

Methodology

To determine where the Americans have the best stargazing experience, we zoomed in on the top 50 most populous cities in the United States. Then we ranked them according to the following factors, which indicate the most favorable atmospheric observation conditions.

Ranking Factors

  1. Light pollution
    • Weight: 2.00
  2. Percent of land used for recreation
    • Weight: 2.00
  3. Average annual precipitation
    • Weight: 1.50
  4. Average temperature (difference from 70 degrees F)
    • Weight: 1.25
  5. Elevation (feet)
    • Weight: 1.25
  6. Number of astronomy groups
    • Weight: 1.25
  7. Number of observatories
    • Weight: 0.75

Each factor was given a weight representative of its influence on a city’s stargazing strengths, and each city was scored based on each of the above factors. The city’s final score is the sum of its individual factor scores, with higher city scores equating to better stargazing opportunities.

The BEST U.S. Cities for Stargazing

Map showing the 10 worst U.S. cities for stargazing

First, we looked at the best cities for stargazing and discovered close competition among multiple cities. Phoenix, Arizona topped the ranking with a score of 34.45, while runners up San Francisco, California, and Washington, D.C., scored 34.38 and 33.42 out of 50, respectively.

Interestingly, the only city among the top three with relatively low levels of light pollution was San Francisco, earning a radiance value of 103.4 Watts per centimeter squared (W/cm2). However, it’s important to note that while lower than almost all of the other cities on our ranking, this radiance value is still considered poor for stargazing. Coupled with wide swaths of land used for recreation and near perfect weather, it’s easy to see why the Golden City is the second best city for stargazing.

While you’ll have to deal with a bit more light pollution in the number one city, Phoenix, it’s not hard to find a dark nook in the surrounding desert for a peaceful night aimed at the sky. The 1,086 foot elevation also puts viewers closer to the stars, which provides better visual conditions with fewer atmospheric distortions.

Washington, D.C. is known as a cultural center of the U.S. with its museums and historic landmarks, so it comes as no surprise that the region houses an impressive array of 14 observatories. Star-crazed residents of the dense metro can observe the heavens through a powerful telescope despite moderate to heavy light pollution.

The Worst U.S. Cities for Stargazing

Map depicting the 10 best U.S. cities for stargazing

Unfortunately, not every city has a sparkling window to the stars, and chief among them is Charlotte, North Carolina. The city has a massive 384.2 W/cm2, which absolutely overwhelms the specks of light struggling to be noticed in the sky above.

The second worst city for stargazing is Detroit, which suffers from even more light pollution (with a radiance value of 420.6 W/cm2) and most of its area covered in obstructive skyscrapers. In fact, only six percent of land is dedicated to recreation.

Many of the worst cities for stargazing are as empty as space itself when it comes to finding like-minded enthusiasts. Detroit, Michigan hosts the only astronomy group in all ten of the worst cities for stargazing combined.

Maybe you’re looking for a specialized stargazing experience, like experiencing the least light pollution, enjoying the best weather, or having the most astronomy buffs to share findings with. We also looked at the highest scoring city for each ranking factor.

Gold Star Cities

Virginia Beach, Virginia scores the highest for light pollution, with a radiance value of 94.7 W/cm2. Again, this is by no means optimal for stargazing, as any metropolis will introduce unwanted and excessive artificial lighting for the activity. For the top 50 most populous cities however, you can’t beat Virginia Beach!

If you want a perfectly warm summer night to gaze at the heavens, Houston, Texas is the place to be! With an average annual temperature of 70 degrees F, we’re not sure how you could go wrong with an astronomy-focused cookout in Houston.

Maybe you don’t mind slightly warmer temps—but getting wet just isn’t an option. With only 9.5 inches of precipitation per year on average, New Orleans has the skyscape for you.

The mile high city, Denver, Colorado, is the highest of all the cities we analyzed, with—you guessed it—5,280 feet of elevation. While not as crucial as low light pollution, decreasing your distance from the stars does help to prevent obstructions for a clearer viewing experience.

If you’re in it for the social aspect of enjoying a hobby with friends, Phoenix, Arizona, and Chicago, Illinois, tie with four astronomy groups each. Visiting observatories is another way to meet fellow astronomers. New York City is the best city for observatories, featuring 32 in total!

Or, ditch the crowds and find a quiet, secluded place in New Orleans. With 26 percent of its land dedicated to recreation, celestial hobbyists will have no trouble finding a dark nook to count constellations.

Final Thoughts

Through our analysis, we learned that some cities are definitely better than others for getting a clear, undisrupted line of sight to the stars. However, we think that a bit of light pollution or a spot of rain shouldn’t stand in the way of quality time spent outdoors with neighbors, family, and friends. And, if your guests are as hungry as a black hole, you can serve delicious food cooked in an outdoor kitchen without introducing any artificial light to your viewing area.

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