Why Virginia Is the Dark Sky State East of the Mississippi + 5 Parks to Stargaze

In April 2021, Virginia became home to more International Dark Sky Parks than any state east of the Mississippi, making it the destination for stargazers. When you cross the border into Virginia, the slogan on the sign reads “Virginia is for Lovers.” What could be more perfect? 

Natural Bridge State Park and Sky Meadows State Park joined ranks with James River State Park, Staunton River State Park, and Rappahannock County Park to take the dark sky state lead on the East Coast—an area so densely populated that light pollution is rampant. There are a little over 100 dark sky parks across the world, with the U.S. home to about 80, and 12 were awarded this designation in 2021 by the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA). 

Ready to stargaze? Here’s everything you need to know about these five dark sky parks in Virginia.

1. Sky Meadows State Park

Designation: 2021

Location: Delaplane

Hours: 8 a.m. – dusk 

Sky Meadows State Park comprises 1,860 acres with pastoral views that capture the colonial farm life of old Crooked Run Valley. The park rests on the eastern side of the Blue Ridge Mountains and is perfect for hike-in camping, hiking, picnicking, fishing, and learning. Its programs include history and astronomy, started by volunteers who worked hard for five years to earn the IDA designation. The park also provides a Sensory Trail and Children’s Discovery area for families with little ones.

2. Natural Bridge State Park 

Designation: 2021

Location: Natural Bridge

Hours: 9 a.m. – dusk

Natural Bridge is a 215-foot limestone gorge carved out by Cedar Creek, nestled in the James River Valley and surrounding mountains. Follow Cedar Creek Trail from the Visitor Center under the bridge to the Monacan Indian Village. There you will see Lace Falls, a 30-foot cascade. The park offers seasonal living exhibits as well as seven miles of trails.

3. Rappahannock County Park

Designation: 2019

Location: Washington, VA

Hours: 8 a.m. – 7 p.m.

Rappahannock County Park is a 7.3-acre park near the town of Washington, just east of Shenandoah National Park and Appalachian Trail access near Chester Gap. The park offers activities such as hiking, picnicking, trout fishing, butterfly counting, and birding. It also hosts free and educational events, such as dark sky nights and free fishing for the community.

4. Staunton River State Park

Designation: 2015

Location: Scottsburg

Hours: 8 a.m. – 10 p.m.

Staunton River State Park established an outdoor lighting policy in 1985 to drastically reduce light pollution and reached out to its local community. About 25 miles from the North Carolina border, Staunton River spans 2,400 acres and offers access to Buggs Island Lake (Virginia’s largest lake). There, you can go water skiing, boating, and fishing. For families, there are three playgrounds, volleyball and tennis courts, picnic shelters, boat launches, and 17+ miles of multi-use trails. Rent a telescope to make the most of your stargazing while staying in one of the park’s almost 100-year-old cabins.

5. James River State Park

Designation: 2019

Location: Gladstone

Hours: Dawn – dusk

James River State Park rests in the Blue Ridge foothills and offers camping, equestrian camping, hiking, multi-use trails, kayaking, canoeing, and fishing. The park allows you to camp on its historic river or Branch Pond and offers a wheelchair-accessible trail along Green Hill Pond. You can easily view the annual James River Batteau Festival. Just remember that the park has a trash-in, trash-out policy.

For more information on visiting Virginia’s dark sky parks, click here. Visit the International Dark Sky Association’s website to learn more about their conservation efforts or to study the dark sky parks across the world.

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