Montana is blessed with millions of acres of public lands, thousands of stars over our “Big Sky Country,” and numerous public campgrounds where you can spend quality time with our awe-inspiring night skies. Here we have mapped a selection of 50 public campgrounds (that you can drive to!) and 10 dark sky event centers spread across our six “Visit Montana” regions. Create your own Dark Sky Trail by linking favorite campgrounds together,

or combine campgrounds, star parties and public observatories to create a Montana Dark Sky Vacation! Campgrounds are designated with numbers, dark sky event centers are designated with letters, and everything is linked to a website providing detailed information. Don’t forget to pack your bug and bear sprays, and it’s always a good idea to contact the managing agencies first for up-to-date status and road reports.

Night sky quality

Glacier Country includes the forested mountains and valleys of western Montana. It is home to our only officially designated dark sky area (so far), the Waterton-Glacier International Dark Sky Park. But the darkest areas are actually located in the northwestern and southwestern corners, in the Yaak Valley (#2 Pete Creek Campground) and Bitterroot National Forest (#8 Painted Rocks State Park), respectively.

Event centers in this region include the Dusty Star Observatory (A) and Apgar Visitors’ Center (B) in Glacier National Park, with both locations offering dark sky events during most summer nights. Near downtown Missoula, the University of Montana’s Star Gazing Room (C) is an intimate, 30-seat planetarium offering regularly scheduled shows throughout the year. The University also owns the Blue Mountain Observatory (D), where public star parties are scheduled several times each summer.

Comet Wirtanen and an Earth-grazer meteor light up the night sky above Dusty Star Mountain, in the Waterton-Glacier International Dark Sky Park.

 

# Name Bortle Radiance Elevation Coordinates Plus Code Agency Website
(2015) (2019) (feet)
1 Kintla Lake 2 0.17 4,058′ 48.93579, -114.34609 WMP3+8G Wurtz Hill, Montana NPS https://www.visitmt.com/listings/general/national-park-campground/kintla-lake-and-campground.html
2 Pete Creek 1 0.19 2,963′ 48.83042, -115.76647 R6JM+89 Yaak, Montana USFS https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/kootenai/recreation/recarea?recid=49919&actid=43
3 Rocky Gorge 2 0.16 2,493′ 48.65178, -115.31119 85W6MM2Q+R7 USFS https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/kootenai/recarea/?recid=71212
4 Howard Lake 2 0.16 4,114′ 48.10103, -115.53036 85W64F29+CW USFS https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/kootenai/recarea/?recid=66107
5 Logan State Park 2 0.28 3,333′ 48.03194, -115.06707 2WMM+66 Happys Inn, Montana MTFWP http://stateparks.mt.gov/logan/
6 Fishtrap Lake 2 0.17 4,150′ 47.86157, -115.20315 85V6VQ6W+HV USFS https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/lolo/recarea/?recid=10307
7 Spotted Bear 2 0.16 3,737′ 47.92661, -113.52717 85V8WFGC+GX USFS https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/flathead/recarea/?recid=66838
8 Painted Rocks SP 1 0.21 4,744′ 45.69724, -114.29469 MMJX+G7 Alta, Montana MTFWP http://stateparks.mt.gov/painted-rocks/
9 Spring Gulch 2 0.34 4,380′ 45.85847, -114.02272 VX5G+FM Medicine Hot Springs, MT USFS https://www.recreation.gov/camping/campgrounds/232327
A Dusty Star Observatory 2 0.74 4,501′ 48.74732, -113.43903 PHW6+W9 St Mary, Montana GNP https://www.nps.gov/glac/learn/nature/night-sky.htm
B Apgar Visitors Center 2 0.29 3,196′ 48.52289, -113.98693 G2F6+6H Apgar, Montana GNP https://www.nps.gov/glac/learn/nature/night-sky.htm
C UM Star Gazing Room 5 48.35 3,238′ 46.85963, -113.98650 V257+R9 Missoula, Montana UM https://hs.umt.edu/physics/outreach/
D Blue Mountain Observatory 4 0.42 6,404 46.81486, -114.18074 RR79+WP Lolo, Montana UM http://hs.umt.edu/physics/blue-mtn-observatory/default.php

 

The Southwest Montana region includes two excellent dark sky areas. The southern end of the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex is buffered by the adjacent Helena National Forest, which has campgrounds that are accessible with a high-clearance vehicle, including Monture Creek Campground (#10). The south end of this region features    

campgrounds in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest. This area has star-filled night skies, and it includes a popular campground adjacent to the ghost town of Bannack State Park (#16). The Montana Learning Center (E) is this region’s event center. The Center offers public and private star parties and an “Explore the Universe” kid’s camp, among many other activities.

Zodiacal light, Andromeda and Milky Way over the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex

 

# Name Bortle Radiance Elevation Coordinates Plus Code Agency Website
(2015) (2019) (feet)
10 Monture Creek 2 0.16 4,193′ 47.12570, -113.14256 4VG4+3F Ovando, Montana USFS https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/lolo/recarea/?recid=10323
11 Copper Creek 2 0.19 5,322′ 47.07798, -112.61913 85V939HJ+7F USFS https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/hlcnf/recarea/?recid=62849
12 Browns Lake 2 0.21 4,285′ 46.95120, -113.01144 XX2Q+GM Coughlin, Montana MTFWP https://myfwp.mt.gov/fishMT/fas/39754193
13 Mussigbrod 1 0.20 6,516′ 45.79092, -113.61071 85Q8Q9QR+H4 USFS https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/bdnf/null/recarea/?recid=5687&actid=30
14 May Creek 1 0.15 6,401′ 45.65070, -113.78270 85Q8M628+7Q USFS https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/bdnf/null/recarea/?recid=5685&actid=43
15 Fourth of Juy 2 0.13 6,398′ 45.66247, -113.06454 MW6P+X5 Wise River, Montana USFS https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/bdnf/recarea/?recid=5675
16 Bannack State Park 2 0.21 5,784′ 45.16466, -113.00439 5X7W+X8 Bannack, Montana MFWP http://stateparks.mt.gov/bannack/
17 Horse Prairie 1 0.23 5,561′ 44.98796, -112.88848 X4Q6+7H Grayling, Montana USBR https://www.visitmt.com/listings/general/recreation-area-campground/horse-prairie-campground.html
18 East Creek 1 0.18 7,054′ 44.56366, -112.66071 H87Q+CQ Lima, Montana USFS https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/bdnf/recarea/?recid=5663
19 Cliff Point 1 0.2 6,352′ 44.79194, -111.56111 QCVR+FP Cliff Lake, Montana USFS https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/bdnf/null/recarea/?recid=5705&actid=31
E Montana Learning Center 3 2.33 3,855′ 46.65494, -111.71731 M74J+7C Canyon Ferry, Montana MLC http://montanalearning.org/astronomy/

 

Yellowstone Country is a smaller region just north of the famous park. It features many wooded campgrounds that are typically less crowded and quieter than those inside Yellowstone park. The area also includes lakes, streams and rivers to keep you busy during the daytime. Most of these campgrounds charge a small fee during peak season (Memorial Day-Labor Day) but are free during shoulder seasons.

The region’s event center dazzles the mind! The Museum of the Rockies is one of the top-rated natural history museums in the world. Located on the campus of Montana State University in Bozeman, the museum features amazing dinosaur exhibits, and MOR’s state-of-the-art Taylor Planetarium (F) offers 4K digital projection on a 40-foot dome. Multiple shows each day, seven days a week. Bozeman Parks & Recreation (G) also hosts dark sky events during the summer months.

Palisade Falls & Big Dipper

 

# Name Bortle Radiance Elevation Coordinates Plus Code Agency Website
(2015) (2019) (feet)
20 Beaver Creek 1 0.21 6,532′ 44.85366, -111.37861 85PCVJ4G+C9 USFS https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/custergallatin/recarea/?recid=5577
21 Timber Camp 2 0.13 7,182′ 45.09471, -110.60533 39VV+MQ Jardine, Montana USFS https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/custergallatin/recarea/?recid=5631
22 Greenough Lake 2 0.25 7,238′ 45.05566, -109.41264 3H4P+CV Richel Lodge, Montana USFS https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/custergallatin/recarea/?recid=60825
23 Emerald Lake 1 0.25 6,325′ 45.25479, -109.69949 773X+9V Alpine, Montana USFS https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/custergallatin/recarea/?recid=60863
24 Chippy Park 2 0.15 5,450′ 45.43684, -110.19028 CRP6+V9 Contact, Montana USFS https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/custergallatin/recarea/?recid=5585
25 Halfmoon 1 0.15 6,516′ 46.04211, -110.23994 85RF2QR6+CP USFS https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/custergallatin/recarea/?recid=5595
26 Shields River 1 0.22 6,385′ 46.18395, -110.40504 85RF5HMR+3Q USFS https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/custergallatin/recreation/recarea/?recid=5619
F Taylor Planetarium 5 35.97 4,921′ 45.65925, -111.04373 MX54+F3 Bozeman, Montana MOR https://www.museumoftherockies.org/taylor-planetarium/current-shows-and-showtimes/
G Bozeman Parks & Rec 5 23.24 4,715′ 45.70129, -111.02821 PX2C+FP Bozeman, Montana BOZ https://infocusastronomy.com/events

The Central Montana region is a transition zone between the western mountains and forests into the eastern high plains. Campgrounds on the southern end, like Hay Canyon (#29), are beautifully forested. The western-most area also offers forested camp choices along the edge of the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex. But the region is dominated by the Missouri River drainage that flows lazily across the windswept plains, west to east.

Coalbanks (#34), Judith Landing (#35) and James Kipp (#36) campgrounds are accessible by car and by boat, so they tend to stay busy during the summer floating season. Further up the Missouri River, the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center (H) is an event center that is built into the hillside near where the Corps of Discovery had to portage their boats 18 miles! A different kind of discovery is offered in the parking lot during monthly star parties hosted by the Central Montana Astronomical Society. It’s a can’t-miss destination!

A rusting McCormick-Deering tractor watches northern lights dance on a prairie wind at dawn near Square Butte, east of Great Falls

 

# Name Bortle Radiance Elevation Coordinates Plus Code Agency Website
(2015) (2019) (feet)
27 Forest Lake 1 0.17 6,745′ 46.24463, -110.43786 85RF6HV6+QX USFS https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/hlcnf/recarea/?recid=61478
28 Whitetail Camp 1 0.12 6,348′ 46.68278, -110.50339 85RFMFJW+WP USFS https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/hlcnf/recarea/?recid=61470
29 Hay Canyon 1 0.20 5,302′ 46.79877, -110.30015 QMXX+HV Yogo Crossing, MT USFS https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/hlcnf/recarea/?recid=61532
30 Crystal Lake 2 0.17 6,086′ 46.79336, -109.51075 85RGQFVQ+JH USFS https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/hlcnf/recreation/recarea/?recid=61526&actid=29
31 Cave Mountain 1 0.23 5,187′ 47.89080, -112.72827 85V9V7RF+H6 USFS https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/hlcnf/recarea/?recid=61570
32 West Fork 1 0.22 5,623′ 47.96089, -112.80680 85V9X56V+77 USFS https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/hlcnf/recarea/?recid=61562
33 Island Area 1 0.22 3,025′ 48.33557, -111.14747 8VM5+R9 Tiber Dam Camp, MT USBR https://www.visitmt.com/listings/general/recreation-area-campground/island-area-campground.html
34 Coalbanks 1 0.24 2,526′ 48.03132, -110.23649 2QJ7+RM Coal Banks Landing, MT BLM https://www.blm.gov/visit/coal-banks-landing
35 Judith Landing 1 0.26 2,411′ 47.74036, -109.62861 85VGP9RC+2W BLM https://www.blm.gov/visit/judith-landing
36 James Kipp 1 0.27 2,290′ 47.62773, -108.68469 85VHJ8G4+XJ BLM https://www.blm.gov/visit/james-kipp-recreation-area
H Lewis&Clark Interpretive Center 5 16.9 3,228′ 47.52957, -111.23552 GQH7+QQ Great Falls, Montana USFS http://www.lewisandclarkfoundation.org/events.php

 

The Missouri River Country region holds some of Montana’s darkest skies, and some of our most light-polluted skies (from oil and gas development). This is the land of picturesque, abandoned homesteads, vast tracts of range land, and isolated patches of native shortgrass prairie. The Big Muddy flows through its heart into Fort Peck Reservoir. In this country, a sudden rain squall transforms the

two-tracks into truck-swallowing gumbo. Avoid the backroads during rainy weather or you might find yourself watching the stars for a couple of nights in a row until the road dries out enough for you to escape. In 2019 the American Prairie Reserve built a new campground at Antelope Creek (I) that serves as the region’s dark sky event center. Star parties are offered there during summer months by the ‘Space Naturalists’ from In Focus Astronomy, out of Bozeman.

The summer Milky Way floats above aN ENDANGERED black-footed ferret at U.L. Bend National Wildlife Refuge

 

# Name Bortle Radiance Elevation Coordinates Plus Code Agency Website
(2015) (2019) (feet)
37 Nelson Reservoir 2 0.20 2,231′ 48.49405, -107.52819 FFR9+RG Sleeping Buffalo, MT USBR https://www.visitmt.com/listings/general/recreation-area-campground/nelson-reservoir.html
38 Brush Lake State Park 3 0.33 2,011′ 48.60456, -104.10254 JV2R+74 Dagmar, Montana MTFWP http://stateparks.mt.gov/brush-lake/
39 Rock Creek 1 0.25 2,313′ 47.76603, -106.28802 85VMPPMR+HV MTFWP https://www.visitmt.com/listings/general/fishing-access-site/rock-creek-fishing-access-site.html
40 Hell Creek State Park 1 0.50 2,264′ 47.61719, -106.88774 85VMJ487+M7 MTFWP http://stateparks.mt.gov/hell-creek/
41 Buffalo Camp 1 0.20 2,310′ 47.76315, -107.77464 Q67G+66 Sun Prairie, Montana APR https://www.americanprairie.org/buffalo-camp
42 Fourchette Creek 1 0.17 2,267′ 47.66885, -107.66985 M8CP+79 Dryer Place, Montana ACE https://www.visitmt.com/listings/general/a-c-e-campground/fourchette-bay-campground.html
43 Crooked Creek 1 0.20 2,260′ 47.43187, -107.93689 85VJC3J6+JR ACE https://centralmontana.com/listings/17944.htm
I Antelope Creek Campground 1 0.17 2,917′ 47.71399, -108.71820 P7GM+V2 Dy Junction, Montana APR https://www.americanprairie.org/project/antelope-creek-mars-vista

Hidden pockets of chalky bluffs and forested hills rise above Southeast Montana’s range lands and prairies. There isn’t much public land here, but the region features more than enough hidden treasures to create your own dark sky adventures. Tucked away in the southwestern corner, Barry’s Landing Campground (#45) lies at the end of

the (paved) road in the Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area — desert country that surprises even the few native Montanans who find it.  Further east, the Carter County Museum ( J ) in Ekalaka keeps busy as one of Montana’s most popular event locations. In addition to the annual Dino Shindig, the Museum also hosts summer star parties, children’s activities and many other dark sky events.

Northern lights ripple over Bighorn Canyon and Lake in Southeast Montana

 

# Name Bortle Radiance Elevation Coordinates Plus Code Agency Website
(2015) (2019) (feet)
44 Timber Creek Dispersed 1 0.19 5,800′ 46.72586, -109.48438 85RGPGG7+5W USFS https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/hlcnf/recreation/recarea/?recid=61474&actid=29
45 Barry’s Landing 2 0.15 3,734′ 45.09603, -108.21000 4Q3G+4G Hillsboro, Montana BLM https://www.visitmt.com/listings/general/national-park-campground/barry-s-landing.html
46 Red Shale 2 0.25 3,202 45.57085, -106.14670 HV92+MM Willow Crossing, MT USFS https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/custergallatin/recreation/camping-cabins/recarea/?recid=60853&actid=29
47 Holiday Spring 1 0.22 4,055′ 45.63818, -105.97487 J2QG+C8 Stacey, Montana USFS https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/custergallatin/recarea/?recid=60851
48 Lantis Spring 1 0.23 3,901′ 45.63052, -104.17688 85QQJRJF+95 USFS https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/custergallatin/recarea/?recid=60841
49 MacNab Pond 1 0.26 3,461′ 45.83575, -104.43223 RHM8+XF Ekalaka, Montana USFS https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/custergallatin/recarea/?recid=60849
50 Medicine Rocks SP 2 0.19 3,425′ 46.04177, -104.47099 85RQ2GRH+MM MTFWP http://stateparks.mt.gov/medicine-rocks/
J Carter County Museum 13.19 3,422′ 45.89102, -104.54657 VFR3+9C Ekalaka, Montana CCM https://www.cartercountymuseum.org/

These base maps are from Dark Sky Map, showing night sky brightness from “The New World Atlas of Artificial Sky Brightness” (2015). Light pollution has continued to increase since these values were calculated in 2015.

Bortle scale and night sky radiance calculations from Light Pollution Map, which is also based on the “The New World Atlas of Artificial Sky Brightness” but regularly updated with VIIRS satellite data. The Bortle Scale indicates night sky brightness from 1 (excellent dark-sky site) to 9 (inner-city sky). Radiance numbers indicate the zenith sky brightness, reported here in magnitude/arc second squared.

Latitude/longitude coordinates and Plus Codes are two methods of identifying locations on a map.

Agencies and Entities: American Prarie Reserve (APR), Army Corps of Engineers (ACE), Bozeman Parks & Recreation (BOZ), Bureau of Land Management (BLM), Carter County Museum (CCM), Glacier National Park (GNP), Montana Fish Wildlife & Parks (MTFWP), Montana Learning Center (MLC), Museum of the Rockies (MOR), National Park Service (NPS), University of Montana (UM), Bureau of Reclamation (USBR), U.S. Forest Service (USFS)