Have you ever stargazed from a mountaintop, seen the milky way from a glassy lake or spotted constellations from the middle of a forest — surrounded not by public campsites but by Mother Nature all around you?
It may be an intimidating thought, since stargazing often takes extra steps to plan. Safe navigation and transportation in the dark are a must. Nearby accommodations late at night are helpful. And bonuses like a thoughtful thermos of hot chocolate, telescopes, red-light headlamps and expert knowledge of the landscape and night skies can really take any stargazing experience to the next level.
Enter Oregon’s guided dark-sky tour experiences. Oregon is a spectacular place for stargazing, with many high-desert regions (a quarter of the state) renown for their lack of light pollution and sublime landscapes for viewing. Each outfitter across the state brings a wholly unique experience, so it’s possible that after your first one you’ll be hooked — and come back for more. Most dark-sky experiences happen during the summer and early autumn months. Make sure to book early, as trips fill up fast. Dark-sky experiences are great for families and all ages, and the best part is that all you usually have to do is show up — the guide plans the rest.
Here’s a look at some of Oregon’s dark-sky tour experiences.
Stargazing from a Treetop Perch
You may have camped among the trees before, but what about camping in the treetops? Tree Climbing at Silver Falls (May through September) is the ultimate night-time adventure, allowing you to make your perch in a secured hammock or tree tent (portaledge) at the top of some of Oregon’s largest old-growth trees just in time to catch the sunset and marvel at the night skies over the Willamette Valley. Some, in fact, call it forest star-bathing. All climbing equipment and instruction plus an extensive training session is included, and no experience is necessary but it does take some strength. You may book a battery-powered ascender if you’d like more assistance. It’s also an option to climb and camp at a feet of 20 feet versus 300 feet. Children age 7 and up are welcome. A guide is part of this tour for the entire experience.
Guided Night Hiking, Stargazing and a Concert
In Eastern Oregon, visitors can marvel at the expansive nighttime sky along a specially curated trip by Pendleton Outfitters and Go Wild: American Adventures. Listening to the Stars: Guided Night Tours is billed as a sensory experience of music and nature set against Eastern Oregon’s dark skies and ancient forests. The all-inclusive tour in Pendleton includes night hiking, guided stargazing and a private outdoor concert featuring local talent against the backdrop of the Blue Mountains. It’s a chance to experience the forest and connect with the natural world in a new, awe-inspiring way, hearing a local expert’s ecological and cultural interpretation of the night skies, star stories and more. Locally sourced snacks and craft beverages are included. (Six dates are offered July through September 2023, or you can request a private tour.)
Guided Night Photography With Personal Instruction
For many star enthusiasts, the beauty and challenge of night-sky photography is the biggest appeal. Bend Photo Tours, a woman-run business, offers a guided 4-hour night photo tour as one of its many bookable experiences. In the heart of Central Oregon’s high desert, Bend and neighboring areas are home to awesome night photography. This personalized tour (up to 2 people) is tailored to the photographer’s specific goals, whether it’s capturing the milky way, star trails, the moon, planets or another celestial phenomenon. The tour includes personalized instruction for photo enthusiasts of all levels, and a fun, guided experience based on a professional photographer’s expertise with these landscapes.
Stargazer Dinner Atop Mt. Hood
Each summer Mt. Hood Meadows invites visitors to a pair of Stargazer Dinners — a scenic chair ride to the peak of Mt. Hood with a chance to view the sunset; take part in hiking, geocaching and games on the deck; and enjoy the millions of stars and constellations at elevation when darkness falls. The event includes a space-themed multicourse dinner (with several main-course options) and is open to all ages with advance booking only. You can even make a weekend of it and camp at the mountain under the stars. RV parking is available for specific dates with advance booking.
Stargazing with a Side of Hiking, Paddling, Caving and Snowshoeing
Bend-based Wanderlust Tours offers a variety of different stargazing opportunities. Daily tours include Moonlight & Starlight Canoe Tours (June-October), Starlight Snowshoe Tours (November-April, weather permitting) and Starlight Cave Tours (April-May and October-November). Wanderlust also regularly hosts special stargazing events like their Perseids Meteor Shower Hiking and Canoe Tours in August (sold out for 2023) and their Geminids Meteor Shower Snowshoe Tour in December. Keep your eye out for a guided starlight hike during International Dark Sky Week in April. And on Oct. 14, 2023, Wanderlust will host a Crater Lake Annular Solar Eclipse Tour to celebrate this special astrological phenomenon, visible for 4 minutes over Oregon’s only national park.
Stargazing and Glamping in the Outback
If you’re looking to really get off the grid, head to Harney County in Oregon’s southeastern corner and you’ll find extraordinary skies with Calamity Butte Guide Services. This outfitter offers two designated dark-sky tours, but “literally every single one of our trips could be a dark-sky trip,” considering that the Oregon Outback is soon to be designated as an International Dark Sky Sanctuary, says Tory Schmidt, who co-owns the operation with her husband, Jeff. Both are ranchers and artists, and recently began offering guided trips.
Their Perseid meteor shower tour in mid-August takes the group (up to 12 people) to the Riddle Mountain Lookout, a scenic and remote area ideal for celestial observation. It’s a unique opportunity to enjoy fabulously dark night skies with essentially no interference from light pollution. The tour includes home-cooked meals on site, overnight camping accommodations (tents and sleeping bags provided), guided stargazing and transportation to and from Burns, which is helpful since the route includes many rough gravel roads and a long steep grade. You can enjoy the Alvord Desert, Steens Mountain and nearby hot springs during the rest of your trip.
Stargazing and a Nighttime Paddle
Based in Eugene, women-owned Sip, Savor, Explore Oregon offers customized tours in the South Willamette Valley and on the Oregon Coast. Many of the tours focus on wine tasting, but a new dark-sky kayak tour in the Cascades is geared toward stargazing adventurers. These guided evening tours take place on designated dates in August and early October, scheduled to coincide with moon events or meteor showers. The 5-hour, small-group (up to 4 people) tours include shuttle transportation to and from Eugene to Cascades Outdoor Center, 45 minutes east. Guests can enjoy snacks and a beverage on the patio before heading out to the calm waters of Larison Cove for a sunset kayak paddle (all gear and instruction included). After the sun sets, the expert guide leads the stargazing journey, weaving in their local knowledge. Easy accommodations are available at Westfir Lodge — or the van can transport you back to Eugene. Westfir is located at the base of the world-famous Oakridge Trail System, with nine cozy rooms and mountain-bike shuttles and tours that depart daily.
Save time to continue the nighttime adventures in Northeast Oregon, where you can take a glass-bottom kayak out on Wallowa Lake with the guides at Jo Paddle. These multicolored light-up kayaks look magical in the dark and illuminate the water so you can see the fish and rocks under the surface. When the stars come out you can look up, too, and have the expert navigation skills of your guides to lean on.
Guided Stargazing from High-Powered Telescopes
If you’re new to stargazing, it’s usually enough to gaze up and marvel at the night sky with the naked eye. More dedicated stargazers, however, appreciate the use of a telescope for a prime viewing experience. In Central Oregon Pine Mountain Observatory, just southeast of Bend, has been a go-to spot for decades. Their public nights program includes two weekends per month (July through September), on chosen dates when there’s no moon for the darkest sky possible.
On these nights the public is invited in ($5 donations requested) to use their two large permanent telescopes and a fleet of smaller telescopes. The best time to visit is about 30 minutes before sunset, so you can walk up to the top of the observatory and enjoy the sunset over the high desert and stay a few hours for prime star viewing. Note that the access road to the observatory is a bit bumpy; you can also pull your vehicle into the federal campground across the street to extend your visit in the Deschutes National Forest. While you’re in the area, Sunriver Observatory and Prineville Reservoir State Park are also excellent stops for any stargazing adventure.
Annular Eclipse-Viewing Tours
There are more opportunities to enjoy the Oct. 14, 2023 annular (ring-shaped) eclipse with a guide in Oregon. Each of these are held in Southern Oregon along the path of annularity, where the full ring of the sun (with the moon in front of it) will be visible for a full 4 minutes.
- Join the guides at Calamity Butte for their all-inclusive solar eclipse weekend in the Oregon Outback. The tour includes food, transportation, guided eclipse viewing and camping accommodations.
- Enjoy the eclipse from Crater Lake with Wanderlust Tours’ solar eclipse tour. The tour includes naturalist-guided hikes and interpretation of the eclipse, transportation to and from Bend, lunch and snacks and eclipse-viewing glasses.
- Paddle the calm waters of Malone Springs in Klamath County with an expert guide at Sky Lakes Wilderness Adventures on their solar eclipse kayak tour. All gear, instruction, solar glasses and expert interpretation are included.
Ranger-Led Stargazing Experiences
Sometimes you really want to enjoy all of the amenities of a public campground, but still enjoy a pristine dark sky as you’re tucking in for the evening. Luckily several of Oregon’s state parks include ranger-led stargazing experiences that are free and open to all.
Prineville Reservoir State Park, northeast of Bend, is a top destination for stargazers since it is Oregon’s first state park to earn certification as an International Dark Sky Park, one of fewer than 200 such places around the world. Check the park’s schedule for the latest updates, but know that programs typically happen Fridays through Sundays during the summer and range from lectures and constellation stories to telescope viewings, guest speakers and guided art projects — all free. Make sure to book your summer campsite early and take advantage of daytime activities at the park like fishing, paddling, hiking and biking.
The rugged and vast Cottonwood Canyon State Park is a gem in Eastern Oregon, yet only 2 hours southeast of Portland. Visitors get to admire the vertical cliffs carved by the John Day River to deep side canyons and arid, rocky grasslands that extend for miles in all directions. It’s an ideal place for stargazing by night and hiking, biking, fishing, rafting and horseback riding along the river canyon trails by day. Check the park website for ranger-led stargazing events in this incredibly pristine landscape.
If You Go:
Wherever you go to enjoy the stars, we encourage you to follow a few tips for the best experience.
- If you’re looking for clear skies, check the forecast to avoid heavy cloud cover.
- Be prepared as you travel to remote areas like the Oregon Outback, where cell service and gas stations are limited.
- You may want to bring a camera and tripod, binoculars and a paper map along with your Ten Essentials and download an app for stargazing. Most headlamps have a red-light setting that will let you see at night but won’t disturb wildlife or other stargazers.
- Support and be respectful of nearby small communities as you travel, and always be sure to pack everything out.