Top 3: Heavenly Hikes - Backpacker

Top 3: Heavenly Hikes

No early bedtimes on these overnights; you'll want to stay up and enjoy unusually dark skies with clear views of summer's showiest celestial fireworks.

Continental Divide Trail, Gila NF, NM | South Rim, Big Bend NP, TX | Three Forks Loop, Monongahela NF, WV

Gila NF, NM

Continental Divide Trail

Stargaze on the spine of the continent.

What makes for a dark sky? Sparse towns (low light pollution), low humid- ity (no haze), and high altitude (closer to the sights). The Gila lies in the heart of this stargazer’s trifecta, and lucky for hikers, the CDT courses right through it. Snag a taste on this 14.6-mile overnight shuttle hike. From the Arrastre Site, a defunct mine north of Silver City, hike northeast 7.5 miles through ponderosa to camp on an 8,800-foot ridge near 9,029-foot Black Peak. After dark, whip out your binoculars and find the double star cluster near Cassiopeia or the nebulae in Orion’s belt. Next morning, continue into the drainage of Meadow Creek, and in roughly seven miles, hit FR 89. Hike it 1.5 miles to FR 149 to reach your car. (575-388-8413,

The way

From Silver City, take NM 15 N 8.5 miles to trailhead parking. Shuttle: Continue 6.4 miles on NM 15 N. Turn right on FR 149 and park in 3.1 miles.

Continental Divide Trail, Gila NF, NM | South Rim, Big Bend NP, TX | Three Forks Loop, Monongahela NF, WV

Big Bend NP, TX

South Rim

Sleep with 2,000 night lights.

Big Bend is one of the world’s five Gold Tier International Dark Sky Parks, so expect impressive nights parkwide. But on the South Rim of the Chisos Mountains, the view is wide open, and the lights are all celestial: the near- est town is a Mexican village with no electricity. After dark, up to 2,000 stars shine bright enough to throw shadows. From the Chisos Basin trailhead, hike Laguna Meadow Trail 5.8 miles up 1,900 feet through oak, juniper, and piñon. Trace the rim of the Chisos, a 2,600-foot drop-off facing a jagged escarpment, and pick a campsite over- looking this wide-open darkness. Next morning, complete a 13.9-mile loop via the steep and scenic Boot Canyon and Pinnacles Trails. (432-477-2251,

The way From Alpine, TX, go 99 miles on TX 118 S. Turn right on Basin Rd. and go 6.4 miles to the Chisos Basin trailhead, next to the ranger station.

Continental Divide Trail, Gila NF, NM | South Rim, Big Bend NP, TX | Three Forks Loop, Monongahela NF, WV

Monongahela NF, WV

Three Forks Loop

Follow rugged trails in the East’s dark zone.

On a light pollution map, the eastern U.S. looks like a Christmas tree, but one dark pocket above the 47,815- acre Cranberry Wilderness promises pre-Edison darkness. Pitch camp in a meadow with rare, unobstructed views skyward on this 16.5-mile deep-woods loop. From the trailhead off WV 150, head west on the North-South Trail above the Cranberry River. In 5.2 miles, turn southwest on the Tumbling Rock Trail, which drops 800 feet in 2.6 miles to FR 102. Follow the road 1.7 miles southeast to the North Fork trailhead. After .7 mile on the North Fork Trail, ford the stream to pitch camp in an open area just north of the path. Next day, continue 6.3 miles on the North Fork to close the loop. (304-946-2695;

The way From Charleston, link I-79 N toUS19StoWV55E.In46.3miles, turn left on WV 150 (Highland Scenic Highway). Park on your left in 8 miles.