The dark skies that spread like a cosmic ceiling over Reno Tahoe are some of the blackest, starriest, most mind-bendingly beautiful in the US. Nevada is perhaps the “darkest” state in the Lower 48, and its immense northern reaches — with no major cities beyond Reno — are exactly why.
In other words, when you travel here you should plan to explore the city by day, the universe by night. The only limit to what you’ll find is your sleep schedule. Watch the video below and then continue on to our guide to discover what’s possible (and tremendously visible!) in Reno Tahoe.
Basking in the glow of the cosmos from the Black Rock Desert
The 200 square miles of the Black Rock Playa — itself a fraction of the 1,000-square-mile Black Rock Desert — is one of the flattest stretches of land in the country. That means when you make the drive from Reno (approx. three hours), you’ll encounter one of the best unobstructed panoramas you can find anywhere.
Its unique topography is part of the reason tens of thousands of people flock to the Playa each year for Burning Man, the iconic annual event that embraces art and community. During this cultural happening, the Black Rock Desert transforms into a temporary city where creativity takes shape through self-expression. The expansive night sky provides a surreal backdrop for the out-of-this-world sculptures, flashing neon lights, and pyrotechnics.
Of course, Burning Man isn’t the only or necessarily the best time to take in the midnight vistas of the Black Rock Desert. You don’t even need to visit the Playa to score stellar views — in total, the Black Rock Desert-High Rock Canyon Emigrant Trails NCA encompasses 800,000 sparsely populated acres of public lands, with 120 miles of hiking trails and endless opportunities for gazing at the heavens.
Each summer, the nonprofit Friends of Black Rock-High Rock hosts an annual campout during the Perseid meteor shower. It’s a great opportunity to enjoy the Black Rock Desert, and Reno Tahoe’s dark skies, in all their cosmic glory.
Get creative: This is also the spot for creating light art with long-exposure photography. Pack a flashlight or two and see what fluorescent masterpieces you can create!
Following the lights to the Biggest Little City
There’s another reason one of the country’s biggest and brightest events happens in this corner of Nevada: It fits the vibe of Reno’s electric arts and nightlife scenes like a glove.
Though Burning Man only takes place once a year, the creative spirit and artistic masterpieces of the Playa live year-round in Reno. Many of Black Rock City’s most iconic creations have found a permanent home in downtown and Midtown, waiting to be explored. Download Art Spot Reno’s Playa Art Trail map and set out on a self-guided tour — the map will enhance your quest by providing info on the artists and the history and concept behind each piece.
And while Reno’s public art can be viewed any time of day, many pieces are best experienced after the sun goes down. Thanks to one of the biggest revitalization projects of its kind, downtown Reno is being reinvented as a pedestrian-friendly arts neighborhood. Reno’s Neon Line spans 20 city blocks of historic neon signs, free public art installations that rotate annually, and live entertainment — along with endless opportunities to enjoy some of Reno’s finest culinary adventures.
Touring the universe from Massacre Rim…
When you’re next ready to explore beyond the neon lights of the Biggest Little City, know that there are plenty more extraordinary places to enjoy Nevada’s dark skies. And many of them are easily accessible with Reno as your basecamp.
Case in point: One of the darkest places on Earth is located north of Reno, just a bit farther on from Black Rock. Massacre Rim Wilderness Study Area is a dark-sky sanctuary — one of the top designations awarded by the International Dark-Sky Association. Thanks to its remote location, the light pollution in the area is almost undetectable. At the time of certification, it was only the 7th dark-sky sanctuary in the world.
To earn this lofty status, the Friends of Nevada Wilderness explored the region mile by mile, measuring the light generated by the night sky using the Bortle scale. The result: Massacre Rim scored at the top of the charts in terms of star brightness — in fact, the starlight is so bright here, it casts a shadow. Your eyes will drift through the ocean of stars that make up our Milky Way galaxy, and you can even spot our neighbor, the Andromeda Galaxy, without the aid of a telescope.
Note: Visitors to Massacre Rim must be completely self-sufficient. There are no services within the 100,000-acre expanse and very little cell service. After all, the lack of amenities is what keeps the night sky this brilliant.
…or right from Reno
For those seeking to explore Reno Tahoe’s dark skies while staying closer to the comforts of civilization, a guided star tour is the way to go. Tahoe Star Tours puts on guided explorations of the night sky at Northstar California Resort, a short drive from Reno. Each tour begins with a presentation to open the imagination, followed by star- and galaxy-gazing through a large Celestron telescope. It’s difficult not to leave with a deeper understanding of the night sky and appreciation of our place in the universe.
Take that understanding even further with a Friday or Saturday visit to the Fleishmann Planetarium & Science Center at the University of Nevada, Reno. The planetarium runs programs and presentations for all ages, along with the opportunity to view telescopes from around the globe. There’s a full-dome theater so the night skies can be explored no matter what the weather brings. New programs and shows are offered each month to quench that never-ending thirst for knowledge and connection with the cosmos.
However you choose to enjoy them, one thing is clear: Reno Tahoe’s dark skies leave a profound impression on all those who witness them. Are you ready to be awed?