Photo by Shutterstock
The Milky Way is a popular reason for people to travel to Dark Sky Parks and Reserves.
If you love stargazing, visit one of these 9 top spots—including Great Basin National Park and Galloway Forest Park—around the world.
Being kept in the dark isn’t usually desirable—that is, unless you’re going stargazing. But for most people, seeing an inky night sky swimming in stars, planets, and meteors is something they have to plan a trip around. More than 80 percent of North Americans can’t see the Milky Way from their homes.
However, there are places where travelers can go to experience a window into the universe: Dark Sky Parks and Reserves.
Dark Sky Parks and Reserves are places with a designation earned from the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA), certifying that the area has views of the night sky unspoiled by light pollution.
According to the IDA, it’s an area with “an exceptional or distinguished quality of starry nights and a nocturnal environment that is specifically protected for its scientific, natural, educational, cultural heritage, and/or public enjoyment.”
There are four main labels within the Dark Sky Places program: Dark Sky Park, Dark Sky Reserve, Dark Sky Community, and Dark Sky Sanctuaries. Of the more than 200 Places, more than half are Parks (although Reserves usually take up the most landmass).
While the program has been around since 2001, applications for the designations have exploded in popularity in recent years. The Association went from 10 Places in 2010 to 100 by 2019. By the beginning of 2022, there were nearly 200 Dark Sky Places worldwide.
New Zealand’s only International Dark Sky Reserve spans 4,300 square kilometers and envelops much of Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park and the Mackenzie Basin of New Zealand’s south island. Far from city lights, Aoraki-Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve’s alpine lakes (like the popular Lake Pukaki) and glacial valleys make for a dazzling spot to scope out the Milky Way, the Southern Cross (the nearest stars to our sun), the Large and Small Clouds of Magellan (two dwarf galaxies), the Aurora Australis (otherwise known as the Southern Lights), and other nighttime wonders.
The clear constellations have long played a critical role in the life of the area’s first residents, the Māori. They used the stars to navigate and to track the seasons, and stars are important in their storytelling and customs.
“The reserve seeks to honor that history by keeping the night sky a protected and integral part of the areaʼs natural and cultural landscape,” Ashley Wilson, the director of conservation at the IDA, told AFAR. “It is a perfect place to protect and honor those traditions as the reserveʼs Mackenzie Basin has the clearest, darkest, and the most spectacular night sky in New Zealand.”
Big Sky Stargazing offers nightly one-hour tours year-round (though tours will be canceled if it’s too cloudy). Guests are shuttled to the park, where their astronomy guide teaches them about the dazzling cosmos with high-powered telescopes.
One of the darkest spots remaining in Europe is the Galloway Forest Dark Sky Park, which became the United Kingdom’s first International Dark Sky Park in 2009.
“It’s threaded with hiking trails and villages in one of Britain’s largest remaining forests, with plenty of opportunities for culture and recreation in addition to fantastic night sky views,” John Barentine, an astronomer, author and founder of Dark Sky Consulting, explained to AFAR.
For viewing spots, we’d recommend unfurling a blanket on the shores of Clatteringshaws Loch (a large, easy-to-reach freshwater reservoir) or near the Kirroughtree Visitor Center.
Dark Sky Rangers leads guided night sky tours, wherein guests spend two to two-and-a-half hours learning how to spot planets (like Venus, Mars, and Saturn) and identify different constellations (such as Orion, Leo, and Draco) through Astro-binoculars. Tours typically take place in the evening, although late night and early morning experiences are possible. They occur between August and May when the nights are darkest.
The Namib desert is one of the driest places on Earth. Here, rainfall averages just two inches per year. For that reason, its landscape is largely gravelly plains, stark savanna, and red sand dunes. While those conditions make life there challenging, they create stellar stargazing opportunities.
“This game reserve in southwest Africa is one of the most remote in terms of distance to populated areas,” Barentine said. “It takes a long time to get there by road from the capital, Windhoek, but the combination of its rural setting and typically dry, clear weather yields dark skies as close to perfection that most people can ever reasonably expect to see.”
Most nights, there is near-perfect visibility—clouds are scarce in NamibRand. And because there are no tree canopies or towering peaks, the views of the sky are unobstructed. Look for Namibia’s skyward “Big Five” here: the Southern Cross, the Jewel Box, Omega Centauri, Tarantula Nebula, and Eta Carinae.
Hakos Astro Guest Farm, near NamibRand, is specifically geared toward giving guests one-of-a-kind astrological vacations. It offers stargazing tours and has oodles of telescopes and other equipment should guests want to explore on their own.
Michigan is rife with magnificent skyscapes—the state holds six dark sky preserves and two internationally designated dark sky parks. However, perhaps none has the Goldilocks factors of being both otherworld beautiful and accessible quite like Headlands International Dark Sky Park.
Found at the tip of Michigan’s mitten, Headlands encompasses 600 acres of old-growth forest on the shores of Lake Michigan and is open free of charge, all day, every day. Here nights are dry and crisp, and the skyline seems to stretch on forever. The park also has an observatory with a research-grade telescope, which makes enjoying astrological phenomena, such as meteor showers and the northern lights, that much easier.
Headlands can easily be visited on your own, but if you want something more structured, the park maintains a robust night sky event schedule.
The largest land area on Earth protected for dark skies, these 9 million acres are located in one of the last remaining large “pools” of nighttime darkness in North America. In total, the reserve includes parts of Big Bend National Park, Big Bend Ranch State Park, Black Gap Wildlife Management Area, and three protected areas in Mexico—Maderas del Carmen, Ocampo, and Cañón de Santa Elena—making it the world’s first binational International Dark Sky Reserve.
“It’s a wild, mostly off-the-grid place that provides abundant daytime views and opportunities to recreate in, along incredibly dark, but readily accessible, night skies,” Barentine said of why he particularly enjoys this underrated national park area.
There are so many pristine locations to see a wealth of stars, planets, meteors, man-made satellites, and the Milky Way, even with the naked eye here, but if you’d like a deeper look into the universe, it’s possible to visit the McDonald Observatory in Fort Davis, Texas.
The National Park Service staff offer interpretive night sky programming throughout the year, including star parties and moonlight walks.
Since Great Basin National Park is nestled between two vast mountain ranges (the Sierra Nevada in California and the Wasatch Mountains of Utah), it’s largely protected from the glow of distant cities. In fact, because it’s one of the darkest places in the country, it has earned the designation of Gold Tier Dark Sky Park, the highest level awarded by the IDSA.
It is an award the park leans into, with a research-grade observatory, an Astronomy Amphitheater, an annual Astronomy Festival each September, and regular ranger led auroral activities. Of course, you’re welcome to seek out the celestial beauty on your own—the park just recommends finding a spot with an open horizon, like the Mather Overlook or the Baker Archaeological Site.
Park rangers offer regular astronomy programs. There’s also the Great Basin Star Train, where at each nighttime stop along the Nevada Northern Railway staff set up telescopes for stargazers.
Whittled into existence over many millennia by the fast moving Colorado River, the spindly sandstone spires, vast canyons, and table-like mountains of Canyonlands National Park make for a dynamic backdrop for viewing the night sky.
“Of the ‘Mighty 5’ National Parks in Utah, I am partial to Canyonlands National Park,” Wilson said. “While they are all magnificent, Canyonlands is also one of the quietest places in the country, allowing you to truly experience a dark and quiet night.”
Island in the Sky, a massive, flat-topped mesa with panoramic views, is a particularly popular spot to catch the nighttime show. Wooden Shoe Arch Overlook and Big Spring Canyon Overlook are also stellar spots.
Red Rock Astronomy offers tours of the area, wherein the guide shows guests “planets, galaxies, star clusters, nebulae, and other breathtaking celestial sights with his high powered telescopes.”
Pitcairn, a group of four volcanic islands in the southern Pacific, is one of the most isolated locations on the planet—the next nearest land form (with electric lights) is more than 1,400 miles away in Tahiti. It’s also sparsely populated—only one of the islands is inhabited and it’s home to fewer than 50 people. So it makes sense that the night sky has little to compete with.
“This is the ultimate, the darkest, that the night sky can theoretically ever get,” Barentine said.
Appropriately, Pitcairn’s International Dark Sky Sanctuary is known as “Mata ki te Rangi” meaning “eyes to the sky.” Every night, Pitcairn’s power supply is shut off to guarantee that locals and visitors can see the southern sky in all its pitch-black splendor.
Getting to Pitcairn is exceedingly time consuming. There are no airstrips on the islands, so flying isn’t an option. Travelers need to book a room on board the island’s dedicated passenger and supply vessel, the MV Silver Supporter, which departs from New Zealand. Round-trip it usually takes a month.
Located on the Yaeyama Islands in Japan’s Okinawa Prefecture, Iriomote-Ishigaki was the first place in Japan to earn accreditation with the International Dark-Sky Association.
Because it’s advantageously close to the Tropic of Cancer and in an area free of jet streams, the conditions for stargazing on the island are prime. Its location also means that 84 of today’s 88 constellations can be seen here over the course of the year.
Hirata Tourism offers tours from 7 to 8 p.m. every night from February to November. Guests are picked up from their hotel and taken to the ferry terminal, where they board a boat to float under the cosmos above Miyara Bay while the guide points out stars through a telescope.
Sign up for the Daily Wander newsletter for expert travel inspiration and tips
Please enter a valid email address.
more from afar