Photo by Shutterstock
Photo by Shutterstock
Bryce Canyon is one of 15 certified Dark Sky Places in Utah, among them Rainbow Bridge National Monument, Canyonlands National Park, and Arches National Park.
On clear nights under these starry skies, you can often see much of the Milky Way with the naked eye.
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The closest most city dwellers get to stargazing is scoping the latest celebrity gossip in the grocery store check-out line, thanks to city lights and air pollution. But there’s nothing quite like looking up into an expansive night sky dotted with shooting stars, planets, and constellations. The International Dark-Sky Association (IDA), founded in 1988, recognizes more than 130 places—urban settings, national parks, nature reserves—that preserve the planet’s darkest, most star-filled skies. UNESCO also recognizes a number of certified Starlight Reserves on its list of Astronomical Heritage sites. These spectacular stargazing spots offer visitors opportunities to learn more about the universe and reconnect with the incredible planet we all call home. From Utah to Namibia, here are some of the world’s best places for stargazing.
One of many national parks located in the southwestern United States, Bryce Canyon is particularly noteworthy for its surreal-looking hoodoo rock formations and its especially starry night skies. The more than 35,000-acre national park in Utah is less-visited than the nearby Grand Canyon (which is also an International Dark Sky Park)—and thus, it’s better for more remote stargazing and astronomy programming. On nightly excursions led by the park’s highly trained Astronomy Rangers, visitors can check out up to 7,500 stars, see a horizon-to-horizon view of the Milky Way, and catch glimpses of both Venus and Jupiter.
New Zealand’s Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve was established in 2012 to recognize the incredible stargazing opportunities in the Mackenzie Basin on the South Island. At this one of just 16 Dark Sky Reserves in the world, visitors flock toward the reserve’s planetarium, telescope areas, and observatories, where guided tours are offered at both the Lake Tekapo Earth and Sky and Aoraki/Mount Cook visitor centers. On clear nights in the reserve, which comprises Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park, it’s often possible to see the Aurora Australis, the Southern Cross, and the Southern Star—all with the park’s namesake peak (reaching more than 12,000 feet) in the backdrop.
The NamibRand Nature Reserve lies in what the IDA calls “one of the naturally darkest (yet accessible) places on Earth,” due to the fact that the closest inhabited communities are located at least 60 miles from its location. The nearly 500,000-acre stretch of land in southwestern Namibia is protected by the Namib Desert Environmental Education Trust (NaDEET) Center, which runs educational environmental programs in the area (mostly for local students). Visitors seeking the NamibRand Nature Reserve stargazing experience should check out the Wolwedans camps and lodges, where travelers can book a sustainably-focused overnight stay in the starry-skied desert.
The Canary Islands are home to three UNESCO-recognized “Starlight Reserves” designated by the nonprofit Starlight Foundation. The starry night sky can be viewed clearly from across the Atlantic Ocean archipelago, but both professional and amateur astronomers are typically directed to La Palma and Tenerife for the booming astro-tourism industry. These two islands are home to three observatory areas set up by the Tenerife-based Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias. Some of the best places to stargaze on these islands include the Garajonay Summit and San Bartolo Mountain (La Palma) and El Palmar viewpoint and Guajara Mountain (Tenerife).
Located on the Big Island, dormant volcano Mauna Kea offers both the highest peak in Hawaii as well as the best stargazing opportunities in the region. About halfway up Mauna Kea, which reaches nearly 14,000 feet above sea level, the Onizuka Center for International Astronomy Visitor Information Station offers nightly stargazing programs and specialty tours with telescopes for visitors. From there, visitors can continue to the volcano’s summit with their own four-wheel drive vehicle or as part of a guided excursion. (Still, it’s advised that travelers pause at the midway point to acclimatize to the dramatic change in elevation.)
This UNESCO World Heritage site is widely known by avid travelers for a reason other than its stargazing; Sagarmatha National Park in Nepal is also home to the world’s highest peak, Mount Everest. Still, visitors don’t need to be ready to trek the slopes of this not-so-gentle giant to get a memorable experience in the area. The national park also includes a series of hiking trails on slightly more approachable mountain peaks as well as a lower-altitude forested zone, where adventurers can view the towering Mount Everest surrounded by a broad night sky and smattering of bright stars.
The Kerry International Dark Sky Reserve occupies the southwest area of Ireland on the Iveragh Peninsula and along the Wild Atlantic Way. At night, this land between the Kerry Mountains and Atlantic Ocean offers a breathtaking dark and starry sky undisturbed by the nine inhabited villages within its parameters. Guests to this remote part of Ireland can stay at a number of locally owned properties (or campgrounds!) within the reserve and can even enlist an experienced astronomer as a Stargazing Guide.
This 6-million-acre preserve of land in Alaska is home to a slew of native wildlife, such as grizzly bears and caribou, as well as Denali mountain peak, the highest summit in North America. Far removed from light and noise pollution, the unspoiled landscape within Denali National Park isn’t just reserved for sightseeing on the ground—visitors are also encouraged to turn their heads toward the sky, where stars, planets, and even the Aurora Borealis (northern lights) are visible in the dark night sky throughout most of the year. Those looking for optimum stargazing opportunities should visit the national park during fall, winter, or spring, when the area experiences longer periods of darkness for extended hours of world-class stargazing.
Low rainfall, high altitude, and scant light pollution in Chile’s greater Atacama-Elqui region make it the “North Star” of astro-tourism—at least here on Earth. The 90,000-acre Elqui Valley, which is also known for its wine production, became the first-ever International Dark Sky Sanctuary in 2015. (It’s named the Gabriela Mistral Dark Sky Sanctuary in honor of the 20th-century Nobel prize–winning poet Gabriela Mistral, who spent her childhood in the Chilean region.) About five hours north of the Elqui Valley, the tourist-friendly town of San Pedro de Atacama offers a mix of budget hostels and luxury accommodations in the Atacama Desert, such as the sustainable Atacama Lodge, which provides guided stargazing experiences in the area.
The Sounds of Silence tour ($234 per adult for a four-hour tour, including dinner and drinks) at Ayers Rock Resort begins at sunset, when the iconic rock formations of Uluru and Kata Tjuta glow fiery red. After a short walk through the dunes to a panoramic viewpoint, participants settle in at their tables to dine outdoors on Aussie fare. When night falls, one of the resort’s resident star talkers directs diners to sights in the southern sky and explains the stars’ significance in the culture of Uluru’s traditional landowners, the aboriginal Anangu people. The resort also offers a family-friendly Astro Tour ($54 per adult) which takes groups out for a one-hour stargazing excursion.
This article originally appeared online in February 2017; it was updated on July 7, 2020, and October 12, 2021 to include current information.
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