Ecotourism often focuses on vanishing natural resources, such as rainforests and glaciers. It’s not often, though, that we think of looking up when we ponder the fate of the natural world under threat. Yet the starry night sky is disappearing as rapidly from human experience as vast tracts of the Amazon or the Arctic ice cap.
Light pollution is growing at the rate of four percent per year, according to the International Dark Sky Association. It is so pervasive that if you were to stand on the observation deck of the Empire State Building, you would see less than one percent of the stars that Galileo Galilei saw through his telescope in 1610.
Part One of this series explored the movement to protect the earth’s natural nightscapes. Here in Part Two, you’ll find suggestions for stargazing destinations that will open up the universe to whole new realms of perception. Escape the orange glow of interstates, car dealerships and mall parking lots, and discover the wonders of our twinkling galaxy!
Where to See Dark Night Skies in the U.S.
1. Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, CA
Just a couple of hours from one of the most densely populated areas on the planet, California’s largest state park is one of the darkest places in the country, according to the Bortle Dark-Sky Scale, which measures star visibility on a scale of one to nine, or pristinely dark to inner-city bright. Anza-Borrego’s exceptionally clear skies, which rank a 2 on that scale, have long been a favorite subject of astrophotographers. Sometimes even the northern lights are visible at this low latitude. With 500 miles of dirt roads, 12 wilderness areas and miles of hiking trails, there’s easy access to the park’s 600,000 undeveloped acres that make up 1/5 of San Diego County. The town of Borrego Springs, surrounded by the park, is the second U.S. city (after Flagstaff, AZ) to receive the International Dark Sky Community designation, recognizing its residents’ commitment to give starlight primacy. Stay at the Borrego Valley Inn, where each room has a private courtyard for night-sky viewing.
2. Bryce Canyon National Park, UT
Far from the light pollution of any major city, southeast Utah is the largest sanctuary of natural darkness in the U.S. On a moonless night, more than 7,500 individual stars are easily visible over Bryce Canyon, and Venus is often so bright that it casts a shadow. The park has been an important part of the National Park Service’s quest to preserve natural “lightscapes.” A special force of park rangers and volunteer astronomers known as “The Dark Rangers” present educational and entertaining events that celebrate the natural darkness, including multimedia shows, guided sky viewing through telescopes, and full moon hikes. Avid stargazers should plan to attend the annual Bryce Canyon Astronomy Festival, which happens each summer. Other national parks in southern Utah, such as Canyonlands, Capitol Reef and Natural Bridges, also offer spectacular night skyscapes.
3. Chaco Culture National Historic Park, NM
In the remote high desert of Chaco Canyon in northwest New Mexico, the night sky looks largely as it did when the ancient puebloan people of the Chaco culture gazed up at it a thousand years ago. In 1991 Chaco Culture NHP instituted a Night Sky Initiative, bringing astronomy into its interpretive programs and retrofitting all park lighting to enhance night sky viewing. A permanent observatory was built in 1997, and regular Evening Night Sky programs are presented several times a week from April through October, featuring talks on archaeoastronomy and sky viewing through telescopes. In partnership with the Albuquerque Astronomical Society, the park offers Star Parties twice yearly, held during dark periods in May and September. The best way to bathe yourself in Chaco’s starlight is to camp within the park.
4. Goldendale Observatory State Park, WA
Near where the wild and scenic Klickitat River meets the Columbia, the town of Goldendale lies nestled among piney foothills that roll down to the eastern end of the Columbia Gorge. Recreation opportunities abound, from steelhead fishing and whitewater rafting to wildflower hikes and wine tasting in the vineyards of the lower Yakima Valley. But Goldendale’s biggest draw may be some of the country’s best stargazing through the nation’s largest public telescope. Goldendale Observatory Interpretive Center is a five-acre educational facility on a 2,100-foot-high hilltop, with programs for novice stargazers and astronomy aficionados. Several telescopes are on site including a 24.5-inch used for nighttime public viewing sessions. Year-round interpretive and viewing events are offered, each including an introduction to telescopes and backyard stargazing. Afternoon programs feature a tour of the observatory’s sundials and daytime telescope viewing of the sun or Venus. To be sure you visit the observatory at an optimal time, use the Clear Sky Chart on its website, which is an astronomer’s forecast of sky conditions over Goldendale.
5. Cherry Springs State Park, PA
One of the darkest spots on the eastern seaboard, Cherry Springs State Park is surprisingly wild. The 48-acre state park in remote north-central Pennsylvania is surrounded by the largely undeveloped 262,000-acre Susquehannock State Forest and is home to elk, bald eagles and very starry skies. Recognizing that this unique resource needed to be managed and protected, in 2000, the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources declared Cherry Springs State Park the state’s first Dark Sky Park. It is also the world’s second International Dark Sky Park.
From the Astronomy Field at the top of a 2,300-foot mountain there is an unobstructed 360-degree view of the nucleus of the Milky Way. There is also very little air traffic over the park, making it ideal for astrophotography. Four observatories are available to rent, and public stargazing programs are offered by park educators and guest speakers. Star Parties are held in June and September, sponsored by local astronomical societies. Hiking and mountain biking trails run through the park, and 30 campsites are available from mid-April until December.
6. The Headlands, Mackinaw City, MI
Named an International Dark Sky Park in May 2011, this 600-acre Emmet County park on the Straits of Mackinac is the newest to receive the prestigious designation, one of just six in the U.S. and nine worldwide. The thickly forested park overlooks two miles of undeveloped Lake Michigan shoreline. Monthly Dark Sky events intended for naked-eye observation include after-dark walks, star photography coaching and a Harvest Moon potluck supper. At any time, visitors can follow the “Dark Sky Viewing” signs to reach the open area along the lakeshore. Nature trails lace the old-growth forest, inviting hikers, cyclists and cross-country skiers to enjoy the pristine woodlands and abundant wildlife. Farther north on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula there is more superb night-sky viewing on the Keweenaw Peninsula, a finger of land that juts out into Lake Superior toward Canada. The northern edge looks out over miles of water, and the only lights to distract from the clouds of stars and auroral displays are those of passing freighters. Brockway Mountain Drive, the highest scenic roadway between the Alleghenies and the Rockies, offers stupendous views 1,000 feet above Lake Superior’s rocky shore.
7. Mount Haleakala and Mauna Kea, HI
Not surprisingly, given its incredibly isolated location in the Pacific Ocean, Hawaii offers world-class night-sky viewing. At Haleakala National Park on Maui, dominated by 10,000-foot Mount Haleakala, the Kilo Hoku Star Program offers summit-area star-watching walks and talks led by rangers from May through October. As you listen to park staff tell stories while you travel the night skies over Hawaii, you’ll learn major constellations and the secrets of Polynesian navigation. You can also stargaze on your own: rent a pair of binoculars at one of the island dive shops, pick up a star map at the visitors center, and see if you can find the moons of Jupiter. Over on the Big Island, high above Hilo on the slopes of 13,796-foot Mauna Kea, Mauna Kea Summit Adventures offers sunset and stargazing tours beneath the volcano’s snowcapped peak. You’ll see the summit observatories that house the world’s largest telescopes, then do some solar-system viewing of your own using portable telescopes midway down the mountain, under the tutelage of interpretive guides.
Where to Find the Best Stargazing Beyond the U.S.
Here are seven more places around the planet where the night skies are among the darkest on earth:
1. Lake Tekapo / Mount Cook, New Zealand
Slated as the first UNESCO Starlight Reserve, the Lake Tekapo region in New Zealand’s Southern Alps boasts some of the clearest and darkest skies on earth. Take an Earth & Sky tour to Mount John Observatory, internationally recognized as one of the best locations to view the southern night skies, including the Magellanic Clouds, satellite galaxies to our own Milky Way.
With some of the darkest skies in Europe, Galloway Forest Park in southwest Scotland was named the UK’s first International Dark Sky Park in 2009. On the Sky Quality Meter scale from 0 to 25, Galloway measures between 21 and 23.6. A photographer’s darkroom would register 24, whereas the center of a major city such as Glasgow or Edinburgh would score 8. More than 7,000 stars are visible in the 185,000-acre park. Check out Dark Sky Scotland for information on stargazing events here and elsewhere in the country.
3. Zselic Starry Sky Park, Hungary
The Hungarian dark sky park project was initiated in 2006 in response to growing concern over light pollution. Conservation of the night sky was included in the management plan of Hungary’s national parks, and Zselic Starry Sky Park was established in partnership with the Hungarian Astronomical Association. Located within the Zselic Landscape Protection Area in southwest Hungary, the park is a popular place for guided star walks, with brilliant views of the Milky Way and Zodiacal light. Neighboring villages have adopted a night-sky-friendly lighting code, earning the area coveted International Dark Sky Park status, one of just two such locations in Europe.
4. Isle of Sark, Channel Islands, UK
Lying 80 miles off the south coast of England, with just 600 residents and no cars, the Channel Isle of Sark has earned the title of the world’s first Dark Sky Island. The International Dark Sky Association has recognized Sark’s wondrous night skies, kept inky-black by the lack of public street lighting or vehicle headlamps. The Milky Way stretches from horizon to horizon, and streaking meteors are a frequent sight.
5. Mont-Megantic International Dark Sky Reserve, Quebec, Canada
Located 145 miles east of Montreal, Mont-Mégantic National Park sits within a newly designated International Dark Sky Reserve, a tract of land dedicated to preserving excellent night sky conditions. It is notable not only for its unobstructed view of the skies, but also for its ASTROLab, an astronomy interpretation center open to the public, with guided daytime tours and astronomy evenings at the observatory. The Royal Astronomical Society of Canada has designated nine additional dark sky reserves across the country.
The dry, clear skies of the Atacama Desert in northern Chile are considered the best place in the Southern Hemisphere for astronomy. With thin, high-altitude air, no more than a millimeter of rain in any given year, and virtually no light pollution, the Atacama offers optimal stargazing conditions. Explora Atacama offers guided night sky explorations with telescope viewing of such features as the Tarantula Nebula and Fornax Cluster of galaxies. Tourists can also visit the Cerro Mamalluca Observatory on their own, where telescope viewing and guided tours, including the Andean view of the cosmos, are available.
7. Wiruna, NSW, Australia
Among the eucalyptus woodlands three hours’ drive northwest of Sydney, 100 acres of land has been set aside specifically for sky-watching. Wiruna, which is aboriginal for “sunset,” is a project of the Astronomical Society of New South Wales. The site offers both observation facilities and basic accommodations, though most visitors prefer to camp. Each month, over the weekend closest to the New Moon, the Society holds an astro-camp for members and visitors. It also hosts the annual South Pacific Star Party in April, which draws several hundred amateur astronomers from around Australia and the world. Wiruna is also a delight for birdwatchers, and nature lovers can enjoy a day trip to 1.2 million-acre Wollemi National Park, the largest wilderness in New South Wales.
Here’s to your discovery of the dark, fellow traveler. I leave you with these words from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry:
“Night, the beloved. Night, when words fade and things come alive. When the destructive analysis of day is done, and all that is truly important becomes whole and sound again. When man reassembles his fragmentary self and grows with the calm of a tree.”
Feature photo: Milky Way over the Atacama Desert, Chile. Credit: Gerd Huedepohl, European Southern Observatory