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Dark skies: 23 best places in the world to stargaze

Posted at 4:44 PM, Jul 12, 2019

We know the earliest people in recorded history were fascinated with space, and that continues into our modern era.

And while we have technologies to study the heavens they probably couldn't even dream of, those earlier observers did have one edge: No light pollution . A study in 2016 in Science Advances found a majority of US and European citizens could not see the Milky Way at night because of all the artificial light.

Thankfully, there's a ready-made list of destinations around the world under dark skies that offer the best chances to spot meteors, see stars and ponder constellations.

The International Dark Sky Association (IDA) recently added the Grand Canyon National Park to its certified list, a process that took nearly three years and involved the park converting most of its 5,000 light fixtures to "dark-sky compliant."

The IDA is a non-profit organization fighting against light pollution to preserve the quality of the night sky.

"Misdirected and excessive lighting are the main cause of sky glow and light pollution," says Chip Harrison, park manager for Cherry Springs State Park in Pennsylvania, one of the IDA's certified Dark Sky Parks.

The IDA grants Dark Sky Park and Dark Sky Reserve status to locations dedicated to preserving high-quality night sky darkness.

Surprisingly, the darkest night skies aren't all in remote areas. One of the IDA's aims is for reserves and parks to be accessible.

"Dark Sky Parks and Dark Sky Reserves are some of the best places on Earth to experience truly dark night skies because they are both dark and, more importantly, accessible," says Dr. John Barentine, Dark Sky Places program manager at IDA.

"Many are already well-visited national and local parks, which means that by designating them, we have the best chance of bringing as many people as possible into contact with the alternately awesome and endangered resource of dark night skies."

International Dark Sky Reserves

Westhavelland International Dark Sky Reserve, Germany

Designated February 2014

Westhavelland Nature Park is the closest International Dark Sky Reserve to a major populated city.

Known in Germany as "Sternenpark Westhavelland" (Star Park Westhavelland), the nature park is approximately 100 kilometers west of Berlin.

"You can see the Milky Way and rare displays of the Aurora Borealis," says Andreas Haenel, director of the Museum Am Schölerberg's planetarium and who led efforts for IDA's designation.

"I think the most fascinating experience is in autumn when thousands of migrating birds -- wild geese and cranes -- give an impressive background sound gunder the starry sky," she says.

The darkest and clearest skies are between mid-May and mid-July during the new moon from midnight to dawn. Under these conditions, zodiacal light (sunlight scattered by dust in space) and gegenschein (a faint brightening of zodiacal light at midnight) can be seen.

Westhavelland Nature Park ; Stremmestraße 10, 14715 Milower Land OT Milow; +49 033 86 211 227

Kerry International Dark Sky Reserve, Ireland

Designated January 2014

"The reserve is a brand new baby on the Irish tourism menu," Julie Ormonde, chairperson of Kerry Dark Sky Group and project manager of the Kerry Dark Sky Reserve, told CNN in 2014.

The reserve spans an area of 700 square kilometers on the Iveragh Peninsula. Its location between the Kerry Mountains and Atlantic Ocean provides natural protection against light pollution from other Irish cities.

Most of the 1.5 million tourists that pass through this region stop to photograph the landscape in the day, she says. Few visit at night despite the starry show of Milky Way, star clusters, nebulae and meteors. On a clear night, you can see the Milky Way's closest neighbor 2.5 million light years away, the Andromeda Galaxy .

The Kerry reserve is home to fewer than 4,000 residents and its top stargazing spots are easily accessible by car. St. Finian's Bay is at the core of the site, offering one of the best night sky views without any tinge of light pollution.

Kerry International Dark Sky Reserve ; + 353 (0) 87 7845688

Pic du Midi International Dark Sky Reserve, France

Designated December 2013

Around 110,000 stargazers each year visit the reserve to view zodiacal light, the Milky Way and constellations, says Nicholas Bourgeois, project manager of the International Dark Sky Reserve at Pic du Midi.

Pic du Midi covers 3,112 square kilometers spread across the Pyrénées National Park and Pyrénées-Mont Perdu, a UNESCO World Heritage Site .

The most popular spot for astronomical views is at the Observatoire Midi-Pyrénées, built in the 1870s. The observatory houses one of the world's highest museums at an altitude of 2,877 meters, with exhibits on astronomy and the history of Pic du Midi.

Each year, around 3,300 night sky watchers stay overnight at the observatory for the "Night at the Summit" package . The highlight of the stay is a tour of the two-meter Bernard Lyot telescope, the largest in France. You can also combine the trip to Pic du Midi with extreme sports. Astrophilic extreme skiers can make their own way down the vertiginous slope for no extra charge.

Pic du Midi International Dark Sky Reserve , Rue Pierre Lamy de la Chapelle; +33 08 25 00 28 77

Brecon Beacons National Park, UK

Designated February 2013

Mars and Jupiter stand out brightly against the dark sky at Brecon Beacons, making them easy to spot without equipment.

Using a telescope, you might see the Galilean satellites -- Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto. The group of Jupiter's four largest moons was named in honor of Galileo Galilei who observed them more than 400 years ago.

Sugar Loaf Mountain has the darkest skies on the reserve . Several small roads off the main A40 road lead up to the hill, more than 335 meters above sea level.

The vantage point offers wide views over the Usk Valley from Abergavenny to Crickhowell. If you want to mix historic Welsh architecture with stargazing, you can enjoy the silhouette of the Llanthony Priory against the night sky. Parts of the ruins were converted into a hotel and pub .

After a night of sky observation, you can step into the former Augustinian priory for authentic Welsh ale.

Brecon Beacons National Park , Plas y Ffynnon, Cambrian Way; +44 1874 624 437

NamibRand Nature Reserve, Namibia

Designated May 2012

NamibRand Nature Reserve's location on the eastern edge of the Namib Desert has low humidity and therefore high night sky clarity.

The closest town is Maltahöhe, 100 kilometers away. The shortest distance by road is 148 kilometers.

"The most interesting objects include the center of our Milky Way Galaxy, the Megellanic Clouds, the zodiacal light and planets," says Nils Odendaal, CEO of NamibRand Nature Reserve.

Under NamibRand's exceptional viewing conditions, zodiacal light and gegenschein are visible.

Sossusvlei Desert Lodge has the best night viewing facility. You can identify deep-sky objects with their 12-inch telescope, aided by their resident astronomer. In the heart of the reserve, Wolwedans campsites lend out smaller portable telescopes and provide guides trained in basic astronomy.

Sossusvlei Desert Lodge , C27, Maltahöhe District; +27 11 8094300

Wolwedans ; +264 61 230 616

NamibRand Nature Reserve ; +264 61 224882

Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve, New Zealand

Designated June 2012

Aoraki Mackenzie is privy to the best night sights of the southern hemisphere. You can see the Aurora Australis, the Southern Cross and the Southern Star.

The reserve is one of the largest designated by the IDA, at almost 4,300 square kilometers on the South Island of New Zealand.

Tens of thousands of visitors each year take the night sky tours at Lake Tekapo and Mount Cook with providers such as Big Sky Stargazing and Mt John Night-time Observatory Tours .

The best views of the starry sky are on nights with no moon. When the full moon is out, "conditions feel eerily like daytime," says Kristian Wilson , an astronomer at Dark Sky Project , Lake Tekapo.

At times, the Milky Way can be seen stretching across from one end of the horizon to the other, he says.

Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve , State Highway 80; +64 27 702 1213

Exmoor National Park, UK

Designated October 2011

Exmoor National Park was Europe's first International Dark Sky Reserve when it was designated in 2011. On the clearest nights, around 3,000 stars are visible.

The darkest skies in the UK are March and April, making them particularly good months for stargazing. During late summer, you have a good chance of seeing meteors.

Wimbleball Lake has one of the best views of the night sky. It has unobstructed lakeside views and its distance from residential areas leave the sky above it nearly pristine.

Exmoor National Park ; +44 01398 323 665

Mont-Mégantic International Dark Sky Reserve, Canada

Designated September 2007

Mont-Mégantic was the first International Dark Sky Reserve when it was designated with Silver tier status in 2007.

"Approximately 50,000 people come to Mont-Megantic a year to appreciate the night sky phenomena," says Sébastian Giguère, head of communications at Mont-Mégantic.

"With the naked eye, [visitors can see] the Milky Way, planets, shooting stars, satellites, Andromeda Galaxy and sometimes Northern Lights.

"With telescopes: moon craters, galaxies, planets, nebulae (star nurseries, supernovae, planetary nebulae) and star clusters."

For the best stargazing, the observatory at the summit has public telescopes strong enough to see craters on the moon's surface.

Mont-Mégantic International Sky Reserve and ASTROLab , 189, Route du Parc, Notre-Dame-des-Bois, Québec; +1 819 888 2941

International Dark Sky Parks

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

Designated June 2019

One of the most famous parks in the world, welcoming more than 5 million visitors annually, Grand Canyon National Park is celebrating its centennial year in 2019.

The park hosts an annual Grand Canyon Star Party each June, lasting eight days. This free event sees amateur astronomers across the US offer nightly astronomy programs and telescope viewing.

Certification was an epic process for the park because, despite its remoteness, it has a lot of footfall, and the lighting to go with it.

Becoming a Dark Sky park involved three years of retrofitting lights and, in the next few years, the park says, 90% of Grand Canyon lights will become night-sky friendly.

Grand Canyon National Park ; +928 638 7888

Mayland Earth to Sky Park & Bare Dark Sky Observatory, North Carolina

Designated February 2014

This Dark Sky Park, managed by Mayland Community College, opened a new public observatory with a roll-off roof in 2017.

It sits at an elevation of 2,736 feet and offers 360-degree views of the region.

Visitors can gaze at the moon, planets and stars through its 34-inch Sam Scope telescope, as well as its smaller planetary telescope.

"Views of the Milky Way from this site are simply stunning," says Todd Bush, a photographer of the night sky. "Future observers here will likely bask in its glow with the unaided eye."

The telescope will be the largest in the southeastern U.S. dedicated to education and public outreach. The site is free for amateur astronomers and the college hopes to attract stargazers from around the area.

Plans are underway to build a state-of-the-art planetarium.

Mayland Earth to Sky Park & Bare Dark Sky Observatory ; +1 828 766 1277

Northumberland Dark Sky Park, UK

Designated December 2013

Northumberland Dark Sky Park is home to Britain's largest sky viewing station, Kielder Observatory.

When the sky is at its darkest in winter, deep sky objects like the Andromeda Galaxy are visible with the naked eye. During summer, you can see the Milky Way, comets and meteors.

Regular programs are led by astronomers at Kielder Observatory including telescope workshops, "Jupiter night" and family astronomy events.

You can enjoy the best of Hadrian's Wall while stargazing. The dark sky park is in the central section of the UNESCO World Heritage Site .

Northumberland Dark Sky Park ; Kielder Observatory , Black Fell, off Shilling Pot; 0191 265 5510

Chaco Culture National Historical Park, New Mexico

Designated August 2013

At Chaco, you can stargaze among ancient Pueblo ruins. Chacoan people observed the same night sky almost 1,000 years ago.

With more than 99% of the park a "natural darkness zone," those afraid of the dark better bring a flashlight -- the regulations to conserve the night sky stipulate no permanent outdoor lighting.

The park holds regular events and activities including archaeo-astronomy, public telescope viewing, Pueblo Bonito full moon walks and campfire astronomy. Special events are organized for phenomena such as eclipses and meteor showers.

Chaco Culture National Historical Park ; +1 505 786 7014 (x 221)

Death Valley National Park, California

Designated February 2013

Death Valley National Park is the largest Dark Sky designated area with a span of 13,700 square kilometers.

The near-pristine night sky has minimal lighting impact from big cities despite being in the vicinity of Las Vegas (190 kilometers to the southeast) and Los Angeles (460 kilometers to the southwest). Death Valley park rangers lead night sky programs and events with astronomy organizations during the main visitor season from November to April.

Mahogany Flat Campground is one of the highest areas you can stay overnight. The site is 2,499 meters above sea level on Telescope Peak, the highest mountain in Death Valley National Park.

Death Valley National Park ; +1 760 786 3200

Big Bend National Park, Texas

Designated February 2012

Big Bend National Park is the Northern Hemisphere's southernmost International Dark Sky Park.

"We are relatively far south in latitude and at least three of the four stars in the Southern Cross and the Southern Star are viewable here," says David Elkowitz, chief of interpretation, partnership and concessions at Big Bend National Park.

On a clear night, you can see the core of the Andromeda Galaxy. Around 2,000 stars are visible as well as meteors and planets -- Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn.

With an elevation of more than 1,600 meters, Chisos Basin Campground offers prime night viewing against the Chisos Mountain range.

Bid Bend National Park ; +1 432 477 2251

Headlands International Dark Sky Park, Michigan

Designated May 2011

Emmet County hosts various events to reconnect visitors with the night sky and star lore of North American indigenous cultures.

Monthly programs are free and persist through rain, snow and clear night skies.

Events include introductions to night sky watching technology, narrated guides to watching moon eclipses and moon gazing picnics.

During the annual meteor showers such as the Quadrantids in January, the Perseids in August and the Geminids in December, you can watch the "falling stars" reflected in the waters of one of the Great Lakes.

The stretch of shoreline along Lake Michigan makes the Headlands one of the best US stargazing destinations.

Headlands International Dark Sky Park ; +1 231 348 1704

Geauga Observatory Park, Ohio

Designated August 2011

This 1,100-acre park offers unobstructed views where you can see the Milky Way and planets. You can view moon craters, constellations and nebulae using the park's telescopes or at the planetarium.

The Nassau Astronomical Station, featuring a 36-inch Warner & Swasey telescope, reopened in 2017 following a refurb.

Observatory Park ; +1 440 286 9516

Hortobágy National Park, Hungary

Designated January 2011

Some of Hortobágy National Park's best views and photo opps of the night sky are adjacent to Kilenclyukú Híd (the Nine Arch Bridge) , the longest stone bridge in Hungary and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The park began protecting their dark skies as a means of wildlife conservation. The area has a great number of migrating bird species and types of nocturnal insects.

Pristine night skies are part of region's history. Hortobágy's traditional shepherds heavily relied on knowledge of stars and constellations to live and work.

Hortobágy National Park ; +36 52 529 920

Clayton Lake State Park, New Mexico

Designated June 2010

During the day, visitors can scrutinize dinosaur tracks on the ground. At night, you can enjoy some of the darkest night skies in the country. The observatory features a computerized telescope and remote TV monitor. Stargazing groups can view the night sky through the building's retractable roof.

Unlike the experience of isolation at Death Valley, visitors here will often find themselves bumping elbows with others.

Local astronomy clubs and "star parties" come to the park and observatory to use the telescopes.

Clayton Lake State Park ; +1 575 374 8808

Goldendale Observatory State Park, Washington

Designated June 2010

Equipped with one of the country's largest public telescopes, Goldendale Observatory State Park has attracted ten of thousands of night sky watchers since it opened in 1973.

The observatory is currently based at a temporary location at the Maryhill Stonehenge Memorial Campus, ahead of the brand-new observatory building opening in the park later this year.

The soft opening is currently slated for October 2019.

Goldendale Observatory State Park ; +1 509 773 3141; $10/day per vehicle

Zselic Starry Sky Park, Hungary

Designated November 2009

Nestled in the southwest Hungarian woodland, Zselic Starry Sky Park is one of the best places in Europe to see the zodiacal light. The phenomenon can be seen best during spring and autumn. You can follow a sky map or take a guide on a "star walk" program.

Zselic Starry Sky Park ; +36 82/505 184

Galloway Forest Park, UK

Designated November 2009

The Scottish Dark Sky Observatory sits on a hill on the edge of the Galloway Forest Park. You can use the two main telescopes to view deep-sky objects.

Outside of open evenings you can only access the observatory if you've booked a session or event.

With the naked eye, you can see the Northern Lights and meteors. Star formations or "stellar nurseries" can also be seen without the use of equipment, but details of nebulae are better seen through a telescope.

Scottish Dark Sky observatory , off A713 just south of Dalmellington; +44 01292 551118

Galloway Forest Park ; +44 01671 402420

Cherry Springs State Park, Pennsylvania

Designated June 2009

It's common to share the Astronomy Observation Field with amateur astronomers and fellow stargazers.

More than 22,500 visitors came to Cherry Spring State Park to scour the night sky in 2013.

Night programs are offered every Friday and Saturday during the summer, and Saturday in the spring and autumn. Depending on the season, you can see the constellations of Sagittarius and Cassiopeia among more than 10,000 stars.

The visibility is often clear enough for the Milky Way to cast shadows on the ground.

Cherry Springs State Park ; +814-435-1037

Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah

Designated April 2007

The crest of Owachomo Bridge forms a window to more than 15,000 stars and the Milky Way overhead. The dark canyon walls contrast against the bright starry skies.

Natural Bridges National Monument had the darkest night sky the IDA had ever seen when it became the first International Dark Sky Park.

"Natural Bridges has zero light pollution," says Ranger Gordon Gower. "When you view the [night] sky from Natural Bridges, there is no human lighting visible."

On the astronomy ranger program, you can use the custom-built 16.5-inch Newton telescope to view nebulae, galaxies, star clusters and planets. The guided events during the summer are the park's most popular.

Natural Bridges National Monument ; +1 435 692 1234 x 16

This story was originally published in 2014. It was updated and repubished in July 2019.