Remember when it seemed like you could reach up and touch the Milky Way, the ribbon of stars that make up our galaxy? Thanks to light pollution, it’s becoming harder and harder to see -- unless you get yourself out to dark and remote locales. Here are seven stargazing sites, all recognized by the International Dark Sky Association for their inky-black nights, that offer stellar views of the heavens above.
1. Flagstaff, Arizona
Since Percival Lowell established his observatory here in 1894, Flagstaff has worked to keep its night skies dark. So it probably shouldn’t come as a surprise that it became the world’s first International Dark Sky City in October 2001. During the day, you can see where Pluto was discovered at Lowell Observatory ($12 covers admission, tours, and viewing programs) or view the sun through Lowell’s specially-equipped solar telescope. At night, look through telescope at the moon, planets, and star clusters.
2. Galloway Forest Park, Scotland
Glimpse more than 7,000 stars and planets with the naked eye in Galloway Forest Park, the United Kingdom’s first dark sky destination (€3, or about $3.73, for an all-day parking pass). All three park visitor centers offer great viewing areas and information points that help you identify constellations and planets, but we particularly like Clatteringshaws because it overlooks the unlit heart of the forest park. Another option is to head to the Scottish Dark Sky Observatory for evening viewings (€10, reservations required).
3. Chaco Canyon National Park, New Mexico
The Ancestral Puebloan ruins of Chaco Canyon National Park ($8 per vehicle) offer a unique viewing experience. Not only are the skies incredibly dark here, but archaeologists believe many of the buildings were constructed with celestial events in mind. Visit on Friday or Saturday nights, April through October, for free astronomy presentations that include discussions of archaeoastronomy and cultural history followed by telescope viewings. The park also hosts special opportunities to view the spring equinox, summer solstice, autumn equinox, and winter solstice, though you’ll need to make a reservation to attend.
4. Big Bend National Park, Texas
Considered to have the least light pollution of any other national park in the lower 48 states, Big Bend National Park ($20 per vehicle) boasts that you can see approximately 2,000 stars with the naked eye on a nighttime visit. Not sure what you’re looking at? Rangers lead free astronomy programs to point out the celestial sights. (Several other national parks have been designated International Dark Sky Places, including Death Valley National Park, Natural Bridges National, and these notable sites.)
5. Kerry International Dark Sky Reserve, Ireland
Protected on one side by the Kerry Mountains and the other by the Atlantic Ocean, Kerry International Dark Sky Reserve offers basic astronomy classes and workshops throughout the year. Check the reserve’s Facebook page to learn about upcoming events. Or, meet up with the South Kerry Astronomy Group when it sets up at various locations throughout the reserve on the second Wednesday of the month. Find their schedule here.
6. Aoraki Mackenzie Dark Sky Reserve, New Zealand
The first International Dark Sky Reserve in the southern hemisphere is also the world’s largest dark sky reserve, spanning nearly 1,700 square miles. For the best experience, book a tour. Earth and Sky takes you to either Mt. John Observatory ($140 NZD or about $108.13 USD) or Cowan’s Observatory ($90 NZD) before concluding with a nighttime viewing. A tour with Big Sky Stargazing ($62 NZD) begins with a show at the Digital Dome Planetarium, followed by stargazing. Tekapo Starlight ($20 NZD) cuts straight to the chase and teaches you how to appreciate the heavens with your naked eye.
7. Namibrand Nature Reserve, Namibia
Located in the Namib Desert in southern Africa, the Namibrand Nature Reserve is one of the darkest places on the planet. You can observe the stars on your own from anywhere in the park, but Sossusvlei Desert Lodge ($84 per person, per night) caters to stargazers. The lodge has its own observatory and a resident astronomer who will answer questions and point out stars and planets after the sun goes down.