Visiting other planets may well be just beyond reach for your average backpacker but viewing them certainly isn’t.
With cities around the globe expanding, oozing into the countryside around them, skies unscathed enough to see the stars are becoming harder and harder to find. The International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) has tasked itself with the protection of our nights, setting up dark sky reserves and parks in an attempt to protect the darkness.
Here are the top 8 places to view the cosmos.
Monument Valley, Utah
Beneath Bortle class 2 skies, a categorisation that means the Milky Way is visible in all its technicoloured, swirling glory to the naked eye, this park in Utah is lit by stars so brightly that they cast shadows. The first park to ever be designated an “International Dark Sky Park” by the IDA, visitors can also take ranger led walks and put a few names to those sparkling dots.
Cerro Paranal, Atacama Desert, Chile
Deep in the Atacama Desert lies the Cerro Paranal mountain, atop which sits the Paranal Observatory. The observatory is home to the Very Large Telescope which here is using a laser beam to create an artificial star. This celestial imposter ensures a fixed point for the telescope and camera equipment to focus on and produce blur-free images whilst it studies the supermassive black hole that lies at the centre of our galaxy. That ought to be worth a look or two.
Death Valley, California, United States
Whilst the bleak grandeur of the Death Valley canyon and desert is worth a trip on its own, staying the night provides visitors with an incredible opportunity to see the stars with unparalleled clarity. The park service has even taken steps to reduce outdoor lighting to better enhance the view. And in true Californian style, visitors can make an event of the stargazing at a star party that sees horseback riding, open fires and guided astronomy.
Cherry Springs State Park, Pennsylvania, United States
Cherry Springs is a 48-acre park that offers a designated 360 degree stargazing field atop a 2,300 foot mountain. The incredible view offers a sight of the centre of the Milky Way completely unobstructed by lighting, overhead lines or air traffic.
Alberta, Rocky Mountains, Canada
Miles away from light leaking cities and pesky distractions, stargazers flock into the barren expanse of the Rockies to gaze in wonder at the heavens. Whilst you may have to dodge some bears the vista will certainly be worth it.
Mauna Kea, Hawaii
Over 4,000m above sea-level, perched on the apex of a dormant volcano, sits the Mauna Kea Observatory. Above most cloud cover it offers a breath-taking view of millions of dancing silver stars, the Milky Way and several planets. The slightly lower visitor centre offers similarly spectacular views but with access to coffee (important on late night star-stake-outs).
Lake Tekapo, New Zealand
Lake Tekapo is simply one of the best stargazing sites in the world and labelled as ‘Gold’ standard by the International Dark-Sky Association. The Aoraki Mackenzie Dark Sky Reserve by day is a whirlwind tour at the summit of Mount John, with open access to telescopes through which planets, stars and the sun are visible. By night the stars are a gleaming mass above the incredibly scenic mountains, discernible to the naked (and probably cold) eye.
Exmoor, United Kingdom
Exmoor National Park was Europe’s very first International Dark-Sky Reserve away from street lights, cars and buildings. Although the vista is easily seen, telescopes can be hired from park centres and there is even ‘dark-sky’ accommodation available. If you want a private walk through of the cosmos that can also be arranged with a ranger anywhere in the park. So you don’t have to travel the globe to see out beyond it.