There is simply nothing else on earth like staring up at a star-filled night sky, appreciating the vastness above. Some travelers plan entire vacations around the opportunity to take in blankets of stars, constellations and the Milky Way, far removed from the lights and bustle of city life.
The International Dark Sky Association (IDA), which works with public and private lands to protect the night sky, has recognized the following 15 places as among the best on earth for stargazing – places where the world slows down and the natural night sky takes precedence over development.
Mauna Kea, Hawaii, United States
Watching the stars from an island is a unique and humbling experience. Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano on the Big Island of Hawaii, offers one of the best views in the state. It’s the ideal place to catch the sunset or sunrise, and an amazing spot to see the stars. There aren’t many places where you can drive from sea level to 14,000 feet in about two hours (watch out for altitude sickness), and Mauna Kea is one of them.
At the visitor’s center, volunteers set up telescopes nightly for those who make the drive. Want to continue up to the summit for even more spectacular vistas? A car with 4-wheel drive or permission from your car rental company is required.
Alas, you can’t make it to the very top of Mauna Kea, as it’s home to an observatory accessible exclusively to scientists for research purposes.
Mount John Observatory, Lake Tekapo, New Zealand
Most tourists use Lake Tekapo as a pit stop between the popular New Zealand cities of Queenstown and Christchurch, but the tiny lake town has so much more to offer with an overnight stay. Part of the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve, it is the gateway to the Mount John Observatory.
The observatory – just a short distance (about a 15-minute drive) from town – is mostly known for being one of the most accessible in the world, with several nightly tours available. Here you can experience constellations only visible from the Southern Hemisphere while staying in a quaint New Zealand setting.
If you don’t want to make the trip to the observatory, the town of Lake Tekapo offers amazing starry night views from the path around the lake and the famous Church of the Old Shepard.
Death Valley, California, United States
Death Valley is widely known for its remote location and rugged desert landscape. Due to the area’s below-sea-level location and record high temperatures, you will feel as if you’ve been transported to another planet.
Park officials recommend several spots during a stargazing trip to Death Valley. Harmony Borax next to the Furnace Creek Visitor Center offers intense views unobstructed by the valley’s famous mountain range. Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes is known for its wide open spaces, and Badwater Basin offers a memorable opportunity to stargaze on salt flats.
When winter and spring hit, rangers hold events and programs revolving around stargazing, with quality telescopes available to the public.
Brecon Beacons National Park, Wales, UK
Members of the community surrounding Brecon Beacons National park in Wales are incredibly proud of their Dark Sky Reserve. Reducing light pollution is a top priority for the entire area and its residents, so some of the darkest skies in the United Kingdom can be found here. It’s known for Milky Way views, nebulas and meteor showers, as well as numerous events revolving around the starry sky.
Park rangers and volunteers work tirelessly to limit energy waste, protect nocturnal wildlife and preserve the pure night sky. Visitors will experience natural seclusion and pristine viewing conditions, and can take part in a well-rounded natural stargazing educational program.
Mont-Mégantic National Park, Quebec, Canada
Deeply rooted in Canadian history, Mont-Mégantic National Park was the world’s first International Dark Sky Reserve. The surrounding community has embraced the park’s goal to ensure quality stargazing by participating in programs to limit outdoor lighting. Locals replaced over 25,000 light fixtures throughout the area with efficient bulbs, reducing light pollution in the area by 25 percent.
Though located in Canada, the park is easily accessible to people based in the United States, as it is situated right on the border of the country between Vermont and Maine.
Mont-Mégantic is also home to an impressive observatory and the “Astrolab” visitor center, where stargazers can learn about the Canadian nighttime environment.
Pic du Midi Observatory, France
The Pic du Midi International Dark Sky Reserve contains both the Pyrénées National Park of France and Pyrénées-Mont Perdu, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Astronomers have been climbing the 9,349-foot mountain where the observatory rests since the 1870s to witness the majestic views of the French Pyrénées. Scientists from NASA even used the observatory to map out the moon for the Apollo landing.
You don’t have to hike to get there anymore (unless you’re into that), as the research facility is accessible by cable car these days. The highest museum in all of Europe is housed at the observatory, and it is even possible to stay the night at Pic du Midi by booking a trip through local tour companies.
NamibRand Nature Reserve, Namibia
Not only is NamibRand located in one of the darkest areas in the world, it’s also one of the largest private nature reserves in Africa. The southwestern Namib Desert that surrounds the reserve is home to unique ecology and species that local communities are desperate to protect. Along with preserving the local wildlife and land, the NamibRand community is also passionate about protecting the night sky.
The reserve operates an earth and sky educational program for those who want to learn more about the Namibian nocturnal environment. A popular destination for school children, the Namib Desert Environmental Education Trust Centre gives visitors the chance to sleep under the stars and view the night sky from their beds inside open-air units.
Rhön Biosphere Reserve, Germany
Located in the heart of Germany and otherwise known as the “land of endless horizons” (or Land der Offenen Fernen in German), the region surrounding the Rhön Biosphere Reserve is known for its mountainous landscape and high elevation. While the land was recognized as a protected lands reserve in 1991, it wasn’t named an official International Dark Sky Reserve until 2014.
What sets this place apart is its central core, which boasts the darkest night sky and therefore the best viewing conditions. The surrounding communities around the center act as a buffer zone, protecting the area through responsible anti-light pollution policies enforced by multiple councils. In addition to stargazing, the Rhön Biosphere Reserve is popular for nature hikes, cycling, watersports and gliding.
Copper Breaks State Park, Texas, United States
Named for the trace amounts of copper found there, Copper Breaks State Park was one of the first spots in the state to be named an International Dark Sky Park. That’s saying something, considering the sheer amount of wide open spaces perfect for stargazing in Texas.
Prior to being purchased by a private landowner in the ‘70s, it was held by the Comanche and Kiowa Native American Tribes. Even before it was recognized by the International Dark Sky Association, Copper Breaks put on programs and events revolving around astronomy and educating the public about preserving the purity of the dark night skies.
Popular “Star Walks” have been taking place for nearly 25 years, giving visitors the chance to walk the park at night with a expert volunteer or ranger.
Big Bend National Park, Texas, United States
This park’s remoteness makes its one of the least-visited national parks in the country, but it also makes it one of the best places to see the stars. If you are willing to make the drive, this spot has so much to offer for nature lovers and stargazers.
It is located in the historic Big Bend of the Rio Grande River, which borders Texas with Mexico, and boasts a great distance to any kind of urban civilization. This lack of residents results in some of the least light-polluted skies in the United States.
Appreciators of solitude and sweeping scenery will thrive here, and many people describe seeing the stars and constellations at the park in ways they’ve never experienced anywhere else. Big Bend National Park will take you back to simpler pioneer times, when the only light for miles was campfire, and the land was undeveloped and untamed.
Capitol Reef National Park, Utah, United States
The night sky at Capitol Reef provides for some of the best stargazing in Utah, a state known for its fantastic national parks. In the summer here, you’ll find visiting astronomers doing research or putting on educational dark-sky programs for both locals and tourists. Unlike other parks, where the flat landscape provides the wide open spaces necessary for great stargazing, Capitol Reef’s spectacular desert landforms add to the experience.
The dry air in Utah creates exceptionally dark skies and bright stars year-round. Every year Capitol Reef Park plays host to the Heritage Starfest, where you’ll find expert astronomers speaking, telescopes set up for public use and exhibits providing education on the night sky.
For kids, the park’s nature center conducts daily and nightly explorer programs.
Galloway Forest Park, Scotland
The rolling lush landscapes of Scotland and the starry, wide-open skies of the highlands go hand in hand, and it doesn’t get much better than at Galloway Forest Park.
As the largest park in the United Kingdom, this section of pristine Scottish highlands contains some of the darkest skies in the world. A section in the center of the park is solely dedicated to the preservation of the natural night sky and the stars that live there. It’s illegal to bring in any permanent illumination inside that central area, and the entire park remains dedicated to preserving the nocturnal wildlife and night sky.
Because of this, Galloway is widely recognized as one of the best places to stargaze in the UK.
Cévennes National Park, France
The newest addition to the International Dark Sky Reserve list, Cévennes National Park also holds the title of the largest IDA Reserve in Europe. Since about 90 percent of the continent’s residents live in light-polluted areas, keeping these dark skies a priority is necessary for European night-sky preservation.
The park rangers and volunteers are working toward a goal of retrofitting almost 20,000 light fixtures throughout the land to meet the light pollution standards for the IDA. The park itself makes for wonderful stargazing due to its isolation and wide open plains, but the real gem is the edge of the park along the Mediterranean Sea. Rivers and valleys stem from this coastal edge, meandering throughout a classic French landscape.
Cherry Springs State Park, Pennsylvania, United States
Cherry Springs Park inside Susquehannock State Forest is one of the darkest spots along the East Coast of the United States, making it the perfect place for spotting stars. If you’re worried about less than ideal weather for stargazing, then Cherry Springs may be your best bet, as 60-85 nights out of the year have excellent conditions for stargazing.
The park even hosts not one but two “star parties” in the short days of the autumn season that draw in hundreds of novice stargazers and professional astronomers. One of the highlights of the park is its “Astronomy Field,” which offers visitors an unobstructed 360-degree view.
Hortobágy National Park, Hungary
As Hungary’s first national park, Europe’s largest grassland, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a Biosphere Reserve, Hortobágy Park has a lot going for it. Since the land has been mostly untouched since the world’s last ice age, you’ll find a landscape that can only be described as ancient.
The unobstructed stargazing here is mostly due to the lack of communities around the park – it is one of the least populated places in the country. Instead, Hortobágy hosts a massive population of wild birds and rare insect residents. Since these creatures are sensitive to light pollution, the park’s dark sky protection is geared towards keeping the nocturnal wildlife safe and undisturbed.
The Hungarian park organizes dark-sky walks and educational programs open to the public, which have become quite popular over the years.