Discover the magic of the night sky.
Even in the dead of night, it’s sometimes impossible to see the stars over the city lights. But, in dark places, twinkling constellations, spiraling galaxies, and meteor showers dance overhead, all visible to the naked eye.
The International Dark Sky Places Program was founded in 2001 by the International Dark Sky Association to give more of us the chance to view the magic of the night’s sky. The program aims to highlight, protect, and promote areas where there is little light pollution and educate the public on how and where to see into space. There are now more than 120 International Dark Sky Places worldwide.
We’ve rounded up six of these protected stargazing spots so you can see for yourself what lies beyond our skies.
Death Valley National Park, U.S. – deep, dark desert
While Death Valley National Park is only a two-hour drive from Las Vegas, its 13,700 square kilometers of desert is some of the darkest in the U.S.
Vast expanses of undeveloped mountains, canyons, and sand dunes mean there’s little man-made light here to interrupt stargazers. Head to the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes to stand beneath the wide-open sky unobstructed by mountains. Or, for an alternative, head over to Badwater Basin to stargaze from the salt flats.
The Las Vegas Astrological Society regularly holds “Astronomy in the Park” events that feature guided explanations of the nightly stars. Attendees can use their telescopes to spot further away celestial objects.
There’s also a yearly Death Valley Dark Sky Festival which, in collaboration with NASA, holds talks, photography meet-ups, and guided hikes below the stars.
Pic du Midi, France – See space from a mountaintop
Found in the Pyrenees in southern France, Pic du Midi mountain is part of both the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Pyrénées-Mont Perdu and the Pyrénées National Park.
By day, visitors come to Pic du Midi for the panoramic views over the surrounding mountaintops and to explore the on-site museum which details both the astronomy sights and history of the Pic du Midi Observatory.
By night, the 2,877-meter high location is a stargazer’s paradise. Catch a 15-minute cable car to the summit for a chance to see crystal clear constellations and the Milky Way. Spend a night at the summit by booking the Pic du Midi overnight experience, where you’ll start with a welcome drink and private tour of the museum before dinner at the on-site restaurant and guided stargazing experience.
Northumberland, UK – Planets and galaxies
The Northumberland International Dark Sky Park is the largest in Europe, covering 1,483 square kilometers of Northumberland National Park in northern England.
The best time to visit is during the winter months when up to 2,000 stars can be seen at a time as well as asteroid showers, the Northern Lights, and distant galaxies. In the summer, the skies don’t get fully dark but Jupiter, Saturn, and the Milky Way can still be spotted.
The park is also home to Kielder Observatory, which holds frequent space-inspired events, such as guided stargazing and astrophotography workshops.
On the observation deck, the Milky Way, Northern Lights, and many constellations can be seen with the naked eye. You can sit back and take them in from the two-seater chairs complete with blankets and hot chocolates.
NamibRand Nature Reserve, Namibia – stars from the sand dunes
NamibRand Nature Reserve in southern Namibia attracts visitors in search of sand dunes and safari, but at night, astronomy lovers can view the unobstructed Namibian skies. Jupiter, Saturn, dwarf galaxies, and meteor showers can all be spotted from here.
Many lodges in the reserve offer stargazing experiences. For example, there’s &Beyond Sossusvlei Desert Lodge, which has its own observatory with telescopes and an on-site astronomer to guide you through what you’re seeing. Opening in March 2020 is Kwessi Dunes, which will feature open-air rooms allowing guests to sleep under the stars.
Aoraki Mackenzie, New Zealand – Southern Hemisphere’s constellations
Aoraki Mount Cook National Park is an astronomical 4,300 square kilometers of perfect stargazing space. The reserve is based in Takapō on the South Island of New Zealand, a three-hour drive from Christchurch.
There are several experiences to choose from, including stargazing nights at the University of Canterbury Mt John Observatory and Cowan’s Observatory, both of which have on-site astronomy experts to point out the constellations above.
Along with thousands of stars and the Milky Way, guests may also be able to spot the Aurora Australis, the Southern Cross constellation, and the Magellanic Cloud dwarf galaxies. While many sights can be seen with the naked eye, there are also telescopes to allow guests to see deeper into space.
Iriomote-Ishigaki National Park, Japan – stargazing from the sea
Designated in 2018 as Japan’s first International Dark Sky Park, Iriomote-Ishigaki National Park is in the Okinawa Prefecture of Japan, stretching 406 square kilometers over the Yaeyama Islands.
Closer to Taiwan than the Japanese mainland, this group of 17 islands is in the remotest part of the country, giving them the undeveloped darkness ideal for stargazing.
As the park is spread over several islands, there are many stargazing tours that take in the night’s sky from the sea, usually setting sail from Ishigaki Island.
Guests can spot the Milky Way plus the Southern Cross, Carina, and Centaurus constellations.
Along with the astrological sights, you can also spot fireflies here, which thrive in the dark environment. Once a year, there’s the Southern Island Star Festival in Minaminohamacho Ryokuchi Park in southern Ishigaki island. This festival hosts talks and live musical performances followed by the lights across the island being turned off for a better view of the stars above.