For many city folk, a clear night sky free of urban pollution is a mythical beast—we’ve heard the legends inspired by the constellations and we know sailors used the stars to light their way home, but we can’t quite imagine the natural brightness of the night sky. Offering guidance is the International Dark-Sky Association, a US non-profit founded in 1988 that recognises parks, reserves, and places across the world that offer the best views of the galaxy we call home. Better still, most of them are open to campers or have lodges—perfect for time-lapse videos and for putting the mightiest of our problems in grand perspective.
The world’s first International Dark-Sky Park, Natural Bridges stands below skies marked by an almost perfect lack of light pollution. These Colorado skies are labelled Class 2 on the Bortle Dark-Sky Scale, which means that the naked eye can bathe in clear views of the Milky Way and a number of celestial objects. It’s home to coyotes and mountain lions, and desert flora like the Indian paintbrush and pine trees. Visitors can camp overnight, drive and hike through stream-carved bridges and canyons, and take in views of centuries-old Native-American ruins.
This biosphere reserve established by UNESCO is known as the “land of endless horizons”. Its starry skies have IDA’s Silver Tier-status and have clear views of the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxy with the naked eye. The darkest nights are at the core of the reserve, which is home to nearly two lakh residents that use sustainable outdoor lighting at night. A non-profit at Sternenpark Rhoen offers guided stargazing and night walks.
Mackenzie Basin, in Aoraki Mackenzie reserve, has the best skies for stargazing in New Zealand. The glacier-studded park is home to New Zealand’s largest mountain, and also the world’s largest buttercup, and is great for camping and mountaineering. Take a nightly stargazing tour at Mount John University Observatory or at Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre and Planetarium, to view sights such as the Milky Way, the Southern Cross, Alpha Centauri, and Sirius. The reserve protects its dark-sky heritage in respect to the indigenous Maori people, for whom the stars play a role in navigation and folklore.
Named after its black cherry trees, this park is best known for its two annual star parties that are open to families, and draw astronomers from around the world. Visitors particularly attend for the Perseids meteor shower every August. The park has facilities for camping and picnics, and regular stargazing programmes too. Between 60 to 85 nights of the year are said to have ideal conditions for observing celestial objects. There are hiking trails and snowmobiling in the surrounding forest.
It was from Pic du Midi that NASA’s scientists studied the moonscape in prep for the Apollo landing. The reserve is home to a UNESCO World Heritage site—the Pyrénées-Mont Perdu mountainous landscape—and a national park. Take the cable car to the dramatic mountaintop observatory, set above the clouds. Visitors can also spend the night in a package deal that includes overnight stay and meals, a tour of the telescopes and stargazing with astronomers, and skiing.
A prime tourist draw and popular Hollywood filming location, the red-rock landscape of the desert town of Sedona earns IDA’s Dark Sky Community tag for its minimal light pollution. Night views through a telescope include the Whirlpool Galaxy, or Messier 51a, located about 35 million light years away.
The Parc National du Mont Mégantic, a part of the Mont-Mégantic reserve, offers astronomy nights for the starry-eyed and public access to the ASTROlab observatory. The world’s first dark-sky reserve, Mont-Mégantic has outdoor lighting policies that are viewed as an ideal model for industrialised countries. Visitors can also camp in the park, climb Mont St. Joseph and Mont Megantic, follow hiking trails through the coniferous and mixed forests, and go skiing and snowshoeing.
The Zselic Starry Sky Park has close to unaltered dark skies, offering views of the elusive Triangulum Galaxy with the naked eye, on clear nights. The park has an astronomy programme for visitors that includes full-dome movies at the planetarium, meteorite collection, telescopic observation at day and night, and nightly guided tours.
International Dark Sky Week, for awareness of the importance of natural night skies, runs from April 4-10 in 2016.
is Assistant Web Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. She loves places by the sea, and travels to shift her own boundaries. She tweets as @Saumya_Ancheri.
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