More than 80% of Americans say they can’t see the arm of the Milky Way from their homes. Behind the light pollution of our towns and cities constellations, metallic clouds, and almost constant shooting stars are just waiting to be seen. Dark sky parks are our portals into another world. Here’s where to go to get a front row seat to the galaxy.
What is a dark sky park?
Dark sky parks, or dark sky preserves, are areas of land possessing an exceptional or distinguished quality of starry nights, designated by the International Dark Sky Association. The use of artificial light is controlled to protect the nocturnal environment for scientific, natural, educational and public enjoyment.
When humans started to make lights as bright as the sun and moon we started to endanger animals and ecosystems that rely on darkness. And it’s not just animals, we have removed ourselves from the night time skies that our ancestors looked to for inspiration, stories and guidance.
What is dark sky tourism?
The US has over 60 dark sky places and there are another 140 throughout the world. Most offer camping or lodging, and dark sky tourists will travel to find the inkiest, remotest skies to sleep under. From the edges of the Namib desert in Africa to the forests of Poland and Ukraine, the Pyrenees Mountains to the delightfully named Warrumbungle bush in Australia, dark sky tourism can take you all over the world searching for glimpses of other planets.
Where are the best dark sky parks around the world?
It’s not surprising that one of the most isolated places on the planet has one of the darkest skies. This volcanic group of islands in the south Pacific is only sparsely populated and every night the power supply is cut off to provide maximum darkness. The next chance of light pollution is 1400 miles away in Tahiti so this is the darkest of dark skies you can find. Dark sky tourists need to be seriously committed to this one. There are no flights, so passengers need to book a room on a ship from New Zealand and be prepared for a one month round trip on board.
Big Bend National Park
The largest area of land on earth with protected skies, Big Bend represents one of the last ’pools’ of darkness left in the US. Spreading over Texas and Mexico this nine million acre park of canyons, hiking trails and craggy rocks is truly wild and off grid. Park rangers offer stargazing programmes including moonlit walks and star parties where you can learn all about the constellations.
Great Basin National Park, Nevada
Nestled between two huge mountain ranges, this great basin of a park is protected from any light interference from distant towns and is one of the darkest places in the US. There is an observatory, astronomy amphitheater, astronomy festival, walks and star gazing led by the rangers.
For a more solitary experience you can backpack and camp in the backcountry for unrivaled views and a night sky that will make you feel very small. For a very cool experience take the Great Basin star train, a vintage locomotive accompanied by rangers with telescopes who will set up telescopes at regular stops and point out the constellations above.
East Carpathian Dark Sky Tri-Park
Located on the borders of Poland, Slovakia and the Ukraine this area of mountains and forests is very sparsely populated. Undistorted dark skies allow dark sky tourists views of galaxies, nebulas, meteors and comets. See the rings of Saturn, Jupiter’s moons, the phases of Venus and moon craters with the naked eye. Primeval forest still exists here, adding to the feeling that you’ve traveled back through millenia.
NamibRand Nature Reserve
One of the driest places on earth, far from populated areas and with only 2 inches of rainfall a year, the NamibRand nature reserve offers cloudless skies, vast horizons and zero trees to spoil the view. Spot zebras, cheetahs and giraffes by day and stare into outer space by night, this is a place that should be on everyone's bucket list.
Where can I find a dark sky map?
You can find a map with dark sky parks, dark sky reserves and dark sky places here. There is also a light pollution map so if you can’t commit to dark sky tourism just yet, you can find your best chance for stargazing closer to home.
Long Story Short...
Dark sky parks preserve our access to life beyond earth, broaden our perspectives and deepen our appreciation for existence here on our little rock spinning through space. Pack your binoculars, head out to clear skies and keep an eye out for anything extraterrestrial.
Written by Laura Sedlak