To his children, cosmologist and theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking once said, “Remember to look up at the stars and not down on your feet.” That’s solid advice, but pretty ineffectual if you’re standing under a street lamp — and, as the trend toward urbanization goes global, a lot of us are.
No wonder then that astrotourism is on the rise and, as the International Dark-Sky Association adds more reserves to its illustrious list, travelers are going further and further out of the way for a clear glimpse of the heavens. The dark spots on the map are becoming desirable destinations. In many ways it’s a predictable development, but that doesn’t make it less exciting and it doesn’t make the Dark Sky Reserves less alluring.
Here are the reserves you should check out ASAP.
Teide National Park
Spain’s Canary Islands are an amazing place to observe the sky. From these small islands off the cost of northern Africa, you can observe the entirety of the Northern Celestial Hemisphere and part of the Southern. The island in particular to go to is Tenerife and from there, the Teide National Park. About 30,000 tourists make the trip to the park every year, paying pilgrimage to Teide Observatory.
If you’re not looking for seclusion in your celestial adventure, head to Tenerife sometime between June 27 and July 2 for the Starmus festival. Essentially Coachella for astronomers, this year’s headliner is Stephen Hawking and will feature keynote speakers like Chris Hadfield, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and astrophysicist/Queen lead guitarist Brian May.
Cherry Springs State Park
This Pennsylvania state park is low-key, easy to visit, and legendary in the star-watching world. It became a Gold Level International Dark Sky Park in 2008, the highest designation a dark sky site can get. The 82-acre state park is surrounded by the 262,000-acre Susquehannock State Forest and is called the “darkest” place east of the Mississippi.
Cherry Springs offers a handy guide to what nights are likely to be the clearest. In September the park also hosts the Black Forest Star Party, an annual amateur astronomy event.
One of the best places in the world to see the northern lights is Kiruna, Sweden. You can catch the aurora borealis as early as September, but the best time to catch the show is late March through early April. Kiruna is at the top of the Swedish Lapland — while you can occasionally see the northern lights anywhere in Sweden, you have a much better chance of seeing them at peak-dazzle if you cross the Arctic Circle. And if you get over the stars, the world’s first ice hotel is about a half hour away in Jukkasjärvi.
For the clearest views, travel a few miles north of Kiruna to Abisko National Park. Abisko has its own ideal microclimate for star watching — a scientifically proven “blue hole” in the patch of sky over lake Torneträsk, which stays clear regardless of weather. The lights of the aurora are caused when electrically charged particles from the sun collide into the Earth’s atmosphere.
NamibRand Nature Reserve
The NamibRand Nature Reserve, located in southwest Namibia, is one of the largest private reserves in Africa. The first International Dark Sky Reserve in Africa, the park is 600 miles of prime star watching real estate.
Overnight guests get the chance to rent “open air units”, so the desert night sky is never too far away. Because the area is a desert, weather is frequently favorable and there is no particular reason to be worried about predatory animals. (The leopards are shy.)
Located in northern Chile, the Atacama Desert offers such superb views of the night sky that the European Southern Observatory operates three premier observing sites there. Second to Antartica, it’s considered the best place to go star watching on Earth.
Besides the observatories operated by the ESO, dozens of tourists observatories have opened in response to the huge numbers of people flocking to this part of the world to star watch. By 2020, the Chilean government estimates it will host 70 percent of the world’s astronomical infrastructure — a definite response to the current boom in astrotourism.
Aoraki Mackenzie Dark Sky Reserve
Take the Aoraki/Mt. Cook National Park, add the Mackenzie Basin of New Zealand’s South island, and you get the Aroaki Mackenzie Dark Sky Reserve. Officially designated in 2012, it is the largest Dark Sky Reserve in the world. It was also first site in the southern hemisphere to receive the honor and the first to be given “gold tier status.”
The Mt. John University Observatory operates out of the reserve and is the world’s most southernmost observatory at 44 degrees south. It’s also home to the Astro Cafe — a sweet tourist spot to get cozy and survey the view with a 360 degree alpine panorama.
The hype around Antarctica’s Dome C started in 2004, when a research team from the University of New South Wales published a paper in Nature declaring Dome C the “best star-viewing site on Earth.” They had discovered that a ground-based telescope at the site could take images at the same level of precision as the Hubble Space Telescope — at a cut of the cost. Since the publishing of this paper, interest in Dome C and other Antartica sites as potential space observatories has rapidly accelerated, each country hoping their Antartica claim could be the site of the next game-changing telescope.
Dome C is considered the ideal for multiple factors — one being that Antarctica is the driest place on Earth. It also sites at an altitude of more than 3,000 meters — meaning clearer skies and calmer winds. The turbulent layer of atmosphere is also much thinner than other premier sites, such as Hawaii’s Mauna Kea Observatory. The goal by this decade’s end is to set up Hubble-competing observatories, which will allow Dome C to become a “test-bed” for the experiments and technologies that will aide future space missions.