I grab a serape from the porch and lay it flat on the grass. It’s too dark for me to see it, but I know it’s blue, interwoven with thin stripes of black and wide stripes of red, yellow, and green. As I sit, I feel its wooly texture beneath me. The night is dry, but not cold. And while the blanket isn’t necessary, it anchors me to this small patch of earth in Utah where I will spend the next few hours.
My husband, son, and daughter join me. Each adds their serapes to the ground until we have a patchwork of primary colors facing the obsidian night sky. We take our spots, laying flat on our backs with our eyes wide open. It’s almost midnight. We’re ready.
We don’t come to Utah to stargaze. Our travel plans involve hiking, mountain biking, and visiting National Parks. In fact, stargazing isn’t an activity I’d given much thought to before. But when I discover that the area surrounding Arches National Park is a prime stargazing location, we are all in. I ask our kids if they’d like to join us in an activity that starts at midnight. Their excitement is palpable.
Stargazing, also known as astrotourism, is a hobby in which just about anyone can take part, and requires very little to enjoy. Telescopes and binoculars are not essential, but will certainly add to the experience. Star charts are also helpful but far from critical if the goal is to simply behold the universe and relax.
Settled onto our serapes, we sit barely 20 feet from our wooden cabin, so snacks and water aren’t a concern. For those who venture farther from civilization, sustenance and hydration will certainly be important.
My needs are pretty simple—a clear night sky and a cup of strong coffee. Mother Nature and the in-room Nespresso machine fulfill their parts respectively.
Protecting dark skies
What makes for ideal conditions to stargaze? The ultimate stargazing trifecta is unpolluted skies, a high-altitude location, and dry air. Other factors that contribute to maximum stargazing are both cloudless and moonless nights.
Certain locations around the world naturally lend themselves to stargazing. That’s because they have many of the above-mentioned conditions inherently built-in. In fact, some places are so well-suited to it that they have been deemed award-winning International Dark Sky Places.
The IDSP was founded in 2001 to preserve and protect dark sites globally through responsible lighting and public education. As of 2022, the IDSP has certified 195 Dark Sky Sites, which include Dark Sky communities, parks, reserves, sanctuaries, and night sky places. Forget Batman, the IDSP is quite possibly the real superhero of the night.
Dark skies, as we all know, can be found across the globe. Allow me to narrow down seven particularly spectacular locations—one on each continent.
South America: Atacama Desert, Chile
Any keyword search for ‘best stargazing spots’ will inevitably list the Atacama Desert—and for good reason. In northern Chile, the Atacama boasts a few impressive facts. Not only is it the driest non-polar desert in the world, but it claims to average a whopping 330 clear nights per year. Math may not be my strong suit, but even I can deduce the odds of seeing Orion’s Belt in this spectacular and isolated locale.
Cool, arid, and roughly 600 miles long, the Atacama Desert’s Elqui Valley was named an International Dark Sky Sanctuary in 2015. With its lunar landscape of cracked salt flats, it’s no wonder it has become a global hub of astrotourism.
Another perk of this Chilean desert is the chance to visit observatories and see professional astronomers at work. For those who like to plan ahead, both Observatorio Interamericano Cerro Tololo and La Silla take reservations.
Africa: NamibRand Nature Reserve, Namibia
Namibia’s desert, known for its rich, red-hued sand dunes and snow-white salt pans, is often compared to the surface of Mars. There are few animals that can survive in such a barren place. But here, travelers come to explore beyond wildlife. They come for the stars.
Designated a Dark Sky Reserve in 2012, NamibRand Nature Reserve is one of Africa’s remotest and darkest. NamibRand’s exceptionally dark skies, in conjunction with its dry desert air and high altitude, make it one of the best places on the African continent to view constellations with virtually no light interference.
Visitors can stay at campsites and lodges such as Wolwedans to sleep under the stars and appreciate the natural beauty of Namibia. Grab a pair of binoculars and prepare to be awestruck by the sky’s brilliant stars and orbiting planets.
Oceania: Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve, New Zealand
The Aoraki Mackenzie Reserve is the Southern Hemisphere’s largest. It’s found upon a high-country plateau called the Mackenzie Basin on New Zealand’s craggy South Island. The reserve is home to the Mt. John Observatory, New Zealand’s most important astronomical research center. On any given night, visitors can see millions of awe-inspiring twinkling lights above.
The Aoraki mountain peak, at 3,724 meters, is New Zealand’s highest. Aoraki, from the indigenous Maori language, translates to ‘cloud piercer.’ It’s an apt description, as anyone who’s been fortunate to witness this majestic and mighty mountain can attest.
In 1851, a European sailor renamed it, Mt. Cook. Capt. James Cook was the English explorer who discovered New Zealand. Regardless of what one calls it, this reserve stands proudly in one of the best locations on Earth to see dark skies and stars such as the Southern Cross, the Southern Star, and Aurora Australis.
Asia: Gobi Desert, Mongolia
Another other-worldly stargazing experience can be found in far-flung Mongolia—the Gobi Desert. The Gobi Desert is a destination for tourists who want to take adventures in stargazing to the next level. The most intrepid explorers may choose to stay in a yurt to brave the desert’s unpredictable weather.
Located in southern Mongolia, the Gobi Desert is the largest desert in Asia. It’s dramatically referred to as a Cold Winter Desert. This fact alone makes it one of the few stargazing places to avoid in winter, which is typically the best season to stargaze.
A rippled and endless carpet of golden sand enhances the ethereal landscape. Try to see the skies as the Mongolian nomads once did. Look for dinosaur fossils by day as you await the blanket of the night to reveal billions of stars—Gobi’s main event.
Europe: La Palma, Canary Islands, Spain
La Palma is one of Spain’s eight Canary Islands, and home to one of the best places in Europe to stargaze. As you’ve gathered by now, this is due to its dry and high altitude.
The Canary Islands are an archipelago that sits about 100 kilometers west of Morocco. They are actually closer to the African mainland than Europe. The island of La Palma is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and has 16 stargazing viewpoints that will keep astrotourists starry-eyed for years to come.
One of La Palma’s most notable viewpoints is the Roque de Muchachos observatory. It sits at 8,000 ft. above sea level and provides visitors access to 13 different telescopes. Spain also regulates airplane flight paths, furthermore protecting its dark skies. With such strict regulations in place, it’s easy to see why La Palma is one of Europe’s ideal places to stargaze.
North America: Arches National Park, USA
Considered one of the most ideal places to see stars in the United States, Arches National Park is located in Moab, Utah. It’s known for having over 2000 natural sandstone arches within its boundaries. Sculpted rocks, boulders, and arch formations, along with a 5000 ft elevation and create a wonderful platform for astrotourism year-round.
Designated an International Dark Sky Park in 2019, Arches’ most celebrated formations include Delicate Arch, Landscape Arch, and Balanced Rock. Consider applying for a camping pass at Devil’s Garden Campground to enjoy the stars and Milky Way all night long. For those who prefer to learn while they gaze, Arches offers ranger-led stargazing programs, as well. Bring on the night.
Antarctica: Dome Argus
Dome Argus, also known as Dome A, may just be the coldest place on the planet (and justifiably the most remote place) to stargaze. Antarctica has prolonged periods of darkness, high altitude, and a stable atmosphere.
Dome A is a Chinese research station located in Eastern Antarctica. It sits upon an ice shelf about 900 kilometers from the South Pole and at nearly 4,000 meters above sea level. Temperatures have been recorded as low as -80 degrees celsius. Brrrr, I’m getting cold just thinking about it.
The telescope at Dome A is called The KunLun Differential Image Motion Monitor. A wordy name for a small apparatus that sits atop the 8-meter high tower at Dome A. Extreme conditions and plummeting temperatures may scare away the average astrotourist, but for those who are looking for the next great adventure in stargazing, set sail for Antarctica.
Who hasn’t looked up at the stars in their backyard and marveled at the vastness of the world? Stargazing is a way to put life into acute perspective. It has the power to rejuvenate our spirit and ease our busy minds. Stargazing is a simple way to find calm and peace. Despite the list above, stargazing need not be done in one of the best stargazing locations on the planet to be relished.
In a world with endless gear and technology, perhaps the purest way to view the stars, constellations, and Milky Way is with the naked eye. The way early explorers and settlers have viewed them for centuries.
Perhaps the next time you’d like to disconnect from our uber-connected world, you’ll head to your backyard with a blanket on a cloudless and moonless night. The stars will be waiting.