It may seem like there just aren’t as many stars in the sky as when you were a kid, but maybe you’re just looking in the wrong places. What may appear to be a clear night sky full of stars is in reality but a smidgen of the final frontier. Pesky things like pollution, smog, and atmospheric conditions mask the enormity of what’s beyond gravity’s grip. Even the moon, despite its reputation for inspiring lovers, is only showing us a fraction of its magnificent, beyond-description beauty.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. There are places on earth where every tiny detail of every crater forming the man in the moon’s face can be traced with only the naked eye. Beyond the moon, a kaleidoscope of shooting stars, comets, and constellations fill the brightest, yet darkest, and the deepest, yet closest, view of the sky ever experienced.
There are only a few places on earth where the night sky is on full HD display. They are called Dark-Sky Parks and, unless someone is looking for this type of thing, they may not be aware of their existence. An International Dark Sky Park (IDSP) is officially described as “a land possessing an exceptional or distinguished quality of starry nights and a nocturnal environment that is specifically protected for its scientific, natural, educational, cultural heritage, and/or public enjoyment.”
International Dark Sky Parks are where you want to go to see the Milky Way in all its glory. Far from urban and suburban light pollution, these areas offer an awe-inspiring view of the heavens.
Here are the best of the best.
Colorado Plateau – USA
Since the madding crowd is largely responsible for clouding our view of space, remoteness is vital. With 130,000 square miles of desolate desert encompassing the Four-corners regions of Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico, the sky doesn’t get any darker than this. The Colorado Plateau is considered a “gold tier” location due to successful efforts at reducing light pollution.
Natural Bridges National Monument, located in Utah, was the first designated IDSP. Anywhere within the Colorado Plateau will provide an I-Max experience on steroids, but Natural Bridges is the spot. During the summer months, astronomy ranger programs are provided for young ‘uns, allowing them both a fun and educational experience.
Central Idaho Dark-Sky Reserve – USA
We are indeed fortunate to have numerous dark-sky parks within our USA boundaries, and the Central Idaho Dark-Sky Reserve just happens to be one of the best in the world. Located in Idaho’s Sawtooth Wilderness, 1,400 square miles have been designated as a stargazers Utopia.
Only 12 dark-sky parks in the world have “core” dark zones, and this is one of them. Because of the area’s rugged terrain rendering building and development virtually non-existent, there are no unnatural light sources in need of shielding. What you see is what you get, and it’ll be difficult to absorb it all. Expect to question the minuteness of your own existence.
Craters of the Moon National Monument – USA
This protected area near Arco, Idaho was given a silver-tier dark sky recognition just last year. Besides the tremendous view of the dark night sky, visitors will be astounded by the gorgeous, otherworldly landscape created by volcanic eruptions and lava flows between and 15,000 and 20,000 years ago. Located on in the Snake River plain, the monument lies on the edge of the largest remaining dark sky areas in the United States.
The Outback – Australia
There are few places more desolate than Australia’s outback region. Brace yourself. The outback encompasses two and a half million square miles. The air is too dry for cloud coverage, and outside of a few scattered Aboriginal tribes, no one wants to live out there. There is zero light pollution.
Even if someone has been to one of the IDSP’s on American soil, they still haven’t seen it all. The Southern Hemisphere is the flip side of the coin. There are so many visible stars that rather than configure and name star constellations such as the big dipper or Orion, ancient Aboriginals configured the black spaces between them. Think about that.
Camping is allowed at Ayers Rock Campground which is located only 10-miles from the very center of the outback, and between March and October which is the Milky Way season, spectators will be staring straight into the center of the known universe.
Grasslands National Park – Canada
Located in Saskatchiwan prairie, just north of Montana, is where the darkest skies in Canada will be found. To put this in perspective, half of the worlds designated dark-sky preserves are located in our neighboring country to the north, so Grasslands National Park is a big deal. The Milky Way is so intense that scientist claim it casts shadows on earth.
The sky is so incredibly bright, nebulae can be seen with just the eye. The park’s East Block area lays claim to offering the brightest view.
The Atacama Desert – Chile
The Atacama Desert is rated as one of the driest places on earth. Coupled with its altitude, the sky is as consistently clear, as are the celestial objects in the sky. Because of the skies darkness and the clarity of the heavens, numerous observatories have been erected, many of them open to the general public.
Because the area is so ideal for exploring the galaxy, controlling light pollution and promoting starlight preservation is an ultimate priority. Any serious stargazer should have “Chile” stamped on their passport.
If you can’t make it to a dark-sky park any time soon, maybe you’ll at least add it to your bucket list. In the meantime, don’t stop looking up, the view can still be pretty good from wherever you are.