Dark Sky Destinations
The night sky has fascinated us for centuries. Ancient peoples attached beliefs and myths to figures they saw in the stars. Early voyagers navigated using the night sky as if it were a map. These days, however, most people go about their business each night under a pinky-yellow-orange-ish haze without giving the stars much thought at all.
As Verlyn Klinkenborg points out in a recent National Geographic feature on light pollution, humans aren’t adapted to nocturnal activities. So, in typical human fashion, we just altered the world to fit our needs. Lighting our streets seems reasonable, but now, with expanding urban populations (the UN estimates that two-thirds of the world population will live in cities by 2050) and electricity in more and more places, some unintended consequences have surfaced.
According to the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA), light pollution has negative effects on animals as well as humans. Migrating animals can be confused by light pollution. (There have been reports of flocks of birds flying in circles around brightly-lit cities
until exhaustion and disorientation take their toll.) And even relatively small amounts of light pollution can interfere with the mating patterns of fireflies, which communicate Morse-Code-style with flashes in the dark. Humans are susceptible to negative effects as well. Not fulfilling your daily darkness quota may throw off hormone levels.
So, what does any of this have to do with travel? Find out after the jump.
Well, aside from the fact that dark night skies are better for our selves and our ecosystem, there is one other thing I forgot to mention. The night sky – sans light – is gorgeous. And to see the Milky Way in all its glory, you are going to have to know where to go.
So, I asked the staff members of Traveler about their favorite stargazing destinations. These are some suggestions we came up with:
- Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah (photo above) – Natural Bridges has one of the darkest skies in the United States, plus, the park has taken steps against light pollution by installing shielded lights and 13-watt compact fluorescent light bulbs.
- Mount Kilimanjaro National Park – Check out the stars while hiking up the slopes of Kibo on Kilimanjaro to see sunrise from the rim, look up whenever you pause for breath (about every five steps).
- Block Island – About 12 miles out in the Atlantic Ocean from mainland Rhode Island; there are only a few streetlights. It’s a great place to watch the Perseidmeteor showers in August.
- Cherry Springs State Park, Pennsylvania – One of the best places on the eastern seaboard to enjoy dark skies – complete with an Astronomy Field for 360-degree views of the night sky. Cherry Springs has the distinction of being the second International Dark-Sky Park in the world.
- Big Bend National Park – Southwest Texas is well-known for its night skies.Not only is there no light pollution (the nearest city is hundreds of miles away) but the dry desert air also reduces distortion. The McDonald Observatory, run by the University of Texas, is located near there, in the Davis Mountains.
- Cape Cod – Top Picks: Surfside Beach on Nantucket Island, Chatham Light Beach, or, for an even more remote spot, try any local beach in Wellfleet or Truro.
- Bosque Del Apache Wildlife Preserve, New Mexico – Go just before dawn, minutes before tens of thousands of snow geese take flight on their annual migration. You can’t turn your lights on because it will spook the birds so the only light is from the stars.
- Mauna Kea, Hawaii – Mauna Kea’s visitor center, which also serves as a base camp for the W. M. Keck Observatory, offers nightly stargazing programs. At an elevation of 9,200 ft., this observation area is often above the clouds.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
- The Namib desert – Specifically the area around Spitzkoppe, one of the sacred mountains of the Bushmen there. It’s not too far from Swakopmund.
- Bar Harbor, Maine – As far as eastern states go, Maine still has remarkably dark night skies, and Bar Harbor (near Acadia National Park) is doing its best to keep it that way. In response to the National Geographic article on light pollution, the small town passed lighting ordinances to protect its beautiful night skies.
- Eye on the Sky AstroCruises – I hadn’t ever heard of an astronomy program aboard a cruise ship, but the pairing of the open ocean with educational classes by day and stargazing by night seems perfect for astronomy enthusiasts. Available on several international cruise lines.
I, for one, will be enjoying some stargazing when I visit my parents on their ranch in rural Texas. But IT would like to hear from you. What are your favorite dark sky destinations?
Photo: Jim Richardson for National Geographic magazine. See his full Light Pollution photo gallery here.