Today most city skies are free of stars. About 80 percent of North Americans live under light-polluted skies, not dark enough to see the Milky Way. But a growing number of preserved dark sky places and an emerging astrotourism industry are helping to reclaim the starry nights.
High, dry, dark, and accessible sites are ideal. The areas of major astronomical observatories or places designated by the International Dark-Sky Association as dark sky parks or reserves are great examples. To photograph the world at night, I have spent almost a thousand evenings under stars in the past two decades in all continents, and these are my favorite places.
Atacama Desert, Chile
The southern sky with the galaxy core reaching overhead is a spectacle. The Magellanic Clouds and the Southern Cross add to this beauty. Atacama, one of the world’s driest places and home to many observatories, is an astronomer’s paradise.
For general stargazers, the night sky is optimum in many areas of the desert. San Pedro de Atacama in northern Chile is a perfect stargazing hub with remote Altiplano highlands (in summer) or lower flats (in winter) just a short drive away. Atacama has transparent and clear skies for many nights a year. Walking on the red and rocky desert feels like being on Mars.
High Volcanoes of Hawaii
Mauna Kea, the roof of Hawaii on the Big Island and sacred to the native culture, is home to a world-leading observatory. The summit (13,800 feet above sea level) is closed to visitors after sunset, but because of oxygen levels in the air, the sky is actually more starry to our eyes from lower elevations. The Mauna Kea Visitor Center, which offers stargazing programs, is at 9,200 feet—the optimum altitude.
On top of Haleakalā crater (10,000 feet) on Maui, visitors enjoy panoramic views, the sunset, and emerging stars. Members of the local astronomy club run astrotours. If you’re driving up from sea level, be prepared for the cold temperature and effects of the altitude.
National Parks of the Southwest United States
“Half the park is after dark!” The Night Skies Program of the U.S. National Park Service has been a pioneer effort in protecting the last remaining natural dark skies, and the Southwest has the most popular stargazing destinations.
The Natural Bridges National Monument in Utah became the world’s first designated dark-sky park in 2007. More than a million people spend the night in the Grand Canyon, with the sky spread out above them. In Yosemite, amateur astronomers often set up telescopes at Glacier Point in summer and astronomy walks are offered in the valley by the rangers. Death Valley is one of the world’s largest dark-sky places with accommodation modified with sky-friendly lights.
Although stargazing isn’t available year-round, many other parks have truly dark skies and frequent events for the public, from Acadia in the Northeast to Mount Rainier in the Northwest, Yellowstone in Wyoming, the Badlands in South Dakota, and Big Bend in Texas.
La Palma, Canary Islands
This peaceful hiking and stargazing paradise is just 260 miles off the coast of northwestern Africa. Astrotourism is emerging on the island with frequent stargazing tours to the edge of Caldera de Taburiente, near a major observatory at an altitude of about 7,870 feet, usually above a sea of clouds and under an ocean of stars.
The neighboring, brighter island of Tenerife is another stargazing destination due to high-altitude Teide National Park, which features a massive volcano and the highest point on the Atlantic Ocean.
Western Australia Outback
The Australian outback is dark—just look at Earth at Night satellite images to see how dark. Several national parks in Western Australia are favorite places to camp under the stars, such as Nambung National Park north of Perth, with the incredible Pinnacles rock formations.
Sagarmatha National Park, Nepal
This is where the roof of the world touches the sky. My most dramatic stargazing experience was in Himalayan villages and on hiking treks here, especially in Sagarmatha (“Forehead in the Sky” in Nepali) National Park, near Namche Bazaar, where stars appear over Mount Everest.
Alqueva Dark Sky, Portugal
Alentejo in the southern half of Portugal includes a Starlight Reserve to protect night skies. Astrotourism is well developed in Alqueva with marvelous accommodations available in rural houses.
Babak Tafreshi is a photographer and the founder of The World at Night (TWAN) photography program. Follow him @babaktafreshi.