Where can I go to see the most beautiful night sky, within reason?
August 8, 2019 2:11 AM   Subscribe

I want to see the most brilliant night sky I can, within reason (I don’t think I’ll be able to make it to Antarctica). Where should I go? Details within!

Money is an object, but I’m willing to spend money on this. Ideally, it’d be in a safe country where we can rent a nice cabin or house where we can see the true night sky. It’d also be acceptable to have to take a night tour to somewhere nearby. I can speak mandarin and Spanish and some Japanese, so countries where those languages (or English, of course) are spoken is ideal, but I’m open to anywhere as long as it’s safe and there is a way to do this relatively conveniently.

I’m not an experienced camper and have never really “roughed it,” but I could imagine renting an RV for a couple of days to drive somewhere or something. I dunno. I’m open to any and all suggestions. My main goal is being able to just take in the splendor of the universe as much as I can!!
posted by wooh to Travel & Transportation (55 answers total) 59 users marked this as a favorite
The wikipedia page on Dark Sky Preserves may give you some ideas to narrow your search by. There are good options in the US, Canada, UK and mainland Europe
posted by crocomancer at 2:16 AM on August 8 [12 favorites]

Friends of mine have a ranch in Montana, a little ways out from Bozeman, and the night sky there is incredible. They're looking into very nice telescopes but my buddy nearly blinded himself just looking at the moon through binoculars this summer.

My favorite memory of the night sky is when I was in Maine staying in a cabin on a small lake as a teen. The cabin had a little dock, the lake was absolutely still and the sky was entirely clear, and it was a new moon. The Milky Way was like a thick band of brilliance in the sky and everything was mirror reflected on the surface of the lake all around me so it was like I was floating in space. There are many many cabins like this available for short stays in rural areas of the US where lakes and ponds are prevalent.

There are plenty of places that have relatively low light pollution and long periods of clear skies, so I guess it depends on what you mean by brilliant or beautiful. Do you want to see northern lights? Specific constellations? Be near a body of water? That will narrow down your options considerably.
posted by Mizu at 2:22 AM on August 8 [2 favorites]

Cherry Springs State Park in Pennsylvania is a dark sky park.
posted by jointhedance at 2:25 AM on August 8 [2 favorites]

Just to clarify re: Mizu's question: my only criteria really is low light pollution, clear skies, and the ability to really see stars, the milky way, etc. I don't really have strong requirements besides that, which gives me flexibility to find nicer accomodations etc
posted by wooh at 2:34 AM on August 8

Cook County, MN - on the North Shore of Lake Superior - is doing their second Dark Sky festival this December. There are many lodging options and Grand Marais is a great little town.
posted by ALeaflikeStructure at 3:16 AM on August 8 [8 favorites]

(Hah! I was just going to recommend northern Minnesota, too!)
posted by wenestvedt at 3:34 AM on August 8

Maine has some really great night sky viewing. It's very safe, and cabins for rent abound.

I've stayed at this place, when I was living in an apartment, and we needed to get away for a few days. Really down-to-earth people, and it's very quiet there at night. And dark. You can go sit by the shore of Salmon Lake and see tons of night sky.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 3:45 AM on August 8 [2 favorites]

The best night sky I have seen was at Curtin Springs- it's a free camp ground before the national park that Uluru is in, in the middle of Australia. While it's kind of overrun at the moment with misguided people who are racing the October ban on climbing, it is a wonderful spot. Caveat- we were camping in swags, and it was amazing.

I'm also pretty happy with the skies near where I live- just need a dark sky. The problem with houses is light pollution- the best thing I have found is to take a blanket, a bean bag, a picnic rug- and head out to a paddock (field) and look up.
posted by freethefeet at 3:51 AM on August 8 [2 favorites]

The skies in Death Valley at night blew my little city-girl mind.
posted by corvine at 4:10 AM on August 8 [7 favorites]

Aogashima is a short boat ride from Hachijojima which is a short flight from Haneda. The night skies and countryside of Hachijojima were pretty awesome, but Aogashima is supposed to be the best.
posted by Gotanda at 4:13 AM on August 8 [2 favorites]

Deep Springs Valley, Eureka Valley and the White Mountains (e.g. Grandview Campground) near the Nevada-California border are remote from artificial light, moderately high altitude and have very clear air. Exquisite night skies.
posted by Glomar response at 4:22 AM on August 8 [2 favorites]

I recently did a stargazing tour from San Pedro de Atacama in Chile near where ALMA is located and it was incredible. San Pedro is a touristy town so it's easy to get to and full of nice places to stay. There is also a lot of natural beauty to see there during the day.
posted by neilb449 at 4:40 AM on August 8 [5 favorites]

While North America’s dark sky preserves are great, you’re always going to have light pollution even if it’s imperceptible to you.

Deserts in sparsely populated areas are the blackest, clearest skies I’ve ever seen, like the Australian outback listed above or Wadi Rum in Jordan. Egypt has some pretty amazing desert stargazing as well but unfortunately, while the cities and Nile Valley are perfectly safe at this point, a lot of the desert areas and the Sinai are a bit riskier, largely due to military operations.
posted by scrute at 4:53 AM on August 8 [2 favorites]

I saw the Milky Way for the first time, along with a mind blowing number of stars, at the Cape Hatteras National Seashore .
posted by astapasta24 at 4:56 AM on August 8

Sanibel Island, FL has no streetlights and I found the starry sky amazing there.
posted by Riverine at 4:59 AM on August 8

Best stars I ever saw were at Chaco Culture National Historic site, in New Mexico. Dry air, a little altitude, and no settlements for miles. Road access is a little difficult.

For easier access, a number of communities in Arizona have been certified for protecting their dark skies.
posted by thenormshow at 5:16 AM on August 8 [3 favorites]

This world light pollution map might help you brainstorm. I'd suggest northwestern Ontario, personally; as long as you're out of the towns, the night skies are pretty fantastic. Europe and Japan are, unfortunately, extremely light-polluted by these standards.

Also: make sure to schedule your trip during a new moon. A full moon will wash out quite a lot of the splendor you're expecting.

You'll also want to ensure that the nights are long enough; when you're closer to the poles than about 50° N/S, there are portions of the year where the sun never gets far enough below the horizon to get full darkness. The darkest it will get is what's called "astronomical twilight", which as the name suggests isn't quite dark enough to really see everything in the sky. This is mainly an issue near the summer solstice (in whichever hemisphere you're in). This website will show you day lengths over the year, so that you can figure out how much time you'll have to see the dark sky in the location you choose.
posted by Johnny Assay at 5:22 AM on August 8 [10 favorites]

The most insane/incredible sky I ever saw was where the Mongolian plains meet the Gobi desert - a place called Khongoryn Els. I will never forget it. The Milkyway was bright enough to read by, it was just mind blowing. It took 5 or 6 days to drive there, with breaks only to eat and sleep. Amazing times
posted by 0bvious at 5:29 AM on August 8 [1 favorite]

I would pick a place and time of year where skies are usually free of clouds and the air is dry. If you're traveling specifically to see the stars you don't want to risk having clouds or haze diminish your experience. So if you wanted a place in North America I would pick somewhere in the southwest US rather than any of the dark sky preserves found in Canada or the northern US. (Unless you live close enough to another dark sky area that you can easily give it a few tries if the weather doesn't cooperate the first time.) Also, you'll probably want to time your trip so the moon's light doesn't make it harder to see stars. Make sure the moon isn't going to be in the sky at the same time you're going to be out stargazing.
posted by Redstart at 5:32 AM on August 8 [4 favorites]

From my limited experience... besides what has already been discussed in detail above about dark sky spots...

Altitude makes a big difference - the thinner air makes quite very substantial difference especially when taking photographs. But if you're not altitude acclimatized your eyesight will suffer slightly. I took this shot at around 4000m on Kilimanjaro with an old, cheap point and shoot camera, the LX7. As a bonus, you'll be above the clouds, so you rarely have to worry about cloud cover.

Try to get into the Southern Hemisphere, or at least to the Equator. Most of the "action" is in the Southern Sky, containing many of the most spectacular features of the Milky Way that aren't visible in the Northern Hemisphere. The Carina Nebula, four times as large and even brighter than the famous Orion Nebula. Omega Centauri, the largest and brightest globular cluster in the sky, with its topaz, orange and red stars. The three brightest stars of the night sky: Sirius, Canopus and Alpha Centauri. The Southern Cross. Australia is not a bad choice as mentioned in the thread, and a huge desert with not much cloud cover, but unfortunately no major mountains: I've had some success at Lake Mountain near Melbourne.
posted by xdvesper at 6:11 AM on August 8 [5 favorites]

If your definition of "cabin" is a bit flexible, the most astonishing skies I've ever seen were in the middle of the south Pacific. Cruise ships are notoriously bright, but a small vessel sailing between, say, Fijian islands or some such would get you what you want.
posted by minervous at 6:38 AM on August 8

Great Basin National Park is another designated "international dark sky" park (with the addition of "gold tier"!) and I can testify that the stargazing there is phenomenal. From their site: "On a clear, moonless night in Great Basin National Park, thousands of stars, five of our solar system's eight planets, star clusters, meteors, man-made satellites, the Andromeda Galaxy, and the Milky Way can be seen with the naked eye. The area boasts some of the darkest night skies left in the United States. Low humidity and minimal light pollution, combined with high elevation, create a unique window to the universe."
posted by BlahLaLa at 7:04 AM on August 8 [3 favorites]

Best northern lights and night sky ive seen were on the great plains on the res, near a little town called Wolf Point. Montana skies are incredible both day and night.
posted by speakeasy at 7:04 AM on August 8

Looking at your history, you may or may not be in the USA right now. Here's advice if you're in the USA.

The three things that affect seeing are altitude, air pollution (both natural and man-made), and light pollution from human habitation. Four, if you count humidity, but that affects clarity more than contrast. There's a reason some of the best terrestrial telescopes are on a mountain in Chile.

Inside the continental USA, you really can't go wrong with the original "dark sky park" - Natural Bridges in southern Utah. It's over a mile above sea level, in the desert but not in the path of sandstorms, and well...

There isn't much in the way of a habitation nearby - there is literally no radio reception 100 miles in any direction - so you'd have to camp or RV.

I recall a night 25 years ago where we rolled in long past closing, took sleeping rolls into a field by the ranger station, and just stared at stars for hours. It was so damn bright that - you know how if you're laying in the sun, and you close your eyes, and even your eyelids don't offer enough shade? That's how it was with a not-even-half-full moon. Once I tried to go to sleep the moon was so bright I had to roll on my side.

As a bonus, if you RV out there, you'll be in one of the most glorious and most scenic areas anywhere. Tons of National Parks (see other Ask Mefi questions), almost all of which are only one degree less dark at night. Even Arches, which has nearby Moab knocking out three degrees of "seeing", gets you pictures like this.
posted by notsnot at 7:28 AM on August 8 [3 favorites]

Northern Michigan
posted by merofuser at 8:05 AM on August 8

It really depends on what you consider "in reason." In the US I've been to a handful of IDA-certified Dark Sky Parks (Capitol Reef, Grand Canyon, Great Basin, Joshua Tree) and a few others that don't (yet) have IDA certification. Capitol Reef may have the clearest skies of any US park with "National Park" in its name. It had better skies than Great Basin did when we visited, FWIW. That said, there are lots of places in Utah and northern Arizona with incredible skies, and some of what you see is going to be affected by weather and air pollution determined by winds you can't predict. The nights we visited Joshua Tree the smog from coastal southern California just sat over the park and the skies were pretty disappointing. And while Capital Reef's skies were probably the most spectacular we'd seen overall, the night we were there we only saw about half the Milky Way before the ends faded too much. At the Grand Canyon it stretched from one horizon to the other, and that was amazing in its own right even the overall sky wasn't quite as clear as Capitol Reef had been.

Non-certified places in the US that still have potentially great skies include Bryce Canyon and Yellowstone. At Bryce Canyon the lodging is close to the rim and you just have to walk about 150 feet and grab a bench. Yellowstone is huge and you can easily get somewhere incredibly dark, but driving there after dark has its own serious risks, like bison. They don't really reflect car headlights so they are essentially invisible after dark. You have to look for bison-shaped negative space in order to see them.

In terms of cost and effort to get there and ease of convenient lodging, the Grand Canyon is really hard to beat. You can get flights to Las Vegas from anywhere on Earth, and there are lodges right on the rim in both the South Rim and North Rim areas of the park. There aren't any lodges in Capitol Reef or Great Basin. In Capitol Reef you either have to camp or stay outside the park in Torrey; at Great Basin your options are camping, an AirBNB down the hill in Baker, or a nicer (but still not really "nice") hotel in Ely, almost an hour away. At the Grand Canyon you can book a lodge for a couple nights around the new moon and then easily book a flight to accommodate it. When you want to see the sky, you walk out of the lodge, maybe walk a couple hundred yards if you feel like it, and just look up. The North Rim is at higher elevation but has a short season for services; the South Rim is open year round, and you could go in winter when skies are generally clearer.
posted by fedward at 8:11 AM on August 8 [2 favorites]

I've traveled extensively, and the most impressive night sky I remember seeing was at Mount John Observatory in the south island of New Zealand. We went there specifically because it was a night skies preserve so we could look at the sky. I also think the sky in the southern hemisphere is more impressive. There was a nearby town with light ordinances to prevent light pollution that provided comfortable accommodation. it was also great to be able to use the observatory's equipment.

More generally, the area of New Zealand is worth a trip otherwise too - stunning place.
posted by slide at 8:29 AM on August 8 [3 favorites]

Another option I haven’t seen mentioned yet is Hawaii. The big island has the famous observatory on Mauna Kea and that is worth visiting. The visitor center does nightly public stargazing with a range of telescopes (it’s also barely lit and they use special lightbulbs at the center to not interfere with stargazing). When I lived in Hawaii I volunteered there and gave star tours and it was just so amazing. You can also see pretty well from Haleakala on Maui and from Volcanoes National Park. Most of the population in Hawaii lives on Oahu but even there I saw amazing skies at the north shore. Could be worth looking into a Hawaii trip if the other things to do on the islands appeal to you too!
posted by FireFountain at 8:48 AM on August 8 [2 favorites]

See also
posted by flabdablet at 9:21 AM on August 8 [2 favorites]


It's a designated Dark Sky Preserve and one of the English Channel Islands (pretty interesting in and of itself). Being an island it's not impacted by light from the mainland. There are no streetlights or vehicles so no other light sources. I was there for other reasons so was totally surprised when night fell. It literally blew my mind. There's something so primal and deeply connecting about seeing the sky we evolved beneath. I was giddy for days.

If you're interested in the Dark Sky movement this book about the impact on Sark's community is a great read.
posted by freya_lamb at 9:23 AM on August 8 [3 favorites]

Also chiming in to agree with the comment on Joshua Tree. The nights that I witnessed were stunning - and the landscape was made all the weirder and more beautiful by moonlight-reflecting granitic rocks and sand - but there was discernible light interference in the sky from communities nearby and the city beyond.
posted by freya_lamb at 9:29 AM on August 8

I am a dark sky junkie. So far my favorites have been Death Valley (Racetrack Playa) and Iceland (Jokulsarlon Ice Lagoon). You didn't mention the aurora in particular, but Jokulsarlon is a great place to see it, and I stayed at the Hali County Hotel which is just 10 minutes away. In both cases, I needed to rent a 4WD SUV and drive many hours to get to these places. That is the hardest part about truly dark skies, is they are usually not very accessible. The exception is if you go with a tour group/bus, but that has never appealed to me since they don't stay long enough as I'd like, and it is harder to plan around the weather with tours like that.

Hawaii and Chile (both already mentioned) are on my wishlist.

Most important (and already mentioned): Pay attention to moon phase, and plan to go during the week of new moon.
posted by 2ghouls at 9:36 AM on August 8

You'll want to wait a few months for the sky to actually get dark but there are all sorts of places you can fly into in Northern/Northernish Canada that have essentially zero light pollution. Bonus: Aurora.

EG: Iqaluit

Wood Buffalo National Park is the largest national park in Canada, but also the largest dark-sky preserve in the world. Wood Buffalo is pretty remote but there is an all weather road (gravel rather than paved) for access to Fort Smith. Also usually a winter road between Fort Smith and Fort Chipewyan/Fort McMurray and there is excellent commercial air service to Fort McMurray.

The Grasslands National Park is optimal for stargazing, as it is the darkest dark-sky preserve in Canada. Grasslands doesn't have front country camping but if it was me in your situation I'd stay in one of the adjacent communities and just drive into the park in the evenings. there is regular commercial air service to Moose-Jaw and Swift Current.

For easier access, a number of communities in Arizona have been certified for protecting their dark skies.

Note that this doesn't really mean anything as far as how dark the skies actually are. It just means they are taking some steps to combat light pollution. One of the communities I've work in was dark sky certified but bleed over from the city 100kms away meant the sky wasn't dark.
posted by Mitheral at 9:41 AM on August 8 [1 favorite]

West Texas has some great night sky viewing. Big Bend National Park and the Davis Mountains come to mind.

If you want good night time sky in the big city, wait until a major hurricane has wiped out the power lines. I do not recommend this very highly, however.
posted by Midnight Skulker at 10:03 AM on August 8 [2 favorites]

When camping at Yosemite National Park, I went outside and saw the most brilliant display of stars in the night sky.
posted by jj's.mama at 11:11 AM on August 8 [1 favorite]

Seconding New Zealand - I was there in March, near the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve. We stayed on a sheep farm new Omarama in a little tiny house, with a bathtub out front. Water from the river was piped over to the tub and you heated it up with propane. My husband and I sat in that tub for hours, drinking wine and staring at the most amazing night sky I have ever seen. One of the most magical experiences of my life.

If you want to stay in the US, there is a Dark Sky Community in Colorado - Westcliffe/Silver Cliff. Lots of Air Bnb options and the towns are pretty charming. I stayed in an incredible Air BnB in May that has an observatory onsite. Message me if you want the details.
posted by GoldenEel at 11:29 AM on August 8 [1 favorite]

I live near Portland, Maine and occasionally see the Milky Way.

Iceland in winter has long, dark nights and possible aurora.

International Dark Sky parks, Dark Sky US Natl. Parks

Acadia NP is not certified as an Intl. Dark Sky location,but it is fairly dark and has the Acadia Night Sky Festival September is usually clear and not hazy with humidity. If you are on the East Coast, it's a good place to visit.

You may want to consider that the North & South Hemispheres have different stars, and plan to visit the other side of the globe.
posted by theora55 at 11:31 AM on August 8

I've never seen a clearer or more brilliant sky than in the desolation wilderness above Lake Tahoe in California. You have to hike to get to the best places, but you could also just drive up by Sierra Ski Ranch on the CA side of the lake, wait for nightfall, and stare up at the stars. You'll see a billion of them.
posted by crapples at 12:11 PM on August 8 [1 favorite]

Seconding Hawaii and Mauna Kea—really incredible skies! I’ve been in lots of wildernesses but never seen anything quite like the sky there. There’s a reason it’s used for professional star and space studies.
posted by stillmoving at 1:10 PM on August 8 [1 favorite]

Seconding Chaco Canyon, with the added bonus that it is an incredible place in its own right that I'd recommend to anyone regardless of the night sky aspect. They have camping with decent amenities. You need to call ahead to check the roads though, and it is remote. They also have an observatory there which we were not able to visit but could be interesting, and apparently a night sky festival.
posted by lookoutbelow at 1:38 PM on August 8

The north of Iceland. If you're lucky, you'll see the Northern Lights, too!
posted by praemunire at 1:41 PM on August 8

I recommend the McDonald Observatory in South West Texas. You can stay at the observatory itself (with a reservation made in advance). Or stay in nearby cool little towns like Ft Davis or Marfa or Alpine. I highly recommend the Indian Lodge run by the Texas Parks and wildlife Dept. It's a lovely historic hotel quite close to the observatory and the town of Ft. Davis.

Definitely plan to attend one of the observatory's star parties, but then spend your star gazing time anywhere the mood takes you in the beautiful West Texas area. Big Bend National Park is not far away. It would be a trip you would never forget. The only semi tough thing is getting there. El Paso is the closest big airport and it's a long drive even from El Paso.
posted by WalkerWestridge at 2:05 PM on August 8 [3 favorites]

I’ve been out to meteor shower observation events at Hovenweep, also a dark sky monument. It’s pretty isolated and the milky way was amazing, as were the shooting stars.
posted by chuke at 8:26 PM on August 8 [1 favorite]

My parents have a cottage close to Torrance Barrens Dark Sky Preserve, and the skies up there are absolutely amazing. I imagine that they'd be mind-blowing in the preserve! the Muskoka area is really beautiful, lots of cabins to rent, so many lakes, incredible forest, very safe. Rent a cottage nearby you'll have a great time.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 8:28 PM on August 8

The north west of Western Australia. You can literally drive for eight to sixteen hours and never see another car or house. This means there’s no light pollution at all and the sky at night is amazingly clear. When the sun does come up, you’ll have the benefit of seeing incredible landscapes. Red, red earth. Brilliant blue seas and wide open blue skies where because of the lack of buildings, you can literally see the curve of the earth (flat earthers eat your heart out.) It’s the most dramatic landscape and skyscape I’ve ever seen.
posted by Jubey at 9:44 PM on August 8 [3 favorites]

Another recommendation for San Pedro de Atacama.
On a moonless night the stars are almost bright enough to read by.

When I was there, there was a retired astronomer with about a dozen 3 foot reflector telescopes in his front yard that the public could use for a fee. One of my fondest memories is looking at individual stars in each of the Magellanic clouds through one of those telescopes.
posted by monotreme at 11:20 PM on August 8 [1 favorite]

I saw the Northern lights a fair amount in the Yukon, and took some nice green and purple pictures of them to show my amazed American friends and family. But one thing I had to start pointing out was that my pictures were 30 second exposures: when I saw them, they were about 10x dimmer. They were wonderful, and occasionally they moved so fast you had to stop what you were doing and watch them dance, but they weren't as clear and vivid as they are in photographs.
posted by little onion at 6:22 AM on August 9 [1 favorite]

Ive been to cherry springs which is "dark sky" park and i saw milky way with my eyes.I would assume all other dark sky parks are the same. Where are you located
posted by radsqd at 11:39 AM on August 9

Hawaii is not cheap but this is probably just what you are looking for. I have done it and it is spectacular. One of the most awesome experiences of my life.
posted by Justin Case at 11:51 AM on August 9 [1 favorite]

Elqui Valley, Chile
posted by Mavri at 7:30 PM on August 9

The Atacama desert in Chile. Be sure to go on a night when its a new moon or the moon will set with enough time to give you plenty of dark sky observing. The night sky in the southern hemisphere is more dramatic than in the northern hemisphere and if you go at the right time of year you can see the Magellanic Clouds, my personal favorite objects.
posted by kms at 5:04 PM on August 10

Timely news of a new Dark Sky Sanctuary: This Remote Corner Of Nevada Is One Of The Darkest Places In The World. And who wouldn’t want to go to a place called Massacre Rim? Nothing could possibly go wrong.
posted by fedward at 6:21 PM on August 10

Lots of great suggestions above (especially to plan your trip during a new moon!)

On my bucket list for insanely dark skies is someplace like this in Namibia. In the US, the darkest skies I’ve seen have been in the Grand Staircase/Escalante in Utah. East of the Mississippi, you’ll do no better than Spruce Knob in WV.
posted by gazole at 4:53 AM on August 12

As a New Zealander who moved to the northern hemisphere I’d say it depends on your base level expectation. I now realise mine is somewhat unrealistic. Having travelled to various places to see stars I have been invariably disappointed. These places are:

Haha no. Not even close:
Scottish Highlands
Sahara Desert

Little bit maybe:
Blue Mountains Australia

Omg that’s so great it’s terrifying:
New Zealand

I have not been to South America or Southern Africa. These places may also be great, dunno
posted by BAKERSFIELD! at 12:31 PM on August 12

My vote is for Big Bend National Park, though I witnessed the single most intense night sky of my life while swimming in the Rio Frio in Texas' Garner State Park.

This list of dark-sky parks seems like a good resource.
posted by Lyme Drop at 10:58 AM on August 13

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