Where can I take a vacation for epic stargazing?
March 2, 2008 3:31 PM   Subscribe

Where can I go for the awesomest stargazing possible?

I randomly had the idea to take a vacation for the purpose of going stargazing. I understand that I'm asking for something contradictory, but what are the darkest places on earth that are not extremely difficult to get to? I want to see the milky way like our ancestors saw it before electricity. I've only ever seen the milky way in the sky once, in 1989, and when I visited the same spot in 2003, there wasn't a star in the sky (outer Tehran, for those curious).

Are there tours that cater to this desire? I'm based in Southern California and would prefer to stay in the western hemisphere if possible, but don't let that stop you from making your other suggestions.
posted by BuddhaInABucket to Travel & Transportation (39 answers total) 45 users marked this as a favorite
When I went to Mauna Kea last summer, we could see the Milky Way. On certain nights the astronomy clubs from the locla university bring out their telescopes for everyone to use. It was very cool.
posted by ecab at 3:38 PM on March 2, 2008

When I used to live in Tucson, AZ, USA you didn't have to drive too far out in the desert to see some amazing stars. There's a reason all those observatories are there. I know there are astronomy clubs there, I know they hold events, I suspect they'd allow a Californian to join them. (Re: Milky Way, it's not up year round, so if you want to see that, or any other particular celestial goody, do some homework on when it's up.)
posted by Shutter at 3:41 PM on March 2, 2008

I'm sure that there are better places in North America, but I camped here many years ago, sleeping under the stars, so many visible stars that the sky was white.
posted by francesca too at 3:43 PM on March 2, 2008

Definitely consider the night observing program at Kitt Peak (outside Tucson). The view from there is amazing, especially when the moon is down.
posted by kiltedtaco at 3:49 PM on March 2, 2008

The McDonald Observatory has the darkest night skies in the continental U.S. They have star parties three times a week, and once a month, let the public view through their 107" telescope (reservations for this essential). I've been three times. It's seriously fun.
posted by grouse at 3:49 PM on March 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

The best stargazing I have done was at Glacier Point in Yosemite in September, and if you plan right, you can go there at dusk for the ranger talk, they will point out the major constellations for you. Some weekends local astronomical societies turn up for the night with telescopes and anyone can wander up and take a look through. One of my fondest memories!

I think if you go out into the desert, far enough away from the major cities in the south west, you will be able to see the milky way. I wasn't aware that it was seasonal (?), but go camping and you should see it.
posted by Joh at 3:56 PM on March 2, 2008

I live in a very densely populated and light-infested area, and I can see the stars en masse by driving merely half an hour or so (at least, driving in certain very specific directions). I bet that you can do the same. So maybe, before driving off to heading off to some faraway and difficult spot, think about relatively nearby locations that are not inhabited by humans.

I don't know much about Southern California, but I bet you could get what you want simply by waiting for a moonless night, getting on some highway through the Mojave, pulling over on the side of the road, and looking up. Uh, please bring lots of water and emergency gear and such if you actually do this specifically.

Disclaimer: Perhaps when I "see the stars en masse", I only *think* I'm getting the full effect, as it's way, way more awesome than what I'm used to.
posted by Flunkie at 4:06 PM on March 2, 2008

Best answer: Dark Sky Destinations (.pdf) is a document put together by the International Dark-Sky Association designed specifically to answer this question.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 4:08 PM on March 2, 2008 [9 favorites]

Just about any place in Alaska that isn't Anchorage.
posted by rhapsodie at 4:10 PM on March 2, 2008

The best stargazing I ever experienced was a bit far away, but so worth it. It was on my honey moon to Heron Island in the Great Barrier reef. It's gotten much fancier since we were there, but back then it was a small, low end resort and most of the island was a University of Queensland marine research station. The folks at the research station would take interested guests on tours of the island, dives on the reef and even birdwatching -- but there was also one guy who was a serious amateur astronomer. He did this amazing stargazing presentation and it was unlike anything I had ever seen before. He knew everything about everything, but more to the point there was absolutely zero light pollution and the sky looked like nothing I had ever seen before or since.

He also gave me my first lesson in astrography, and I took some shots -- including this one taken with my ordinary DSLR -- which say more about my lack of skill than anything else, but which give a sense of just how much there is in a real naked-eye starfield.
posted by The Bellman at 4:10 PM on March 2, 2008

The best stargazing I've done (aside from Fiji, which doesn't fall into the "easy to get to" category) was camping on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon at Toroweap.
posted by JaredSeth at 4:32 PM on March 2, 2008

The best stargazing opportunity I've ever had was from a boat off the coast of one of the islands in the Galápagos archipelago. In addition to a riot of stars and an incredibly bright Milky Way, I was able to see the Magellanic Clouds with my naked eyes. It was extraordinarily beautiful, and even if the experience of touring the islands hadn't been hands down the best twelve days of my life, I'd go back again just to see the stars.
posted by jesourie at 4:43 PM on March 2, 2008

I want to see the milky way like our ancestors saw it before electricity

THis is a fascinating and distressing article about how close to impossible that is in modern times. Not to be downer, but - really worth a read.
posted by mdn at 4:52 PM on March 2, 2008 [2 favorites]

when I visited the same spot in 2003, there wasn't a star in the sky (outer Tehran, for those curious).

also, I imagine you took account of this, but if you went on a night when the moon was out, you wouldn't have a good view of the stars - it's not only earth's light pollution that has an impact.
posted by mdn at 4:56 PM on March 2, 2008

The Desert. Go to Mojave National Preserve.
posted by agentofselection at 5:00 PM on March 2, 2008

There is a tour in San Pedro de Atacama in Chile that I can't recommend enough. High altitude desert, miles away from anything - the only light pollution at all was car headlights all the way in Bolivia. The guy that runs the tour is great, he has awesome equipment and was very knowledgeable. and you get to see the southern sky!
posted by fermezporte at 5:02 PM on March 2, 2008

This one is in Pennsylvania, but sounds pretty promising.
posted by dforemsky at 5:26 PM on March 2, 2008

The best stargazing I've done was camping on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon at Toroweap. (posted by JaredSeth)

The Desert. Go to Mojave National Preserve.
(posted by agentofselection)


The areas around Moab, Utah such as: Canyonlands, Escalante, North Rim Grand Canyon are all excellent places to stargaze. I get very little sleep on trips to Moab (due to being in awe of the night sky) I would imagine that Black Rock Desert (where they hold Burning Man festival) is probably also a very good place.
posted by jmnugent at 5:33 PM on March 2, 2008

The New Yorker article mdn linked to was a great read.

posted by Perplexity at 5:40 PM on March 2, 2008

Playa @ night, Death Valley N.P.
posted by hortense at 5:49 PM on March 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

Lake Tekapo in NZ has amazing stargazing, and is gorgeous during the day also.
posted by Paragon at 6:03 PM on March 2, 2008

The most amazing stars I've seen were when I went camping not too far from Alice Springs, Australia.
posted by The corpse in the library at 6:05 PM on March 2, 2008

Let me second the recommendation of 'desert.' The Mojave has been good to me, as has Death Valley, both well within driving distance of SoCal. Check out Shoshone, just south of death valley, and the Panamints, just north of it. I've had good stargazing in both spots.
posted by HighTechUnderpants at 6:10 PM on March 2, 2008

N'thing the desert, especially Death Valley.
posted by LobsterMitten at 6:42 PM on March 2, 2008

You can see great stars on Isle Royale. It's in the middle of Lake Superior, and there are just a few electric lights on either end of the 45 mile-long island. Also, if you're lucky, you'll get the Northern Lights, which are breathtaking.
posted by PhatLobley at 6:51 PM on March 2, 2008

I can see the Milky Way a little in my backyard some nights. I live in a small town in Central Vermont. If you drive about an hour north of here, you're pretty much in no light territory at night. This is nowhere near as dark as it gets in Death Valley, but then again you can pretty much be assured that you won't be camping near a bunch of wacky folks with a huge smoky BBQ grill that is going all night (true story!). I've also had a decent stargazing time taking the Alaska Marine Highway up to Skagway.The boat has some teeny ligths but there's nothing else around for miles.
posted by jessamyn at 7:17 PM on March 2, 2008

The most amazing stars I've ever seen were in my backyard in southwestern Virginia on a cold, dry winter night in the mid-90s. The Milky Way was a common sight, but that night it seemed like there was more.

The second most amazing stars were during the Leonids in 2002 in the desert east of Santa Clarita, CA.
posted by infinitewindow at 7:37 PM on March 2, 2008

I had a similar idea last summer. If you look at that famous photo of light pollution in North America nothing in the lower 48 states compares to the dark skies of Canada, even just a little north of the border. Although Alaska, the Yukon, NWT and Nunavet are your best bets to almost completely avoid light pollution.

I choose to go to Gordons Park on Manitoulin Island (mentioned in Bitteroldpunks link), and it apparently has the darkest skies on Ontario (being on a very underpopulated "Dark Sky Association island surrounded by the huge Lake Huron tends to reduce light pollution). It has 7.5 magnitude on the Bortle Dark Sky Scale. It is quite accessible if you fly into Toronto and rent a car (it is not feasable to get there by public transport unfortunately). You can see on the light pollution map that the Great Lakes appear black, so renting/chartering an overnight boat would be another idea.
posted by saucysault at 7:47 PM on March 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

If you were serious about the Western Hemisphere but could stand the Southern, I would highly recommend a trip to the higher elevations of South America... The Milky Way is a dominant feature when viewed from 4000+ meters in rural Bolivia
posted by zachxman at 7:49 PM on March 2, 2008

One of the most surreal-but-cool nights of my life was spent in Yosemite after happening upon the Annual Yosemite Star Party at Glacier Point. It's actually an astronomy PARTY, with people all competing for your attention to see the cool constellations they focused their telescopes upon. We had to park down the hill and walk up the mountain (no bright lights were allowed anywhere near the telescopes, to keep them from messing up the telescope views) and we spent the night completely in the dark, drinking wine out of plastic cups while wandering around staring at stars with people whose faces we couldn't see at all. The next morning we could've been standing right next to our new friends from the night before and would've had no idea. It was really a fun night though, and we saw some really cool stuff in the sky. I learned more about astronomy than I'd ever expected to in my life.
posted by miss lynnster at 7:51 PM on March 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

AWESOME question, binab.
posted by fingers_of_fire at 8:20 PM on March 2, 2008

And here's a high-res closeup of that night sky brightness map for North America specifically (zipped TIFF file).

Looks like my idea of "the stars en masse" is, at best, midway down the Bortle Scale ("Rural/Suburban Transition"). I can tell you from experience that that is totally awesome compared to what I'm used to, so I'm now totally psyched for going somewhere truly dark.
posted by Flunkie at 9:07 PM on March 2, 2008

The best time i had stargazing was down on the very north end of South Padre island, TX. There were tons of stars (though not quite as many as some other places I've seen (southwest US deserts)). However, we were laying (lying?) in the sand, listening to waves crash on the beach and loosing ourselves in the vastness of the night sky. It was amazing.
posted by silkygreenbelly at 9:15 PM on March 2, 2008

From personal experience I can offer two excellent places. Neither one is easy to get to, both absolutely worth it.

First, easiest: the White Desert in Egypt. If you go to Cairo you can easily get a trip to the desert from 2 days through a couple of weeks if you like. So long as there is no full moon, you will have a wonderfully clear view of the night sky. Go there with beduins, drink their sweet tea brewed over the fire and, if you're lucky, peanuts (fuul sudani) and sweet potatoes (batata) roasted in the coals.

Slightly more difficult: a yurt in Siberia or Mongolia. You should run into them anywhere near Mongolia, and in Mongolia itself of course. These are generally right in the middle of nowhere. At night, exit the tent. If it's August the night air will be a bit chilly. As you look out onto the wasteland-like landscape, you will feel like the stars are literally pressing down on you. Everything is incredibly still and peaceful but also frighteningly isolated.

The night in the yurt will be a bit more epic and, if it's not August, probably a hell of a lot colder (although it gets really cold in the desert at night). The food in Egypt will be much, much better, unless you like chunks of dried goat meat boiled with macaroni for breakfast.
posted by Deathalicious at 10:55 PM on March 2, 2008

Down the hill from Mauna Kea is pretty damned spectacular, too. My wife and I hiked out at dusk to see the lava flows, coming back in the pitch-black, moonless night. You're far out past any light sources except your own headlamp. It's an epic hike, though, across barren, rocky lava where you have to watch literally every step. Out on the lava fields, we happened to meet astronomer Steve O'Meara, whose advice to us was to be sure to STOP every time we wanted to look up. The star density was almost oppressive--the MrsMoonPie felt claustrophobic. Plus, lava!
posted by MrMoonPie at 7:54 AM on March 3, 2008

Hey, I see your in OC. I was just out in Anza Borrego this past weekend. You can see the milky way every night out there. And as an added bonus, camping is completely free, no permit required. You can hike anywhere in the back country, or just follow one of the many dirt roads and set up camp anywhere.

Anza Borrego is out 100 miles east of San Diego, and you can approach from the north, coming down the 15 to the 78, entering Anza Borrego at Borrego Springs.
posted by ShootTheMoon at 10:05 AM on March 3, 2008

Don't know of any tours, but you might like a star party. They are held in a number of different places in the US. I know that here in NM there is an annual star party in Socorro that arranges a dark sky night(s) at a ranch that isn't normally open to the public.

I've also heard rumors of a hotel for stargazers near Alamagordo, but don't recall the name of it.
posted by yohko at 2:42 PM on March 3, 2008

The Milky Way in the southern hemisphere is very impressive, as are the Magellanic Clouds. I visited Chile recently to do some stargazing myself and I definitely recommend it. Although I didn't get to stay here, there is an "astronomical hotel" in the Elqui Valley region of Chile called Elqui Domos that looks pretty awesome.
posted by kms at 11:25 PM on March 19, 2008

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