When I’m out in the wilderness, few experiences instill more wonder than looking up at the stars. I remember hiking the Inca Trail, when our Quechua guide would sit us down after dark for “story time.” He’d share his people’s myths about the cosmos under a Milky Way so bright that it cast shadows. The ancient Incas even had myths about the dark spaces between the constellations, because the clouds of stars were the dominant presence in the night sky, not the blackness.
More recently, I was in Botswana in June , on the edge of the Kalahari Desert more than 500 miles from any major city. As darkness fell over our safari camp, it seemed like the sky was clouding up. Only it wasn’t: there were just so many stars visible that the entire heavens were aglitter.
Starlight: A Vanishing Natural Resource
It’s rare to see a sky full of stars like I did on those magical nights in Africa and the Andes. Urbanization, with its attendant light pollution, has eclipsed such views for more than two-thirds of the earth’s people. Most children growing up in the U.S. or Western Europe will never see the Milky Way outside of a science textbook. Even standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon, the brightest feature of the sky is not starlight but the glow of Las Vegas 175 miles away.
Just as silent places are disappearing , so, too, are dark skies. Long an inspiration to humankind, the night sky is now largely unknown to a younger generation. Light pollution is growing at the rate of 4 percent per year, according to the International Dark Sky Association www.darksky.org. It is so pervasive that if you were to stand on the observation deck of the Empire State Building, you would see less than one percent of the stars that Galileo Galilei saw through his telescope in 1610.
Fewer than 200 stars are typically visible to city dwellers. In contrast, 15,000 stars are on display in the least disturbed night skies, so many that it is difficult to pick out constellations. Such dark skies are generally found in very remote locations, however, which may involve significant effort to reach (which happens, of course, to be the province of Explorer’s Corner).
The Importance of Protecting Dark Places
The loss of natural dark is not without significant impacts. As 24/7 urban light sprawl covers ever more of the earth, natural habitats are altered, ecosystems disrupted, sleep cycles of humans and nocturnal animals are altered, and awareness of the cosmos is diminished.
Reflecting concern that an essential element of human civilization and culture is being lost, the United Nations has declared “the right to starlight” part of our common heritage. Similar to its establishment of World Heritage Sites, UNESCO has announced plans to create Starlight Reserves, dedicated to preserving the quality of the night sky where access to starlight is maintained for natural, cultural and scientific purposes.
The International Dark Sky Association works to preserve starscapes through the establishment of Dark Sky Places, a certified set of parks, reserves and communities intent on protecting or restoring natural night.
Natural Bridges National Monument in Utah became the first International Dark Sky Park in 2006, reflecting its status as public land possessing exceptional starry skies and natural nocturnal habitat. Flagstaff, AZ, earned the first International Dark Sky Community designation in 2001, mitigating artificial light and educating citizens about the value of the night sky as a cultural treasure.
Stargazers who make a serious hobby of pursuing pristine night skies have earned a name for their pastime: astrotourism. Dark sky camps such as New Mexico Skies near Cloudcroft, NM, are set up to cater to amateur astronomers, with observatories and high-powered telescopes available for rent.
But you needn’t involve telescopes and observatories to have a profound experience of the natural night sky as it has existed for millennia. There are still plenty of places on the planet where you can see the Milky Way in all its glory with the naked eye. Below is a list of 10 of the darkest places on earth, many of which also have the clearest skies, to get you started.
Where to Find the Starriest Skies on Earth
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California
Southeastern Utah – check out national parks like Natural Bridges, the world’s first International Dark Sky Park, as well as Bryce Canyon and Canyonlands
Mauna Kea and Mount Haleakala, Hawaii
Cherry Springs State Park, an International Dark Sky Park in the wild mountains of northern Pennsylvania, yet surprisingly accessible from the major population centers of the East Coast
Lake Tekapo, New Zealand — designated to become UNESCO’s first Starlight Reserve
Atacama Desert, Chile
Galloway Forest Park, Scotland — Scotland has Europe’s darkest skies, a rare commodity. The outer edges of even farther-flung Iceland also offer a wondrous night-sky experience, though you can’t find it in summer, when near-24-daylight is the norm at these northern latitudes.
Southern Africa: the Kalahari Desert, the Sossusvlei Dunes in Namibia and the safari parks of Botswana and northern South Africa all offer phenomenal stargazing, far from any city light spill
Wiruna, New South Wales, Australia
Mont-Megantic International Dark Sky Reserve, Quebec, Canada
I leave you with these words from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry:
“Night, the beloved. Night, when words fade and things come alive. When the destructive analysis of day is done, and all that is truly important becomes whole and sound again. When man reassembles his fragmentary self and grows with the calm of a tree.”
Here’s to discovery of the dark, fellow explorer,