The night sky isn't what it used to be. The U.S. alone spends $11 billion each year on unnecessary outdoor lighting and in many regions throughout the world stars and other heavenly phenomena have faded from view. A growing awareness, however, of this "light pollution" has led groups, such as the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA), to fight to preserve natural skies.
"A dark sky experience goes hand-in-hand with the sense of 'getting away from it all'" says Dr. John Barentine, who manages IDA's International Dark Sky Places program. "It means getting as far away from cities as possible." The program accredits places worldwide as International Dark Sky Reserves or Parks, based on their night sky viewing quality along with local efforts to maintain pristineness. National parks offer a good compromise, as they "have built-in tourism infrastructures that also make them readily accessible," says Barentine.
When stargazing, bring water, blankets, chairs, and a just-in-case flashlight, but don't lug a telescope into the wilderness. "Eyes alone are sufficient to sample much of the phenomena revealed by dark skies: the Milky Way, shooting stars, faint satellites crisscrossing the skies," he says. Here, then, are some of the best places in the world for looking up at night.
Caldera de Taburiente National Park, Canary Islands, Spain
Some peaks of this isolated archipelago in the East Atlantic off of southern Morocco have the advantage, along with the Atacama and Mauna Kea, of being above a so-called temperature inversion layer. That means that a "sea of clouds" forms below the peaks, keeping moisture low and the atmosphere free of star-distorting turbulence. Perhaps the best island is La Palma, whose Caldera de Taburiente National Park hosts a 7,800-foot-high rocky mound called Roque de los Muchachos that's home to numerous observatories.
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