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Dark sky reserves are seemingly a travel anomaly often mentioned in passing but never fully explained. So, let’s clear the air, so to speak. A dark sky reserve is, simply put, a place where you can experience unadulterated clear sky and an otherworldly display of stars. Put a little more technically, according to the International Dark Sky Association (IDA), a dark sky reserve is “a public or private land possessing an exceptional or distinguished quality of starry nights and nocturnal environment that is specifically protected for its scientific, natural, educational, cultural, heritage and/or public enjoyment.”
The requirements to qualify as a dark sky reserve are fairly stringent—the area must have a specific unpolluted sky quality, the element of natural darkness, and the surrounding community’s commitment to preserving the air (and sky) quality. There are currently 13 dark sky reserves in the world. And it should be noted that dark sky reserves are different from dark sky parks, which also command respect from avid stargazers around the world.
Qualifying as a dark sky park, a feat also recognized by the Dark Sky Association to promote astro-tourism, comes with slightly different criteria. While dark sky parks are public lands (typically uninhabited) that can be of any size, reserves can be private or public land centering around a “core” dark sky area. Reserves come with specific requirements for protecting the “core” dark area from light pollution. However, dark sky parks must also follow some light pollution restrictions — and you should be able to see the Milky Way from each dark sky park.
The most recent dark sky park to join the ranks is none other than the Grand Canyon. In fact, a ceremony was just hosted to celebrate the new title on June 22. The Grand Canyon has been pursuing dark sky park status since 2016—when it received “provisional status” pending changes to the park’s light fixtures—and solidified the achievement in June of this year.
If you’re feeling inspired by the Grand Canyon’s new stargazer status, here’s where you can find the coveted dark sky reserves around the world:
South Island, New Zealand
Aoraki Mackenzie, located on New Zealand’s South Island, has been a dark sky reserve since 2012. The reserve is comprised of Mt. Cook National Park and the Mackenzie Basin. The only dark sky reserves in the southern hemisphere, it’s touted as one of the best destinations for stargazers on the planet. To get to South Island, you can either catch a ferry or fly from Wellington, New Zealand.
Dubbed the “land of endless horizon,” Rhön is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in addition to a dark sky reserve. The hills of Rhön span Bavaria, Hessen, and Thuringia, and hikers looking to explore the terrain can investigate Hochrhöner Trail. From hiking to stargazing to touring the Fulda River on kayaks, there’s no shortage of things to do in Rhön, which is nestled right in the center of Germany.
Cévennes National Park is the mountainous area surrounding Mount Lozère in Massif Central. Wedged between Languedoc-Roussillon and Auvergne, it’s a perfect place for a French wilderness expedition. Alternately, you can use this area as a starting point for a south of France itinerary. After stargazing within Cévennes, travel south to Montpelier and then venture east along the coast to Marseille, Aix-en-Provence, or St. Tropez.
Known (somewhat predictably) as one of the darkest regions in Germany, Westhavelland Nature Park benefits from the River Havel running through its midst. While chasing stars, visit Gülper See, a lake that doubles as a sought-after bird watching destination. If you’re in Berlin, whether for business or pleasure, and are looking to escape the city, Westhavelland is an easy two-hour drive west.
Mont-Mégantic National Park spans multiple Quebec municipalities, and it was the world’s very first dark sky reserve. Visiting the national park can easily be tacked on to a Montreal itinerary—it’s just a three-hour drive. Alternately, it’s not far from the western border of Maine or the northeast Vermont border. For astronomy buffs, just seeing the Mont-Mégantic Observatory is worth the trip, though visiting requires specific timing because it’s primarily used for research and is rarely open to the public.
Central Idaho, United States
The first (and only) dark sky reserve in the U.S. is in central Idaho, and it just earned the designation in 2017. With some of the darkest skies in the 48 mainland states, it offers truly remarkable views of the Milky Way and Andromeda. Make sure you know which astronomical phenomena or constellation to look for depending on the month you visit—August, for example, is a great month to catch a meteor shower.
Wales, United Kingdom
Brecon Beacons National Park is a southern Wales expanse known for its medieval castles, natural caves, and beautiful farmland. Home to two dark sky reserves, Wales has taken painstaking preservation measures to ensure that the sky remains uncontaminated. Attractions at Brecon exist above and below ground; visitors can rock climb the park’s sheer cliffs or explore mines and caverns before taking in a meteor shower or scouting nebulas when darkness falls.
The Kerry dark sky reserve boasts a magnificent stretch of the Wild Atlantic Way tourism trail and the Iveragh Peninsula—it’s situated between the Kerry Mountains and the Atlantic Ocean. While Ireland isn’t typically considered for its beach appeal, the countless waterways—lakes, rivers, and stretches of ocean—allow for beautiful stretches of beach where you can relax and gaze at the unpolluted night sky. And if that doesn’t strike your fancy, Kerry also has the added appeal of serving as a filming location for The Force Awakens.
South Downs National Park, United Kingdom
Challenging the myth that all scenic stargazing territory has to be remote, Moore’s Reserve is just an hour and a half south of London. In fact, Moore’s Reserve is accessible enough to easily be a weekend trip from London. South Downs National Park is also England’s newest national park, only becoming official in 2011. And because South Downs became a dark sky reserve only five years after achieving national park status, the community is working to keep light pollution under control (and potentially even reduce it) despite its proximity to a major metropolis.
Pull a Duke and Duchess of Sussex and venture to Namibia, known for stunning beaches along the Atlantic and the rhino and giraffe sightings in Etosha National Park. The dark sky reserve is within the private NamibRand Nature Reserve—the starry night looks never-ending as it stretches across the desert plains. Not only does minimizing artificial light improve the dark sky conditions in Namibia, it’s also better for their native plants and animals. According to NamibRand Reserve, “If not managed correctly, artificial light could well have a negative effect on both plant species as well as nocturnal and diurnal animal species in terms of causing habitat and behavioral changes, impacts that we would like to avoid.”
Pic du Midi, France
The dark sky reserve in the Haute-Pyrénées includes Pyrénées National Park and UNESCO World Heritage Site Pyrénées-Mont Perdu. And, of course, the most coveted part of the reserve, Pic du Midi, is a stunning mountain in its own right. The community has made considerable effort to minimize the light pollution around the Pic du Midi Observatory to enable crystal-clear stargazing for researchers and tourists alike.
Snowdonia National Park, United Kingdom
Wales’ second dark sky reserve, Snowdonia National Park has held its reserve title since 2015. One of the best spots to stargaze in Snowdonia is Llyn y Dywarchen, a fishing lake that the Milky Way creates a stunning arch over. The national park is also home to England’s highest mountain, Mount Snowdon, which offers ever-enticing views of the British Isles and Ireland.
Exmoor National Park, United Kingdom
In southwest England, a visit to Exmoor means hiking the rugged coast by day and taking in the awe-inspiring sunsets over the River Exe by night. If you’re planning a trip to Exmoor in the coming year, spring is a perfect time to go—it’s when you’ll see rare birds flocking home to the U.K. after their winter migration. Exmoor’s characteristic bluebells are also blossoming in the spring, and the weather is finally warm enough to enjoy a beautiful night gazing up at the stars.