(CNN) — We know the earliest people in recorded history were fascinated with space, and that continues into our modern era.
The IDA is a non-profit organization fighting against light pollution to preserve the quality of the night sky.
“Misdirected and excessive lighting are the main cause of sky glow and light pollution,” says Chip Harrison, park manager for Cherry Springs State Park in Pennsylvania, one of the IDA’s certified Dark Sky Parks.
The IDA grants Dark Sky Park and Dark Sky Reserve status to locations dedicated to preserving high-quality night sky darkness.
Surprisingly, the darkest night skies aren’t all in remote areas. One of the IDA’s aims is for reserves and parks to be accessible.
“Dark Sky Parks and Dark Sky Reserves are some of the best places on Earth to experience truly dark night skies because they are both dark and, more importantly, accessible,” says Dr. John Barentine, Dark Sky Places program manager at IDA.
“Many are already well-visited national and local parks, which means that by designating them, we have the best chance of bringing as many people as possible into contact with the alternately awesome and endangered resource of dark night skies.”
International Dark Sky Reserves
Westhavelland International Dark Sky Reserve, Germany
Designated February 2014
Westhavelland Nature Park is the closest International Dark Sky Reserve to a major populated city.
Known in Germany as “Sternenpark Westhavelland” (Star Park Westhavelland), the nature park is approximately 100 kilometers west of Berlin.
“You can see the Milky Way and rare displays of the Aurora Borealis,” says Andreas Haenel, director of the Museum Am Schölerberg’s planetarium and who led efforts for IDA’s designation.
“I think the most fascinating experience is in autumn when thousands of migrating birds — wild geese and cranes — give an impressive background sound gunder the starry sky,” she says.
The darkest and clearest skies are between mid-May and mid-July during the new moon from midnight to dawn. Under these conditions, zodiacal light (sunlight scattered by dust in space) and gegenschein (a faint brightening of zodiacal light at midnight) can be seen.
Kerry International Dark Sky Reserve, Ireland
Designated January 2014
“The reserve is a brand new baby on the Irish tourism menu,” Julie Ormonde, chairperson of Kerry Dark Sky Group and project manager of the Kerry Dark Sky Reserve, told CNN in 2014.
The reserve spans an area of 700 square kilometers on the Iveragh Peninsula. Its location between the Kerry Mountains and Atlantic Ocean provides natural protection against light pollution from other Irish cities.
The Kerry reserve is home to fewer than 4,000 residents and its top stargazing spots are easily accessible by car. St. Finian’s Bay is at the core of the site, offering one of the best night sky views without any tinge of light pollution.
Pic du Midi International Dark Sky Reserve, France
Designated December 2013
Around 110,000 stargazers each year visit the reserve to view zodiacal light, the Milky Way and constellations, says Nicholas Bourgeois, project manager of the International Dark Sky Reserve at Pic du Midi.
The most popular spot for astronomical views is at the Observatoire Midi-Pyrénées, built in the 1870s. The observatory houses one of the world’s highest museums at an altitude of 2,877 meters, with exhibits on astronomy and the history of Pic du Midi.
Brecon Beacons National Park, UK
Designated February 2013
Mars and Jupiter stand out brightly against the dark sky at Brecon Beacons, making them easy to spot without equipment.
After a night of sky observation, you can step into the former Augustinian priory for authentic Welsh ale.
NamibRand Nature Reserve, Namibia
Designated May 2012
NamibRand Nature Reserve’s location on the eastern edge of the Namib Desert has low humidity and therefore high night sky clarity.
The closest town is Maltahöhe, 100 kilometers away. The shortest distance by road is 148 kilometers.
“The most interesting objects include the center of our Milky Way Galaxy, the Megellanic Clouds, the zodiacal light and planets,” says Nils Odendaal, CEO of NamibRand Nature Reserve.
Under NamibRand’s exceptional viewing conditions, zodiacal light and gegenschein are visible.
Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve, New Zealand
Designated June 2012
Aoraki Mackenzie is privy to the best night sights of the southern hemisphere. You can see the Aurora Australis, the Southern Cross and the Southern Star.
The reserve is one of the largest designated by the IDA, at almost 4,300 square kilometers on the South Island of New Zealand.
At times, the Milky Way can be seen stretching across from one end of the horizon to the other, he says.
Exmoor National Park, UK
Designated October 2011
Exmoor National Park was Europe’s first International Dark Sky Reserve when it was designated in 2011. On the clearest nights, around 3,000 stars are visible.
The darkest skies in the UK are March and April, making them particularly good months for stargazing. During late summer, you have a good chance of seeing meteors.
Wimbleball Lake has one of the best views of the night sky. It has unobstructed lakeside views and its distance from residential areas leave the sky above it nearly pristine.
Mont-Mégantic International Dark Sky Reserve, Canada
How fast can you wish on falling stars? During the Perseids meteor shower this August, there will be up to 100 per hour.
Courtesy Rémi Boucher
Designated September 2007
Mont-Mégantic was the first International Dark Sky Reserve when it was designated with Silver tier status in 2007.
“Approximately 50,000 people come to Mont-Megantic a year to appreciate the night sky phenomena,” says Sébastian Giguère, head of communications at Mont-Mégantic.
“With the naked eye, [visitors can see] the Milky Way, planets, shooting stars, satellites, Andromeda Galaxy and sometimes Northern Lights.
“With telescopes: moon craters, galaxies, planets, nebulae (star nurseries, supernovae, planetary nebulae) and star clusters.”
For the best stargazing, the observatory at the summit has public telescopes strong enough to see craters on the moon’s surface.
International Dark Sky Parks
Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
Designated June 2019
The park hosts an annual Grand Canyon Star Party each June, lasting eight days. This free event sees amateur astronomers across the US offer nightly astronomy programs and telescope viewing.
Certification was an epic process for the park because, despite its remoteness, it has a lot of footfall, and the lighting to go with it.
Becoming a Dark Sky park involved three years of retrofitting lights and, in the next few years, the park says, 90% of Grand Canyon lights will become night-sky friendly.
Mayland Earth to Sky Park & Bare Dark Sky Observatory, North Carolina
Designated February 2014
This Dark Sky Park, managed by Mayland Community College, opened a new public observatory with a roll-off roof in 2017.
It sits at an elevation of 2,736 feet and offers 360-degree views of the region.
Visitors can gaze at the moon, planets and stars through its 34-inch Sam Scope telescope, as well as its smaller planetary telescope.
“Views of the Milky Way from this site are simply stunning,” says Todd Bush, a photographer of the night sky. “Future observers here will likely bask in its glow with the unaided eye.”
The telescope will be the largest in the southeastern U.S. dedicated to education and public outreach. The site is free for amateur astronomers and the college hopes to attract stargazers from around the area.
Plans are underway to build a state-of-the-art planetarium.
Northumberland Dark Sky Park, UK
Designated December 2013
Northumberland Dark Sky Park is home to Britain’s largest sky viewing station, Kielder Observatory.
When the sky is at its darkest in winter, deep sky objects like the Andromeda Galaxy are visible with the naked eye. During summer, you can see the Milky Way, comets and meteors.
Chaco Culture National Historical Park, New Mexico
Designated August 2013
At Chaco, you can stargaze among ancient Pueblo ruins. Chacoan people observed the same night sky almost 1,000 years ago.
With more than 99% of the park a “natural darkness zone,” those afraid of the dark better bring a flashlight — the regulations to conserve the night sky stipulate no permanent outdoor lighting.
Death Valley National Park, California
Designated February 2013
Death Valley National Park is the largest Dark Sky designated area with a span of 13,700 square kilometers.
The near-pristine night sky has minimal lighting impact from big cities despite being in the vicinity of Las Vegas (190 kilometers to the southeast) and Los Angeles (460 kilometers to the southwest). Death Valley park rangers lead night sky programs and events with astronomy organizations during the main visitor season from November to April.
Big Bend National Park, Texas
Designated February 2012
Big Bend National Park is the Northern Hemisphere’s southernmost International Dark Sky Park.
“We are relatively far south in latitude and at least three of the four stars in the Southern Cross and the Southern Star are viewable here,” says David Elkowitz, chief of interpretation, partnership and concessions at Big Bend National Park.
On a clear night, you can see the core of the Andromeda Galaxy. Around 2,000 stars are visible as well as meteors and planets — Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn.
Headlands International Dark Sky Park, Michigan
Designated May 2011
Emmet County hosts various events to reconnect visitors with the night sky and star lore of North American indigenous cultures.
Monthly programs are free and persist through rain, snow and clear night skies.
During the annual meteor showers such as the Quadrantids in January, the Perseids in August and the Geminids in December, you can watch the “falling stars” reflected in the waters of one of the Great Lakes.
The stretch of shoreline along Lake Michigan makes the Headlands one of the best US stargazing destinations.
Geauga Observatory Park, Ohio
Designated August 2011
This 1,100-acre park offers unobstructed views where you can see the Milky Way and planets. You can view moon craters, constellations and nebulae using the park’s telescopes or at the planetarium.
The Nassau Astronomical Station, featuring a 36-inch Warner & Swasey telescope, reopened in 2017 following a refurb.
Hortobágy National Park, Hungary
Need a romantic date idea? Maybe a picnic with traditional Hortobágy cuisine in the glow of the Milky Way.
Courtesy Tanya Ladanyi
Designated January 2011
The park began protecting their dark skies as a means of wildlife conservation. The area has a great number of migrating bird species and types of nocturnal insects.
Pristine night skies are part of region’s history. Hortobágy’s traditional shepherds heavily relied on knowledge of stars and constellations to live and work.
Clayton Lake State Park, New Mexico
Designated June 2010
During the day, visitors can scrutinize dinosaur tracks on the ground. At night, you can enjoy some of the darkest night skies in the country. The observatory features a computerized telescope and remote TV monitor. Stargazing groups can view the night sky through the building’s retractable roof.
Unlike the experience of isolation at Death Valley, visitors here will often find themselves bumping elbows with others.
Local astronomy clubs and “star parties” come to the park and observatory to use the telescopes.
Goldendale Observatory State Park, Washington
Designated June 2010
Equipped with one of the country’s largest public telescopes, Goldendale Observatory State Park has attracted ten of thousands of night sky watchers since it opened in 1973.
The observatory is currently based at a temporary location at the Maryhill Stonehenge Memorial Campus, ahead of the brand-new observatory building opening in the park later this year.
The soft opening is currently slated for October 2019.
Zselic Starry Sky Park, Hungary
Designated November 2009
Nestled in the southwest Hungarian woodland, Zselic Starry Sky Park is one of the best places in Europe to see the zodiacal light. The phenomenon can be seen best during spring and autumn. You can follow a sky map or take a guide on a “star walk” program.
Galloway Forest Park, UK
Designated November 2009
The Scottish Dark Sky Observatory sits on a hill on the edge of the Galloway Forest Park. You can use the two main telescopes to view deep-sky objects.
Outside of open evenings you can only access the observatory if you’ve booked a session or event.
With the naked eye, you can see the Northern Lights and meteors. Star formations or “stellar nurseries” can also be seen without the use of equipment, but details of nebulae are better seen through a telescope.
Cherry Springs State Park, Pennsylvania
No one will judge you for making shadow animals with your hands. Everyone else is doing it too.
Courtesy Pennsylvania Wilds
Designated June 2009
It’s common to share the Astronomy Observation Field with amateur astronomers and fellow stargazers.
More than 22,500 visitors came to Cherry Spring State Park to scour the night sky in 2013.
Night programs are offered every Friday and Saturday during the summer, and Saturday in the spring and autumn. Depending on the season, you can see the constellations of Sagittarius and Cassiopeia among more than 10,000 stars.
The visibility is often clear enough for the Milky Way to cast shadows on the ground.
Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah
Designated April 2007
The crest of Owachomo Bridge forms a window to more than 15,000 stars and the Milky Way overhead. The dark canyon walls contrast against the bright starry skies.
Natural Bridges National Monument had the darkest night sky the IDA had ever seen when it became the first International Dark Sky Park.
“Natural Bridges has zero light pollution,” says Ranger Gordon Gower. “When you view the [night] sky from Natural Bridges, there is no human lighting visible.”
On the astronomy ranger program, you can use the custom-built 16.5-inch Newton telescope to view nebulae, galaxies, star clusters and planets. The guided events during the summer are the park’s most popular.
This story was originally published in 2014. It was updated and repubished in July 2019.
Christina Maxouris contributed to this report.