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The world’s 11 certified Dark Sky Reserves: A Tribute to the Stars

I’m a stargazer. Probably you are, too. The everchanging firmament, with its colors, forms, movements, and mysteries are just too wonderful to our all-too-human minds. We realize that beyond our thin atmosphere there’s the infinite reflecting on Earth through the light of uncountable stars. The most beautiful night skies I’ve seen so far were at the Atacama Desert, in Chile, in Patagonia, and in Iceland. Today we’ll dig deeper to discover the International Dark Sky Reserves – IDSR, some of the best spots in the world to stargaze, far away from the glare and glow of cities. This list was created by International Dark Sky Association (IDA), to identify such places. To cater to people seeking to contemplate the greatness of night skies, astrotourism is steadily developing around them.

Note that besides the IDSR, the IDA created three other classifications: The International Dark Sky Parks, the International Dark Sky Communities, and the International Dark Sky Sanctuaries.

Mental post-it: This scene from the movie A Beautiful Mind, with Russel Crowe, is probably among the best cinema ever produced!

This is the IDA International Dark Sky Reserves List:

The Aoraki Mackenzie (New Zealand)

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The Church of the Good Shepherd on the shores of Lake Tekapo in the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve. Photo by Fraser Gunn

New Zealand is famous for its abundance of natural treasures, and among them, its striking starry skies. Situated at the Mackenzie Basin, the Aoraki Mount Cook National Park, a 4300 square-kilometer area, was granted the “gold-tier designation” by the IDA in 2012.

The night has played an important role at the areaʼs history because its original inhabitants, the Maori, not just utilized the night skies to navigate into this island but also incorporated astronomy and star lore in their culture and everyday lives. Thus, the Aoraki Mackenzie certification attempts to honor the Maori culture by simply maintaining the integrity of the night sky above the National Park.

Brecon Beacons National Park (Wales)

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Star trails over the ruins of Llanthony Priory in Brecon Beacons National Park, Wales. Photo by Michael Sinclair

Brecon Beacons National Park is located in an area of South Wales where sheep outnumber people in a ratio of 30 to 1! A secluded place for stargazing and enjoying the natural night setting, this Dark Sky Reserve is home to 33,000 inhabitants. Communities within the Reserve are attentive and receptive to the efforts of the park administration and actively help to keep the nighttime skies pristine for future generations. Here are the best 5 spots to stargaze in Brecon.

Central Idaho (United States)

The Milky Way in the night sky at the foot of the Boulder Mountains in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area, Idaho. Photo by Nils Ribi.

The Central Idaho Dark Sky Reserve is a region of 3,668 square kilometers (1,416 square miles) of remote and largely rugged lands in the Sawtooth Range of central Idaho, United States.

The Reserve is situated in the spectacular Sawtooth National Forest. Along with the world-class skiing in the Sun Valley area, the park is also great for hiking, backpacking, and horseback riding. There are 23 major trails in the area!

As the hard topography of the Sawtooth Range has historically discouraged the development of significant infrastructure, the area isn’t fully electrified, resulting in low artificial lighting at night. Central Idaho is therefore one of the last large’pools’ of organic night darkness left in the USA.

Exmoor National Park (England)

A lonely tree at Exmoor National Park. Image credits to Visit North Devon Twitter

Located in the southwest of England at Somerset and Devon Counties, Exmoor National Park offers the darkest skies in the nation yet it’s relatively accessible.  Dark skies awareness in the park started in 2009, UNESCO’s International Year of Astronomy.

The central region of the Park comprises Bronze Age burial mounds, a Site of Special Scientific Interest -SSSI at Dunkery Horner Wood National Nature Reserve, the deserted medieval settlement of Hoccombe Combe, and a recreational building for traditional events and celebrations.

Kerry (Ireland)

Milky Way over Bolus – Core Zone of Kerry Credit Po, Hong Kong

Kerry International Dark Sky Reserve, Ireland’s only Gold Tier Dark-Sky Reserve, sits around the Iveragh Peninsula. Home to almost 4,000 people, it comprises approximately 700 square kilometers of land along the Wild Atlantic Way route. It’s placed between the Kerry Mountains and the Atlantic Ocean provides some natural defense against pollution.

The people of Ireland have been gazing the skies and paying tribute to it for millennia. Almost 6,000 decades back, the Neolithic inhabitants of the Iveragh Peninsula constructed stone monuments to monitor cycles of the Sun, Moon, and stars. According to some specialists, early Ogham-language inscriptions located in the area may portray celestial observations.

Mont-Mégantic (Canada)

The Milky Way rises over Mont-Mégantic Observatory, Québec. Photo by Guillaume Poulin

Mont-Mégantic, the world’s first International Dark Sky Reserve (certified in 2007), encompasses the regional county municipalities of Granit and Haut-Saint-François and also the city of Sherbrooke, in addition to Mont-Mégantic National Park and its renowned observatory and exceptional visitor center. The process that caused the IDA designation led to the evolution of a new standard of outdoor lighting administration. Due to the certification, the 34 municipalities within the reserve successfully developed strict outdoor lighting regulations to reduce light pollution.

Moore’s Reserve (South Downs, England)

Moore’s Reserve. Credit: Kevin Ferrioli on Twitter

South Downs National Park was open recently, in 2011. The Park crosses 140 km (87 miles) throughout southern England, extending from St Catherine’s Hill near Winchester, Hampshire, from the west to Beachy Head, East Sussex, from the east. This region hosts a permanent population of about 108,000 inhabitants and receives around 39 million person visits each year.

The entirety of this Park lies in approximately 100 km of the border of the greater London metropolitan region, one of the most light-polluted metropolises on Earth. It’s remarkable that any comparatively dark regions stay between London and the south-east shore of England, especially given competitive housing growth from the Sussex Downs from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The Park’s efforts in getting its certification as a Dark Sky Reserve have helped to slow the growth of the furthest-outlying London suburbs. Much like Westhavelland IDSR, located at just 70 km from Berlin, the Park offers authentically dark night outdoor experiences to more than ten million people who reside inside a two-hour train travel of the Downs!

NamibRand Nature Reserve (Namibia)

NamibRand Credit: Matthew Hodgson

Namibiaʼs NamibRand Nature Reserve, among Africaʼs biggest private nature reserves, had been created to help protect and preserve the exceptional ecology and wildlife of this southwest Namib Desert, and its pursuit nowadays includes the preservation of this region’s starry night sky.

At the heart of the Reserve is the Namib Desert Environmental Education Trust (NaDEET) Centre, which conducts environmental education programs that teach about the Earth and skies. Overnight guests, typically groups of schoolchildren, have the chance to sleep in open air areas where they can stargaze in the comfort of their beds! The NaDEET Centreʼs applications are available to all Namibians, and people from around the globe.

Pic du Midi (France)

Credit: Paul Compere

Pic du Midi International Dark Sky Reserve — called Réserve Internationale de Ciel Étoilé du Pic du Midi in French is situated in a mountainous area of southern France that now attracts 1.5 million visitors annually. It encompasses both a UNESCO World Heritage Site (Pyrénées-Mont Perdu) along with the French national park (Pyrénées National Park).

The park has a great infrastructure. Astronomers and enthusiastic scientists teach visitors everything they want to know, movies are projected and you can take a cable car from the base station at La Mongie to an altitude of 2877 meters, where you can see the most beautiful views of the stunning Pyrénées Mountains during the day and also the starry sky, at night.

Rhön, Germany

Credit: Werner Klug.

The Rhön Biosphere Reserve includes 1,720 square km of protected lands such as the whole central area of their Rhön Mountains, in which the German federal states of Hesse, Bavaria and Thuringia meet. Reaching elevations up to 950 meters, the Rhön area is often called the Land der offenen Fernen (“land of unlimited horizons”).

The darkest patch of sky is located in the central zone of the Reserve.  The Rhön Dark Sky Reserve is exceptional inside the Dark Sky Places Program because of this area, which consists of 3 different, non-contiguous regions: Hohe Geba from the northeast, Lange Rhön at the heart, along with Schwarze Berge from the south.

Snowdonia National Park (Wales)

Snowdonia National Park is the first IDSR in Wales, sprawling over more than 2,100 square km of land — a ten percent of the entire land area of Wales, from the upland region of northern Gwynedd, across Snowdon mountain, to Meirionnydd.

The certification was a well-deserved recognition of the substantial efforts of the Park staff to reduce light pollution. This area not just looks magnificent throughout the day but at night also. A lot of activities and tons of stargazing friendly places to make a stargazing trip to Snowdonia well rewarding. Find the best locations to stargaze in Snowdonia here.

Westhavelland (Germany)

Credit: Andreas Haenel

Similarly to Moore’s Reserve, the Westhavelland Nature Park is located just 70 km west of Berlin, the most populous town in Germany.  It’s easy to access from the Berlin-Brandenburg Metropolitan Region. This is the largest protected area at the German federal state of Brandenburg and contains the largest contiguous wetland in comparison to any individual European nation.

Westhavelland has developed a comprehensive education, public outreach, and communications application such as the yearly WestHavelländer AstroTreff celebration, dark-skies interpretive programming, the European Day of Parks occasion, the Kunst und Kultur (“Art and Culture”) outreach program, and partnerships with private enterprises to develop the astrotourism in the region.

Bonus:

These are not IDA Certified Regions, but should be…(anyway who am I to say so?):

The Atacama Desert in Chile

Credit: Nicholas Buer/Corbis

If there’s one nation in the world that merits stellar status, it is Chile. For an unrivaled starry sky, the Atacama Desert in Chile, dubbed “the astronomer paradise”, is a no-brainer. Away from towns, tucked between the Pacific coast and the high peaks of the Andes, the dry desert air and high elevations create for some of the very best stargazing grounds you may see on Earth.

If you’re a city dweller like me, then you probably don’t observe the night skies in any way. Yes, even the moon is visible sometimes, and perhaps it’s possible to see a glowing planet like Venus every now and then, but that’s all. Most of us have never seen the Milky Way in all its glory!

The Atacama offers over 200 cloudless nights every year! There you can also see the arching band of the Milky Way almost every night. Even more significant to stargazers, Chile provides a crystal clear view of the spectacular southern hemisphere sky, which can be mostly invisible from nations north of the Equator.

Mental Post-It: The Elqui Valley, in Northern Chile, was certified a Dark Sky Sanctuary in 2015,  The Sanctuary was named after Nobel prize-winning poet Gabriela Mistral, who lived in the valley as a child.

The Outback, Australia

Credit: Australian Geographic

With an area almost as large as Europe, The Australian Outback is one of the most beautiful destinations in the world to contemplate skies traversed by shooting stars. It also offers an impressive structure for stargazers. During your trip to Australia, you will surely be amazed by so many stars and you will even be able to see the constellations of the southern hemisphere.  There are several stargazing guided tours that provide all the required equipment to enjoy your experience to the fullest!

Want to hear the ancestral Dreamtime Aboriginal Tales under the starry sky? Discover the Dreamtime Aboriginal Tales in Kakadu National Park.

If you are looking for a camping road trip there is no better location to get a spot of DIY star gazing. There are several camps in the South Australian Flinders Ranges and in the Eyre Peninsula, for instance. You can also check out the biggest telescopes in Australia in the local Siding Springs Observatory.

The Gobi Desert, between China and Mongolia

Credit: Nomad Bubbles

Finally, the Far East and the Gobi Desert, straddling China and Mongolia. The second largest desert in the world, the caravans of the silk merchants crossed it for centuries. To show them the way, there were only the stars…

Escaping the mod cons of civilization and the light pollution that they deliver, stargazing in Mongolia is setting a quick standing as an unmissable sight in this remote location. Stargazing at the Gobi Desert is an unforgettable experience, but must be avoided in winter months, as the temperatures at night can be harsh -40 degrees Celsius!

At nighttime sky can be seen in unrestrained splendor before the temperatures begin to bite, so stay warm, lodged at a strategic place, at the border of Gobi Gurvansaikhan National Park. You can also visit the Flaming Cliffs, an area of significant paleontological interest just a camel ride away.

I finish with this great short movie, Lost in Light, by Sriram Murali, which is part of the project Saving the Dark. It shows us how light pollution affects the perspective of the nighttime sky, and why should we care:

Check the Night Skies Calendar here to fully enjoy your experience!

And here is a guide to take night sky images using only your smartphone!

And finally, the best free stargazing apps of 2018 that will make your life much easier!

Feeling starstruck? I definitely am! 

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