The 13 Best Places to See the Milky Way
Human beings have gazed at the skies for thousands of years, fascinated by the mysterious movements of the heavens. Historically, we have used the stars for navigation, for the development of scientific understanding, and even for predicting the weather. For the ancient Greek philosophers, there was nothing more humbling than gazing upon a deep, dark sky, filled with countless glittering stars and planets.
Yet today, stargazing is a rare and privileged activity. The bright lights and noise of urban development block out the constellations with light pollution, and it’s relatively rare to see the dazzling band of the Milky Way stretching across the sky. Those who wish to lie back and gaze at the stars in their full splendour need to seek out so-called ‘dark spots’, where light pollution is at a minimum and atmospheric conditions provide clear skies.
Luckily, we’ve done the hard work, and put together a list of the best places in the world to enjoy the night sky!
1. Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, USA
Yellowstone National Park has been drawing visitors to Wyoming for many years, with travellers eager to see the spectacular natural treasures offered by America’s oldest national park. In addition to its glorious scenery, Yellowstone has earned a particular reputation for its night time attractions. With no major cities nearby to cloud the view, this national park offers a view of the night sky in all its blazing glory.
Avid astronomers should make sure to bring along a star chart and a telescope, as the clear nights at Yellowstone afford unrivalled opportunities to pick out constellations. This is also a brilliant place to see and photograph the Milky Way, which is so bright and dazzling that it even lights up the landscape in the dead of night. Although there’s more than enough to see with the naked eye, a telescope or binoculars will allow you to spot the details of the major planets, find important star clusters, and even marvel at the craters on the moon. This is a must-visit destination for stargazers.
2. The Brecon Beacons, Wales, UK
The Brecon Beacons, in south Wales, United Kingdom, is one of just a handful of Dark Sky Reserves. These internationally recognised destinations are protected spaces dedicated to astronomical observation, where artificial light is completely outlawed. The Brecon Beacons itself is a protected area of staggering natural beauty, with sweeping, heather-clad mountains and beautiful walking trails. This is surely one of the best places in the United Kingdom to try your hand at stargazing.
The wide skies of South Wales offer the perfect environment to spot your favourite constellations. The Visitor Centre near Libanus is reputedly the darkest place in the park, and offers ideal conditions for astronomy. For beginners, the Visitor Centre offers night time tours and telescope hire, which is a great way to learn a little astronomy and pick out the impressive stars, galaxies and constellations. However, you won’t need any help to find the Milky Way – in the dark Welsh sky, it’s impossible to miss.
3. Draa Valley, Sahara Desert, Morocco
The vast Sahara Desert is well known for its dazzling nightly displays, when the clear skies are illuminated by thousands of glittering stars. Trips in to the Sahara allow visitors to experience life as a Bedouin nomad, traversing the sand dunes by day on the back of a camel and sleeping under the stars at night. This is a wonderful place to come to see shooting stars, and of course to look upon the Milky Way in all its glory.
The Draa Valley Oasis is an important desert hub in the remote western part of the Sahara desert, and makes for the ideal jumping off point for a trip into the dunes. These mountains of sand stretch far into the distance, creating a sea of glowing orange, especially at sunrise and sunset. The lack of settlement on these shifting sands means that the view of the night sky is completely undisturbed by artificial light, producing a breath-taking canopy of stars that you are unlikely to forget in a hurry.
4. Doi Chiang Dao, Thailand
Doi Chiang Dao translates literally to ‘City of Stars’, making it the perfect name for the perfect stargazing spot. This is one of northern Thailand’s lesser-known gems – a wildlife sanctuary set among dramatic limestone cliffs and mountains. Here you’re likely to see a wide range of rare flora and fauna, including some spectacular bird life. This mountainous sanctuary is located in the Chiang Mai region of Thailand, and the route to the summit is open only between the months of November and March. Visitors can camp at the peak of the mountain (with permission), and in doing so, treat themselves to a wide vista of craggy limestone rocks, wonderful bird-watching opportunities, and beautiful sunsets.
However, when night falls, this glorious region is cast in an entirely new light. A sea of stars, stretching as far at the eye can see, lights up the mountain range. The height of the mountain creates a visceral feeling of proximity to the stars, almost as if you can reach out and touch the Milky Way itself. Doi Chiang Dao certainly deserves its name.
5. Adirondack Mountains, New York, USA
The northeastern United States is well known for its beautiful countryside, but also for its relatively dense concentration of cities and towns, which make stargazing somewhat difficult. However, to the north of New York, there is one place that has resisted settlement and remains one of the best locations to see the Milky Way in the United States.
The Adirondack Mountains are breathtakingly beautiful and worth a visit in all seasons. However, if you’re looking for something extra special, head to the Tupper Lake area, where the Adirondack Public Observatory offers some of the best stargazing opportunities in the region. This state-of-the-art institution offers a roll-off roof and several impressive telescopes that allow for unparalleled viewing of the night sky.
This is an ideal destination for those with an interest in astrophotography, as the Adirondack Public Observatory boasts some of the best facilities and expertise for photographing the wonders of the night sky. Come here during the winter months to take advantage of the clear skies, guided stargazing experiences, and astronomy lectures. You can even take advantage of the winter snows to try out a romantic starlight skiing trip!
6. Svalbard, Norway
Svalbard, a group of islands located on Norway’s north coast, offers the perfect place to catch a glimpse of the elusive northern lights. This remote and inhospitable location boasts remarkably clear skies, and in winter, it’s possible to catch a glimpse of the aurora borealis dancing across a sky full of stars.
This is one of the only places in the world where you’re likely to see the aurora during the day as well as at night. In October and February the daytime glows with a cold Arctic blue, and at night, the mysteries of the heavens are revealed against a deep, dark sky. As night falls you will see the stars as never before, with countless shimmering lights and constellations illuminating the sky. However, the real show starts when the aurora makes an entrance, first glowing green and then exploding into an iridescent ballet of colours that bring Svalbard to life. This is the night sky at its most thrilling.
7. Big Bend National Park, Texas, USA
The remote Big Bend National Park in Texas is perched on the Mexican border, and offers some of the darkest skies in the United States. This dramatic location offers remarkable views of limestone canyons and mountain ranges, unusual cactus forests, a windswept, weather-beaten desert across its staggering 800,000 acres. This is an ancient landscape, with rocks carved by the elements over 500 million years. What better place to gaze upon the ancient mysteries of the sky?
The isolation of this remarkable park means that it offers ideal stargazing conditions. On a clear night, thousands of stars and constellations are visible, and the park’s rangers are committed to keeping out any artificial light pollution from visitors. When the sun goes down, stargazers can look into the sky and into the past, looking upon astral bodies that are so far away, they have died before their light ever reaches Earth. This is a great place to see the Milky Way, and the elusive Andromeda galaxy with its dazzling rings.
8. Ladakh, India
Ladakh is one of India’s most remote locations, nestled high up in the Indian Himalayas. This beautiful region is best known for its sky-high mountains, ethereal crystalline lakes, and ancient Buddhist culture, making it a bucket list destination for many travellers from across the world. This remote and challenging location is difficult to access, even during the summer months, as the roads through the mountains make for a long and bumpy journey. However, Ladakh is more than worth the effort, and many people come here to experience the full majesty of the Himalayan Mountains.
Ladakh is the least-populated region of India, and as a result, avid stargazers will be aptly rewarded for the long journey. Not only is there very little light pollution, the high altitude and the lack of water vapour in the air means that it offers one of the best dark sky environments in the world. Here, the night is so black that it’s only possible to pick out the shape of the mountains as interruptions in the thick canopy of stars above your head. Where the stars end, the mountains begin.
One of the best places for astronomy in Ladakh is the Nubra Valley. Here, at an altitude of 3000m above sea level, you’ll have the opportunity to not only watch the stars in all their brilliance, but also to see the sky itself change colour into a deep, rich blue at sunset, as the stars and constellations emerge, one by one. This has been a natural observatory for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Indeed, one ancient Ladakhi poem even remarks, ‘our Milky Way is dancing’, suggesting that people have been marvelling at the stars here for a long, long time.
9. Exmoor National Park
Exmoor was the first site in Europe to be officially declared a Dark Sky Reserve, and it remains one of the finest places in the UK to see the night’s sky in all its glory. On a clear night, thousands of stars stud the dark sky, casting their reflection in the glassy waters of Lake Wimbleball. This natural reserve is also home to a whole host of natural delights, including dramatic rocky valleys, wide moors covered in heather, and herds of wild ponies with a friendly interest in visitors!
In October and November, Exmoor hosts the annual Dark Skies Festival, a two week-long event dedicated to stargazing and astronomy in Exmoor. This is an excellent time to visit the park, when you can take guided night walks with local astronomers, borrow telescopes and other equipment, and learn to spot planets, constellations and galaxies in the night sky. Roam the moors with wild ponies, and camp out among the heather, as you enjoy the remarkable natural light show just above your head.
10. Death Valley National Park, California, USA
The largest Dark Sky Reserve in the world can be found in California, where the Death Valley National Park offers a fantastic experience for those wishing to gaze upon the night sky. This reserve spans nearly 14,000 square kilometres, covering eastern California and extending into Nevada. Despite its proximity to some of the United States’ most illuminated cities (Las Vegas and Los Angeles), Death Valley manages to provide excellent conditions for stargazing.
This is an ideal destination for both astronomy aficionados and complete beginners, as the Death Valley rangers organise guided night sky programs that will provide good advice for first-timers on how to make the most out of a night time trip. Between November and April, when conditions are clearest, Death Valley attracts many astronomy groups and scientists who organise group viewing sessions and guided walks. One of the best places to head for in this period is the Mahogany Flat Campground, one of the highest places you can stay in the park, 2499m above sea level on Telescope Peak. With the dazzling Milky Way above your head, surrounded by thousands of stars and constellations, there’s no better place to enjoy the sky at night.
11. Torres De Paine National Park, Chile
The Torres Del Paine National Park is a natural wonder, containing rare wildlife, glaciers, and dramatic granite mountains leaping high into the sky. This is an ideal place to visit for hiking, animal spotting, and of course, star gazing. This is one of the most beautiful places to see the sky in the southern hemisphere, and its southerly location will give you a glimpse of the starry sky like you’ve never seen it before.
12. Bosque Del Apache Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico, USA
Lights are completely prohibited in the Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico. This is due to the fact that thousands of rare snow geese call this place home, and gather here before they depart on their annual mass migration. Lights would act as a deterrent for the birds, confusing their navigation systems and depriving them of this traditional habitat.
As a result, the Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge offers fantastic conditions for stargazing! As long as you’re willing to share the site with thousands of rare birds, this is an excellent place to come with your telescope to gaze upon the night sky. In particular, this is an important observatory for lunar observations, and the park rangers run a number of tours and lectures for those interested in learning more about the movements and phases of our own moon. This is also a key place where astronomers across the United States gather to watch meteor showers. Don’t miss this exciting opportunity to see countless shooting stars, blazing across the dark sky.
13. Aoraki MacKenzie, New Zealand
Aoraki MacKenzie is one of the most impressive and important Dark Sky Reserves in the world. It is known as an important scientific hub in the southern hemisphere, and is used to observe phenomena than cannot be seen in the better-known Dark Sky Reserves in the northern hemisphere, including the Southern Cross, the Magellanic Clouds, and the full extent of the Milky Way.
However, this important region is also a culturally protected site. Astral observations are very important in traditional Maori culture, operating as a navigation system and a reference point for traditional spiritual festivals and events. This beautiful site on New Zealand’s South Island ensures that this aspect of Maori culture is protected from rapid urbanisation and settlement across the country. If you’re really lucky, here you might also catch a glimpse of the aurora australis, the southern equivalent of the northern lights, a glowing red or green curtain of lights that spreads across the night sky.
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