There are 15,000 stars in the night sky, but thanks to light pollution we only ever see about 500 of them. If you’re ready to discover the galaxies hiding behind the smattering of urban twinklers, you’ll first have to head where the skies are at their darkest – that is, the remote parks and reserves recognised by the International Dark Sky Association. Make your next trip an out-of-this-world experience with these five stellar spots for amazing stargazing.
1. Albanyà, Spain – fly from £25
In the rural north of Spain, the isolated setting of Albanyà keeps its night skies dark and its views of the stars epic. Astrotourism is hugely important to this rural municipality, and just outside of town, you’ll find the best stargazing in Bassegoda Park and Albanyà Astronomical Observatory. Here, local astronomers and astrophotographers uncover the secrets of the night sky in an outdoor stadium – don’t worry, the seats are heated – with live video from their telescope. Sound pretty magical so far? There’s more. The celestial displays are accompanied by bespoke music by Catalan composer Pere Guerra for a truly breathtaking show.
The lush, mountainous surrounds are just as pretty during the day. While Albanyà feels hidden away, you’re only an hour’s drive from the rugged coastline of the Costa Brava where you can swim in unspoilt coves and explore picturesque seaside towns.
Stay at Camping Bassegoda Park, just a few minutes’ walk from the observatory. Pitch up a tent if camping’s your thing, or swap canvas for an actual roof with one of their rooms or mini bungalows where you can glamp with all your creature comforts like a shower, bed and a fully-equipped kitchen. As an official Starlight Camp (a recognised astronomy campsite) with special night-time lighting to minimise light pollution, there’s no better place to sleep under the stars.
2. Yeongyang Firefly Eco Park, South Korea – fly from £383
Surrounded by un-farmable mountains, Yeongyang is one of the least populated counties in South Korea. Tucked away in the Wangpi river valley, Yeongyang Firefly Eco Park is an accessible 4.5 hour drive from Seoul, and, as its name suggests, is dedicated to protecting fireflies. The local firefly population benefits from dark, natural conditions, and the park’s low light levels meant it became the first in Asia to gain international recognition for its dark skies. So now, as well as spotting millions of glowing fireflies, it’s also a great place to gaze at lights a little further away, with an observatory, stargazing walks, and outdoor concerts to admire the star-studded skies.
To gawk at natural beauty in the daytime, head to the largest wildflower park in Korea on nearby Irwolsan Mountain. Here, you’ll find 112,000 colourful wildflowers blooming, including chrysanthemums, lilies, asters and rare pasque flowers and twilight lilies.
Break your journey to the remote region of Yeongyang with a stop at Galleria Hotel in Andong, conveniently located a stone’s throw from the shops, restaurants and train station. From around £32 a night, you’ll get a comfy bed (or a traditional futon, if you choose a Korean-style room) private bathroom, air con and free WiFi. The hotel amenities list also includes karaoke, so get ready to belt out your rendition of Bowie’s Starman to get you in an astronomical mood.
3. Aoraki Mackenzie Reserve, New Zealand – fly from £594
As the largest Dark Sky Reserve in the world, and the only one in the southern hemisphere, Aoraki Mackenzie is a special place to be at night. Rooted in its history, the indigenous Māori navigated using the night sky and wove star lore throughout their culture. Today, controls on outdoor lighting give the reserve a whopping 4,300 square kilometres of pure dark skies. That’s plenty of stargazing space to choose from – although the famous Mount John Observatory is one of the best spots in the reserve to peep at the planets and galaxies above you. Keep your eyes peeled for constellations only seen in the southern hemisphere like the Southern Cross and the Magellanic Clouds. There’s also a year-round chance to see the elusive Southern Lights, which, like their more famous northern counterparts, decorate the starry skies in veils of green and pink lights.
When the sun’s out, there are plenty of lakes, mountains and alpine vistas to admire. Soak up the turquoise waters of Lake Tekapo from the glass Astro Cafe or for the best panoramic views in the daylight, head for the Mount John Summit Track – the hour-and-a-half walk starts at Tekapo Springs.
For a budget option, head for Tailor Made Tekapo Backpackers hostel, where you can stay in clean private or shared rooms from £52 a night. Or, for something totally wow-factor, book a stay at Skyscape. This remote glass house is perched on the Ben Ohau Range inside the Dark Sky Reserve. Wake to sweeping panoramas of the park, and at night, fall asleep below a celestial ceiling, with the stars watching over you.
4. Galloway Forest Park, Scotland – fly from £50
Affectionately named the Highlands of the Lowlands, Galloway Forest Park proves you don’t have to travel miles to escape light pollution. This forest park is the largest in the UK, and 20 per cent has been set aside for ‘core’ preservation of dark skies, with no permanent illuminations allowed. Its remote location combined with controlled lighting means you won’t find a better, darker spot in Europe to bear witness to the wonders of the universe.
To the starry-eyed layman, it’s a twinkling night sky, but what you’re actually witnessing is the bright band of the Milky Way (our galaxy) and the next closest galaxy: Andromeda (a solid 2.5 million light-years away). If you’re lucky, you might even catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights. Head for the panoramic viewing points either end of the Carrick Forest Drive. Or prebook tickets to the hilltop Scottish Dark Sky Observatory, which has two telescopes to take your stargazing to the next level.
As well as being a Dark Sky Park, this area is also recognised by UNESCO thanks to the landscapes and wildlife on offer. While away your days walking through forests and past scenic lochs, and spotting the resident wildlife from hides in the Red Deer Range.
You’re in Scotland, so it only seems right to stay in a castle, right? Machermore Castle is a pint-sized, budget option with rooms from £55 a night. Or, for around £99 a night, head to Selkirk Arms Hotel in ‘The Artist’s Town’ of Kirkcudbright. On certain weekends, they offer a stargazing package, which includes a weekend itinerary of walks and talks with an astronomer.
5. Cherry Springs Park, Pennsylvania, USA – fly from £215
This gold-level Dark Sky Park boasts near-perfect stargazing conditions, so expect all sorts of celestial shows including constellations, asteroids, meteor showers, galaxies and even the International Space Station. Twice a year, Cherry Springs throws a Star Party, which has nothing to do with celebrity guests. Instead, hundreds of astronomers rock up with all their kit for expert talks and public viewings. For those who want to capture their experience on camera, book your place on one of the Nightscapes Photography Workshops. You’ll learn everything from composition to keeping those star-spangled vistas pin sharp.
During the day, there’s plenty to see, from local wildlife – keep an eye out for coyotes, bobcats, and black bears – to the rugged ‘Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania’ AKA Pine Creek Gorge. Swap the natural wonders for a manmade one with Kinzua Sky Walk, a walkway across the magnificent Kinzua Viaduct, which was once the highest and longest of its kind in the world.
For around £106 a night, stay at Rough Cut Lodge off Route 6, just a half-hour drive from the park. These giant lodges, wood-panelled suites and cosy log cabins are all tucked away in Pine Creek Gorge. This is a rustic retreat at its best: spend your days canyon hiking and fishing, and your evenings toasting marshmallows over twilight campfires.
Are you ready for your stargazing adventure? Search flights and hotels below:
All flight and prices mentioned in this article are estimates of the cheapest prices based on Skyscanner’s flight search tools. These are subject to change and were correct at time of writing on 23 July 2019.