15 Mar In Search of Starlight: The Rise of Dark Sky Tourism
Few experiences instill more wonder than sitting outside on a summer night, looking up at a sparkling canvas of stars. Locating constellations, spying satellites and hoping for the flash of a falling meteor are pastimes sure to instill a sense of awe.
But finding a place for serious stargazing can be a challenge. Most of us live in urban areas where stars are few and faint at best. Light pollution is so pervasive, in fact, that if you were to stand on the observation deck of the Empire State Building, you would see less than one percent of the stars that Galileo Galilei saw through his telescope in 1610.
While the spectacle of a truly dark, starry night sky is becoming ever more rare, it is still possible to find. We have to go in search of starlight — and chasing dark skies is an exhilarating travel adventure.
A Vanishing Natural Resource
A few years ago, I was in Botswana on the edge of the Kalahari Desert, more than 500 miles from any major city. As darkness fell over our safari camp, it seemed like the sky was clouding up. Only it wasn’t. There were just so many stars visible that the entire heavens were aglitter. Under a new moon, the Milky Way sprawled across the sky in a thick smear of silver.
It’s rare to see a sky full of stars like I did on those magical African nights. Urbanization has eclipsed such views for 80 percent of Earth’s people, according to a 2016 study documenting light pollution around the globe. National Geographic reports that 99 percent of Americans and Europeans can’t see the Milky Way anymore, and most children growing up in the U.S. will never see it outside of a science textbook. Even standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon, the brightest feature of the sky is not starlight but the glow of Las Vegas 175 miles away.
The natural night sky, long an inspiration to humankind, is disappearing as rapidly from human experience as vast tracts of the Amazon or the Arctic ice cap. Stars that have been a source of myth and mystery for millennia are now largely unknown. Yet like other natural treasures disappearing from our planet, the heavens have a conservation movement all their own.
Protecting Dark Places
The loss of natural dark is not without significant impacts. As 24/7 light from urban sprawl covers ever more of the earth, ecosystems are disrupted, sleep cycles of humans and nocturnal animals are disturbed, and awareness of the cosmos is diminished.
Reflecting concern that an essential element of human civilization and culture is being lost, the United Nations has declared “the right to starlight” as part of our common heritage. In a similar vein to its establishment of World Heritage Sites, UNESCO has announced the creation of Starlight Reserves dedicated to preserving the quality of the night sky, where access to starlight is maintained for natural, cultural and scientific purposes. The International Dark Sky Association is also at work to preserve starscapes through the establishment of Dark Sky Places, a certified set of parks, reserves and communities intent on protecting or restoring natural night. And the U.S. National Park Service is likewise committed to protecting starry night skies as part of its conservation mission.
Utah’s Natural Bridges National Monument became the first International Dark Sky Park in 2006, recognizing its exceptionally starry skies and natural nocturnal habitat. Today, several national parks in the American Southwest share that status. And even urban areas can work to provide refuge for stars: Flagstaff, Arizona earned the first International Dark Sky Community designation in 2001, mitigating artificial light and educating citizens about the value of the night sky as a cultural treasure.
Stargazers who make a serious hobby of pursuing pristine night skies have earned a name for their pastime: astrotourism. Dark sky camps from New Mexico to Nova Scotia are set up to cater to amateur astronomers, with observatories and high-powered telescopes available for rent.
But there are plenty of places where travelers can experience the night sky as it has existed for centuries, observing the Milky Way in all its glory with the naked eye. While fewer than 200 stars are typically visible to city dwellers, up to 15,000 are on display in the least disturbed night skies— so many, in fact, that it can be difficult to pick out constellations. And our Adventure Collection members can help get you there.
All nine companies offer trips to starlight sanctuaries that provide a whole new definition of night life! Here’s a sampler.
Stellar Spots to See Stars
Canyonlands of the American Southwest
The Colorado Plateau holds some of North America’s darkest skies, and several Adventure Collection members offer exciting ways to explore its remote reaches. Raft the Colorado or Green River through Utah’s redrock canyonlands with O.A.R.S., where the stars twinkle so brightly at night you might have trouble falling asleep. Natural Habitat Adventures’ new Safari America: Under the Desert Sky trip combines mellow hikes in three national parks with luxury catered camping, complete with a powerful telescope for a close-up look at constellations.
Death Valley National Park, California
At 3.4 million acres, Death Valley is one of the world’s largest International Dark Sky Parks. It’s removed enough from the big cities of the Southwest to offer nearly pristine night skies, with views close to what ancient Mojave Desert dwellers might have seen. Holding the highest-level “Gold Tier” status from the International Dark Sky Association, Death Valley offers visitors a glimpse of deep-sky objects such as the Triangulum Galaxy, seen only in some of the darkest locations on the planet. Hike through Death Valley and Joshua Tree National Monument with Off the Beaten Path or explore it on two wheels on a Backroads cycling tour, retreating to stargaze each night from the spring-fed pool at the Inn at Furnace Creek.
New Zealand’s South Island
The darkest skies on the planet tend to be in the southern hemisphere, where there are fewer large cities, and the moutainous wilderness of New Zealand’s South Island makes every list of the world’s best stargazing locations. Aoraki Mt. Cook National Park is at its heart, and a 1,660 square-mile section has been declared an International Dark Sky Reserve. Explore the region on Backroads’ New Zealand Walking & Hiking Tour or Natural Habitat’s New Zealand Nature Explorer for a journey through this dramatic realm of peaks, glaciers, lakes and the glittery firmament overhead.
Australia’s Wild Kimberley
Western Australia is becoming a global destination for both astronomy studies and astrotourism, and there’s no more thrilling way to experience it than on a genuine wilderness immersion with NOLS, which offers an 8-day backpacking trip in Western Australia’s rugged Kimberley region. Navigate tight canyons, wander arid plateaus nourished by secluded waterfalls, look for evidence of ancient aboriginal culture, come face to face with crocodiles and kangaroos, and camp under some of the starriest skies on Earth.
Under African Skies
While Africa has a few large cities, most of the continent is among the least-developed places in the world, with virtually no light pollution. Africa’s first International Dark Sky Reserve is in southern Namibia, and you’ll be nearby when you explore the thousand-foot-high Sossusvlei dunes on Bushtracks’ Namibia Desert and Cheetah Safari. Retire in the evening to Kulala Desert Lodge where you have the option to sleep under the stars on your private rooftop viewing deck. In neighboring Botswana, the secluded Selinda Reserve—accessible only by private plane—offers some of Africa’s best wildlife viewing, and some of its best stargazing, too. Stay at exclusive Selinda Camp on Micato’s Cape to Delta Safari, a broad survey of southern Africa from cosmopolitan Cape Town to the lush channels of the Okavango Delta. Enjoy the stars as you dine by lantern light, then gather ‘round a crackling campfire to share stories of the day’s adventures.
Far-Flung Islands in the Tropical Ocean
Sometimes, the best stargazing happens at sea — and the idyllic isles scattered across the South Pacific and Indian Ocean provide dreamy ports of call by day. A small-ship cruise with Lindblad Expeditions will beguile you with the same black-velvet skies over French Polynesia that enchanted Gauguin — stand on deck after dark and just try to tear your gaze away from the sparkly canopy overhead. Or contact GeoEx to commune with lemurs and other exotic wildlife in Madagascar, where a visit to the spiny forest in the arid south promises exquisite stars overhead.
Here’s to your discovery of the dark, fellow adventurer. I leave you with these words from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry:
“Night, the beloved. Night, when words fade and things come alive. When the destructive analysis of day is done, and all that is truly important becomes whole and sound again. When man reassembles his fragmentary self and grows with the calm of a tree.”
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