Stars, moons, planets and galaxies have been hot topics of conversation after NASA released jaw-dropping new photos from the James Webb Space Telescope earlier this summer.
But, aside from the occasional release of new space photos, it can be hard to really appreciate the night sky.
“There’s a reason not everyone is an astronomer,” said Ken Walczak, senior director of Far Horizons at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago. “A hundred years ago everyone was an astronomer, because 100 years ago [was] before the widespread advent of outdoor electric lighting.
Walczak added that at one time everyone could see the Milky Way from their backyard – now it’s more of a challenge. For those who want to see the Milky Way or other objects in the night sky, there are ways to do so. Here are some great travel destinations to see stars, planets, and nebulae, along with expert stargazing tips.
Cherry Springs State Park in Coudersport, Pennsylvania
“In Pennsylvania, there’s a very well-known place here called Cherry Springs State Park,” said Derrick Pitts, chief astronomer at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. “They are specially designed for telescopic observers.”
He added that the park is so geared up for stargazers that if you get there after dark, you’ll see what looks like a drive-in movie theater parking lot. You will find rows separated by poles which are powerhouses for telescopes.
Maunakea Visitor Information Station in Hilo, Hawaii
According to Pitts, Maunakea is a major astronomical site on the Big Island that is home to a peak reserved for astronomers. The destination also offers a visitor station where you can get a privileged view for stargazing.
The station is approximately 9,000 feet in the air and is really dark. “They don’t allow any light up there, and all the rest of the light is on the coast and thousands of feet below you,” Pitts said.
Beyond stargazing, the area is also a popular place for hiking.
Mark Twain National Forest in Rolla, Missouri
“Generally, this whole area of southeast Missouri is really secluded and nice,” Walczak said.
Specifically, Mark Twain National Forest is a great place to visit for stargazing in the state. You can also hike, camp, or boat while touring the area.
Gila National Forest in Silver City, New Mexico
One of Walczak’s favorite places to stargaze is Gila National Forest in New Mexico. In particular, he recommended visiting Quemado Lake in the National Forest. There, you’ll find a campground at an elevation of almost 7,000 feet, putting you high enough in the dark to get a really good glimpse of the stars.
Great Basin National Park in Baker, Nevada
“Great Basin National Park in Nevada is also an amazing viewing site,” Walczak said.
He added that the park is also very supportive of astrotourism and has a range of special events and offerings throughout the year. You can visit for its annual astronomy festival in the fall, take a tour of the Nevada Northern Railway’s flagship train or gaze up at the sky from the park’s solar telescopes.
McDonald Observatory at the University of Texas in Fort Davis, Texas
“It’s up in the mountains of Guadalupe that McDonald Observatory lies,” said Tracy Knauss, director of astronomy at Houston Museum of Natural Science’s George Observatory.
The observatory sits about 5,600 feet above sea level, making it a beautiful place to view the night sky year-round (and has many light restrictions, so you won’t have deal with bright lights interrupting your view while you’re at it). If you can, try to visit in October, because you “can see the summer setting of the Milky Way and the winter rise of the Milky Way,” Knauss noted.
International Dark Sky Parks
“These are state parks that have taken care of what is necessary to identify them as places that are ‘dark sky preserves,'” Pitts said.
They are known as the International Dark Sky Parks and include places like Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona, Joshua Tree National Park in California, Rappahannock County Park in Virginia, and Washington State Park. Newport, Wisconsin, etc. You can search through the list of all park locations (there are over 100) to find one near you. They cover all of the United States.
All locations have regulations for things like the use of headlights and flashlights at night, and they don’t allow any utility lighting, Pitts noted. “In this place, and probably in an area around the place, they either keep the nighttime lighting very low or they deliberately direct the light downward so that it doesn’t obstruct your view of the night sky,” did he declare.
Night sky urban locations
For those who live in town, you can also visit Night sky urban locations, which are a relatively new designation, Walczak said. These designated areas may be a “city park, open space, stargazing site, or other similar property” near urban environments whose design and planning allows for a better stargazing experience, according to the International Dark Sky Association.
“The goal of the Urban Night Sky Square is more of a dedicated area for good lighting,” and accessibility for people who live in cities, he noted.
Any lighting in the area must meet International Dark Sky Association requirements, he added, which may include things like limited brightness and low color temperatures.
Walczak pointed out that this is a unique experience for many city dwellers who are not used to being able to see the sky with virtually no light around them.
Bonus: the Northern Lights in Iceland or Canada
We’d be remiss not to mention the ultimate night sky experience: the Northern Lights. Iceland or Canada are ideal places to see the lights, according to Knauss.
Notably, Yukon in Canada is known for its stunning views of the Northern Lights and Heiðmörk Forest, near Reykjavík, Iceland, is also a good vantage point. As for timing, “arrive in the freezing cold of winter, December through February, to get a taste,” Knauss said.
In general, try to visit places with low light pollution if you want to stargaze.
According Lauren Scorzafava, head of communications at the International Dark Sky Association, “stargazing is above all better in a place without light pollution”. Consider areas where there aren’t many artificial lights like streetlights, building lights and more.
Walczak added that you can use the Light pollution map to determine the darkest places near you. “Tthe further away you can get from city lights, the better,” he said.
Avoiding light when stargazing might be a no-brainer, but finding really dark areas is harder than you think, especially if you live east of the Mississippi River, which Walczak says is tricky. due to the dense population along the east coast. .
But, wherever you live, you should be able to find a dark place to stargaze in your state or region.
Coming with the right gear or a bit of preparation also goes a long way.
Experts also insist on planning a little ahead and bringing the proper gear so you can see as much as possible when observing the night sky.
To start, get a good pair of binoculars, Pitts said. “They’re easy to take with you on trips and the binoculars will allow you to see much more than you can see with the naked eye.”
Pitts also recommended getting a paper star chart, “just in case your phone battery dies or you don’t have internet access and still want to be able to orient yourself to the sky.”
The moment when you decide to go on a trip is also important. “Plan a viewing trip for the first week of the moon’s cycle – from new moon to first quarter moon,” Pitts said. You can find this information by searching Google for the current cycle of the moon.
The same goes for the time of year. “Winter, if you can stand it, has the most pristine skies. Because when it’s cold and the atmosphere is much more stable, which makes the stars sparkle, for example,” Walczak said. overall, winter skies will be clearer and less distorted. (And whenever you go, be sure to check the weather ahead of time.”Clear sky map provides predictive information relevant to astronomical observation,” Scorzafava said.)
Altitude is also a bonus, but not a requirement, Walczak noted. ”The higher up you are, the less atmosphere you see, so that makes the sky clearer in a way.
Finally, be sure to give your eyes time to adjust to the dark. Walczak noted that it takes up to 30 minutes for your eyes to fully switch to night vision. During this time, avoid looking at your phone or other lights.