Chile’s Atacama Desert mixes high altitude, dry air, and an absence of light pollution — a perfect recipe for some of the world’s best stargazing.
The highest desert on Earth is not necessarily an easy place to get to, but if you go you’ll be rewarded with some of the clearest skies on the planet.
The Observatorio Cerro Mamalluca offers public tours.
Or, for a more personal experience, book a room at the Hotel Elqui Domos, where seven geodesic domes feature upstairs bedrooms with detachable roofs so guests can enjoy a stunning view of the heavens from the comfort of their bed.
Hawaii is also a highly regarded destination for viewing the stars. In the middle of the Pacific Ocean, it’s relatively untouched by light pollution. The best spot in the island chain is the volcano of Mauna Kea on the Big Island.
At an altitude of 9,000 feet, it’s home to the Keck Observatory and one of the world’s largest optical telescopes.
It’s also the future site of the Thirty-Meter Telescope, which will be the most advanced telescope ever built when finished in 2018.
Hawaii beat out Chile for the honor of hosting this telescope after these two destinations were judged the best stargazing locations on the planet.
Visitors should begin at the Onizuka Visitors Center, which runs free nightly stargazing programs.
Southwestern United States
The Sonoran Desert in the American Southwest has particularly clear skies, and Kitt Peak National Observatory near Tucson houses the world’s largest collection of optical telescopes and offers nightly viewing opportunities.
Other sites in the region that are open to the public include Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles; Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona; and McDonald Observatory near El Paso, Texas. Or, in New Mexico, you can visit New Mexico Skies, rent a cabin in the Sacramento Mountains, and discover the stars from their mini-observatories.
Natural Bridges National Monument in Utah was the first place to be named an International Dark Sky Park and is considered to have some of the world’s best night views. Rangers lead summertime astronomy workshops.
DIY stargazing is another way to go.
Bryce Canyon in Utah; the Grand Canyon in Arizona; Chaco Culture in New Mexico; and Joshua Tree, Yosemite, and Death Valley in California are all Southwest parks that put on spectacular nighttime shows.
Many destinations in Africa are excellent for stargazing due to their low population density, low levels of light pollution, and frequent cloudless nights.
South Africa and Namibia have particularly good opportunities for public viewing. The South African Astronomical Observatory offers tours at facilities in Sutherland and Cape Town, while Kruger National Park has astronomy programs for safari tourists.
For a unique lodging experience in Namibia, the Sossusvlei Desert Lodge is not only near the world’s largest sand dunes, but also has its own observatory and astronomers.
Australia and New Zealand
Like Chile, South Africa, and Namibia, Australia’s and New Zealand’s positions in the Southern Hemisphere mean you’ll be able to see stars that aren’t visible in the North, most notably the constellation of the Southern Cross.
An easily accessible destination in Australia is the Sydney Observatory, located near Sydney Harbor.
If you want to escape the city, the Astronomical Society of New South Wales hosts the annual South Pacific Star Party at a 100-acre site three hours from Sydney.
Or, for a truly spectacular setting in the center of Australia, make your way to Uluru (Ayers Rock) for the Sounds of Silence experience, where you’ll dine in the open air and then listen to an astronomer give you a tour of the southern sky.
New Zealand has several good observatories, including the Auckland Stardome with its 360-degree dome theater. On the South Island, in Lake Tekapo township, the Mount John Observatory offers clear skies and a majestic location in the Southern Alps.
If you’re looking for a stargazing destination in Europe, Scotland has some of the darkest skies on the continent. The northern lights are even visible occasionally, a phenomenon that usually requires a trip closer to the Arctic Circle.
Read about Matador managing editor Julie Schwietert’s night out in Shakespeare Under the Stars: A Night at the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival.
For unforgettable Earth-bound vistas, check out Photo Essay: The Most Alien Landscapes on Earth.