Plan a Trip Around the Stars
If you found yourself on a boat in the middle of the ocean at night, would you know which way was east or west? (And no, you don’t have a smart phone in this hypothetical situation). What if you were a farmer and had to be able to know the precise time to harvest your crop, based on no information but the natural world around you? Highly advanced technology has rendered these situations non-issues in today’s age. Historically, however, the answer to these questions would have been to look to the stars.
Stars were one of the first mediums with which humans learned to gauge direction and predict the seasons. Civilizations reaching as far back as the ancient Babylonians (3200 BC) organized stars into constellations for religious as well as agricultural purposes. The full emergence of certain constellations, for example, meant that winter was fast approaching. Tools and instruments based on the position of the stars made possible the first trans-Atlantic nautical voyages. The night sky greatly influenced the way human history has unfolded.
In contemporary times, the appreciation of these celestial orbs has fallen to the wayside. Starry skies and constellations are a treat many can rarely witness due to living in urban areas. Light pollution dulls the darkness necessary to enjoy such phenomena, but several extraordinary places still exist where the clearness of the night sky is preserved. All you need is some planning, a sense of adventure, and hopefully a better way to travel than on a ship with a sextant. Here are a few of the best locations in the world to see the stars today like our ancient Babylonian predecessors did in the past.
Atacama Desert, Chile
This 41,000 square mile desert is one of the driest places on earth, with an average yearly rainfall of less than 1.5 cm. Many years don’t even see one drop. It is considered by scientists as an absolute desert, meaning it is totally devoid of flora and fauna. While this may not sound incredibly appealing, it provides unparalleled conditions for stargazing upwards from 300 nights a year.
San Pedro de Atacama Celestial Explorations (SPACE) is an organization that provides stargazing tours in the Atacama Desert for novices and experts alike. With prepared packages including transportation from and to the nearby town of San Pedro, the tours provided by SPACE make experiencing Atacama’s night sky completely accessible in spite of the dramatic landscape.
Mauna Kea, Hawaii
The world’s largest observatory dwells on top of this 13,796 ft. dormant volcano on the Big Island of Hawaii. At such a height, the facilities find themselves above 40% of earth’s atmosphere. This allows for extraordinarily clear images of the night sky. Clouds sit well below the peak, keeping the air above dry and pristine.
A free, publicly funded Star Gazing Program is hosted at the Mauna Kea Visitor Center every night. The center is at an elevation of 9,300 ft. There are also escorted summit tours available, but you must find your own transportation. Due to the extreme altitude, there are age and health restrictions implemented for the safety of those visiting the summit.
Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah
This is Utah’s first national monument, appointed so by no other than Theodore Roosevelt himself in 1908. The National Park boasts some of the darkest skies in the country, deemed the first official International Dark-sky Park by the International Dark-sky Association (IDA) in 2007. Visitors here will encounter mesmerizing views of the Milky Way and the possibility of seeing up to 15,000 stars in a single night.
The park also has a tremendous history. Its first occupants were hunter-gatherer tribes around 7,000 B.C. Rock art and stone tools are all that remains of them, but structures built by ancestors of the Puebloan people are still to be found in excellent condition…more than 700 years after having been abandoned.
With campsites available at an extremely affordable $10 a night, Natural Bridges is a great opportunity to experience world-class stargazing within very reasonable means.
This remote area is more than 100 miles north of the Arctic Circle. It is the home to the Esrange Space Center, a facility that has developed more than 8 satellites and launched more than 500 stratospheric balloons.
The most famous astronomical event one can witness here is the famed aurora borealis, or Northern Lights. This phenomenon occurs when highly charged electrons from solar winds enter earth’s atmosphere and encounter molecules of nitrogen and oxygen. Lapland PhotoAdventures team hosts guided photo tours that instruct participants in how to best capture the Aurora Borealis in stills. The tours run until March 20th, 2014.
For places to stay, why not try the famed ICEHOTEL? This is the world’s premiere hotel made entirely of ice and snow. And let’s just entirely bypass all the tempting puns about what a cool place this is to visit.
Death Valley National Park, California
Famously the lowest point in North America, Death Valley is rated in the Gold tier of the IDA scale for measuring the darkness of the night sky. This means that light-pollution is minimal, allowing for the visibility of astronomical phenomena only possible in the darkest regions of the world. The park spans 3.4 million acres and sits at an elevation of 196 feet below sea level.
The park service holds a monthly Full Moon Festival, complete with guided moonlight walks through the park and lunar telescope viewings. Camping is available for up to $18, while some sights can even be stayed at for free.
If you don’t go on a guided star tour, your smartphone can help you identify stars and planets visible from your location. Apps like Starmap, The Night Sky Lite and Sky Map have features that tell you what stars and planets you are facing based on the position of your phone. Ranging from cheap to free, theses Apps are a great and convenient way to increase your knowledge of the cosmos.
The locations listed above are some of best places for stargazing in the world. If travel expenses or time have you trapped in your hometown, however, don’t despair. Getting a little ways out or above an urban center is often enough to experience beautiful, starlit skies. Try driving to the highest point in your local area on a clear night. Throw some blankets on the ground, lie down and just stare straight up. If ground-creatures creep you out, find a friend with a pick-up truck and fill the bed with pillows and blankets. It’s a perfect portable stargazing center.
A native of Topanga Canyon (think of it like the back-country of LA), I have recently received a B.A. in English from the University of California Santa Barbara. I'm now working to advance my writing career between time spent bartending and surfing, finding inspiration in all the crazy people I encounter along the way. I love great literature, head-high waves, songwriting and talking to strangers. Check out my writing at www.danoallan.com and my original music at https://soundcloud.com/doallan.