The Best Dark Sky Destinations
Avalon Harris-Trussell & Elanor Parker, 19.07.19
On July 20, 1969, Apollo 11 landed on the moon in one of humankind’s most significant achievements. Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Mike Collins were the astronauts chosen to make that incredible journey and the impact 50 years on is still felt today as generations have grown up inspired by their voyage into space.
Although we’re not quite ready to sell flights to the moon, we think that travelling to a dark sky destination might be the space-inspired trip you’re looking for. Dark sky destinations are places away from highly populated areas so there is very little light pollution and much more of the night sky is revealed, even to the naked eye. You won’t believe the thousands more stars you’ll be able to see, transforming the way you see the night sky forever.
Arches National Park - Utah, USA
What better way to celebrate the anniversary of the moon landing than by visiting America's latest International Dark Sky Park? The park is home to over 2,000 otherworldly natural sandstone arches, each towering over the vast desert landscape and framing the incredible night sky.
A sandstone formation in Arches National Park
Arches National Park is a red-rock wonderland of contrasting colours and textures and is known for its unusual geological formations, including staggering stone arches and unbelievable balancing rocks. Space-lovers might already love the park for its otherworldly landscape, but there is another reason to head to Arches this year: the park is newly certified as an official Dark Sky Park by the International Dark Sky Association (IDSA), a prestigious distinction that recognises the quality of the night sky.
Arches National Park is easily accessible but lies in relative isolation, five miles north of the town of Moab in the US state of Utah. From Moab, it’s easy to pick up the paved scenic road that winds through the park and takes visitors to most of the major viewpoints. For the best viewing, you’ll want to head off the main park road; remember, the further north you drive, the further you’ll head from the lights of Moab, and the darker the sky will be. Under the right conditions, standard binoculars may be all you need to reveal the rings of Saturn!
Arches National Park is open year-round, 24 hours a day and charges an entrance fee of $30 USD per vehicle, which can be used for seven consecutive days (subject to change).
Top Tip: If you're a fan of unusual destinations, check out our blog: 10 Unbelieveable Places on Earth
Take me to Arches National Park:
Moab Canyonlands Field (CNY) is the closest to Moab, but is a small airfield and offers only one daily service to Denver International airport with SkyWest Airlines/United Airlines. From Denver International airport, a connecting flight can be made onward destinations across the USA.
Grand Junction Airport is 110 miles from Moab (an approximate 1 hr 45 min drive) and provides the closest option for many airlines, including American Airlines, Allegiant Air, Delta Airlines, and United Airlines. Routes to/from Grand Junction Airport are limited, however. Alternatively, Salt Lake City is the closest major international airport, 236 miles from Moab (an approximate 4 hour drive), with flights available to/from a much longer list of destinations.
Ramon Crater - Negev Desert, Israel
Ramon Crater, also known as Makhtesh Ramon, was the first official International Dark Sky Park in the Middle East. Known as the Middle East’s ‘Grand Canyon’, this protected nature reserve is actually one of the most geologically significant sites in the world. It’s not technically a canyon, but an erosion crater, created over thousands of years when a mountain was slowly eroded away by water. The mountain and the ancient rivers have long gone, leaving behind an astonishing mutli-coloured geological record of the world’s evolution.
A view from the top of Ramon Crater
Although the eerie crater is space like enough itself, the rugged rocks certainly resemble the lunar landscape or how we imagine the surface of Mars might be like, make sure you take the time to look up to the sky as well. Book yourself onto a guided stargazing tour and you’ll enhance your star spotting experience even more by taking a peek through professional telescopes, as well as learning how to spot the constellations.
Other than stargazing, the crater is a popular hiking destination, with many trails to choose from. Although the crater looks inhospitable, there’s wildlife to discover: Nubian ibexes are a common. A rarer sight are onagers, very small wild horses which were reintroduced here.
Take me to Ramon Crater:
Ramon Crater is around a two hour drive from Eilat, a popular seaside resort, where you can dive in the Red Sea’s coral reef and sun yourself on the sandy beaches. You can reach Eilat Ramon Airport on airlines such as El Al Airlines, Israir Airlines and Arkia Airlines.
You might also choose to travel to Ramon Crater from Tel Aviv, one of the cultural centres of Israel and around a three hour drive from Ramon Crater. You can read our Local’s Guide to Tel Aviv to learn more about the city’s stunning beaches, bustling markets and busy nightlife. To get to Tel Aviv, you can fly there on airlines including Lufthansa, Air Canada and Cathay Pacific.
La Palma - Canary Islands, Spain
The Canary Islands might be part of Spain, but are actually closer to the cost of northwestern Africa, blessing them with warm pleasant weather all year round and making them one of the most popular holiday destinations for Europeans seeking sand, sea and sun.
Part of the observatory on La Palma
However, La Palma is the quietest out of the Canaries. This low key nature has meant that the island’s wildlife and landscape have taken centre stage instead, creating the perfect conditions for stargazing. With some of the most unspoilt skies in Europe, it’s home to the Roque de los Muchachos Observatory, one of the very best in the northern hemisphere. You can visit the observatory on a restricted basis, weather permitting, which you’ll need to apply for in advance. There you’ll be greeted by a Starlight Guide who will explain the work that they do there, as well as the dome of one of the telescopes in the observatory. Unfortunately, you won’t be able to visit the observatory at night-time so to see the stars you’re best off visiting the island’s Starlight Reserve, Llano del Jable. At the top of a sleeping volcano there is a natural balcony which allows you breathtaking panoramic views of the night sky. Even without binoculars you’ll be able to spot constellations, planets and maybe even the Great Andromeda Nebula.
If you’re looking for a trip that includes more than stargazing, then you can spend the daylight hours trekking around the rocky and volcanic landscape, with trails suitable for all, and the island’s capital, Santa Cruz, is also worth a visit with quaint cobbled streets dating back to the 15th century. You can even book a dolphin and whale watching tour, where you’re likely to encounter these fascinating creatures, including humpbacks and sperm whales, all year round. However, if you’re spending all your nights opening your eyes to the revelation of seeing unbelievably clear starry skies, you can relax and spend lazy days chilling out on one of La Palma’s black sand sand beaches or hanging out by your hotel’s pool.
Take me to La Palma:
Elan Valley - Wales, United Kingdom
You might not think to visit one of the UK’s largest reservoirs if you’re in search of stars. However, in 2015 Elan Valley achieved International Dark Sky Park status and it’s actually a lot more scenic than a reservoir built during the industrial revolution sounds. The Victorian reservoirs are extraordinary feats of engineering in themselves and consist of six great dams. Still very much functional, they provide water for the city of Birmingham as well as areas in Wales.
Wales might be small, but it’s world renowned for its rolling hills and moorlands and you’ll find much of this natural beauty in Elan Valley too. You can hire a bike to explore the park, with the Elan Valley Trail providing a safe route to cycle along and admire the view.
With 45,000 acres of park now officially designated as dark sky, you have your choice of stargazing spots. If you’d like a little more guidance, then visit the Elan Valley Visitor Center where the local astronomy group often host educational meet-ups open to all. Other popular places to enjoy the night sky at are the Bridge Crossing and Claerwen Dam.
Take me to Elan Valley:
Elan Valley is in between two major UK airports: Cardiff and Birmingham. It’s about a 2–3 hour drive from either airport. To fly into Cardiff, the Welsh capital, you can choose from airlines including KLM, Air France and Aer Lingus. If you choose to fly into Birmingham instead, airlines that fly there include Virgin Atlantic, Alitalia and British Airways.
The Valley of Dreams - New Mexico, USA
What could be more romantic than midnight in the Valley of Dreams, under a beautiful star-studded sky? Discover surreal rock formations and a wild landscape; perfect for dreamers and photographers alike.
A sandstone formation in Arches National Park
Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah is a vast 6,500 acre wilderness area in New Mexico and home to the mesmerizing Valley of Dreams. If you’re brave enough to explore these remote badlands you’ll discover bizarre and colorful rock formations, from pinnacles, canyons and spires to petrified wood hoodoos and dinosaur bones preserved in striking stratified layers. 75,000 millennia of wild wind, water, and ice slowly eroding away at the layers are responsible for the alien-esque landscape you’ll find today.
The landscape of Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah, with its jutting maze of peculiar formations, has a big reputation for being the holy grail for landscape photographers. But the area holds another secret. As night descends, the true darkness of the sky is revealed above—a darkness that the dinosaurs themselves would have recognised.
Take me to The Valley of Dreams
If you’re after isolation, Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah and its secret Valley of Dreams is the place for you; in fact, it’s unlikely you’ll come across another soul on your adventure. It does, however, mean Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah isn't easy to get to. The closest city is Bloomfield, in the arid San Juan Basin of northwest New Mexico. Be aware that the drive to the Valley of Dreams through the Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah wilderness area includes 15 miles of rough and unpaved road.
Albuquerque Sunport (ABQ) is one of the nearest major airports, about two and a half hours drive from Bloomfield. From Albuquerque Sunport domestic flights are available to/from destinations across the USA, on airlines including Southwest Airlines, American Eagle, Alaska Airlines and Allegiant Air. For more information, check out our full guide to domestic flights within the USA!
The Grand Canyon - Arizona, USA
The Grand Canyon is known the world-over for its sheer size and glorious wide views out over the depths of the canyon and the Colorado River. Newly certified as a Dark Sky Park, this American icon also offers immense views upwards—in fact, the Grand Canyon has been dubbed one of the world’s best spots for stargazing.
The road to the Grand Canyon
June 2019 saw the International Dark Sky Association formally certify the Grand Canyon as a Dark Sky Park, meaning the area is now recognised for its ‘distinguished quality’. Certification has been a long process for the park; a three year initiative included replacing 67 percent of the parks fixtures with shielded lower-watt LED alternatives.
Every June the park holds a week of star parties, with telescopes set up at both the Grand Canyon Lodge, at the canyon’s North Rim, and the Grand Canyon Visitor Center, at the canyon's South Rim. But the new credentials means 2019 will see extra celebrations. During the summer months, festivities will take place each evening, from 8pm, at the South Rim Visitor Center. Famed astronomer Dean Regas will lead a series of talks, experts will hold workshops to help master night sky photography, and ranger led tours will offer you the chance to head out and explore the park by night.
Take me to The Grand Canyon
Most visitors heading to the Grand Canyon choose to fly into one of three airports in close proximity to the canyon:
Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport is a good idea if you’re heading to the South Rim, an approximate three and a half hour drive away. Airlines offer domestic flights, and a limited number of international flights, on airlines including American Airlines, American Eagle, British Airways, and Frontier Airlines.
McCarran International Airport (Las Vegas) is an approximate four hour drive from the Canyon. Airlines offer domestic flights and a limited number of international flights, on airlines including Frontier Airlines, Southwest Airlines, Sun Country Airlines and Spirit Airlines.
Salt Lake City International Airport, approximately six hours drive from the Grand Canyon, is a good option for those visiting the North Rim. Airlines offer domestic flights and a limited number of international flights, on airlines including Delta Airlines, Delta Connection and JetBlue.