Like many aspects of planet Earth, our view of the night sky suffers from pollution effects. Emissions from industry along with stray light from outdoor lamps makes it difficult for people in many regions to enjoy the starry view to its fullest.
The International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) is working to preserve the night sky for its cultural and scientific value, and to do that it has worked with countries to create dark sky preserves around the world. Here's a look at those 16 certified international dark sky reserves and where they are.
Alpes Azur Mercantour (France)
The gentle climate and renowned biodiversity in Mercantour National Park in France makes it a popular dark sky preserve among astronomy enthusiasts, according to the IDA. One of the first mountain observatories, Mont Mounier was established here at the end of the 19th century. In between gazing at the stars, you can enjoy the mountain views and close proximity to the coast.
Learn more about Mercantour National Park
Aoraki Mackenzie (New Zealand)
In the 1908s, local officials began to more aggressively control outdoor lighting in the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve in New Zealand, not only to protect the sky, but also to conserve energy and protect wildlife, according to the IDA. The Māori, who are indigenous residents in this region, use the night sky for navigation and also have a wealth of astronomy and star cultural lore that is culturally important. Helping to keep the sky unpolluted the Māori is therefore one of the reasons IDA is glad to preserve this area's dark skies.
Learn more about the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve
Brecon Beacons National Park (Wales)
Brecon Beacons National Park in Wales is so isolated that sheep outnumber people 30 to 1, according to IDA. Nevertheless, the community of roughly 33,000 residents has been working hard to make 100 percent of their lighting conducive to preserving the dark skies. It's a big win for astronomy enthusiasts, as there used to be a lot of lighting that washed out astronomy views, according to the IDA.
Learn more about Brecon Beacons National Park.
Central Idaho (United States)
If you're looking for a wilderness experience similar to what our ancestors had, Stanley Lake in central Idaho is one of the few places that not only is lacking in electricity, but also mobile phone service, IDA says. The rugged terrain in the region has made it difficult to put in infrastructure,which has left behind some truly dark skies for visitors. During the day, there are also opportunities for hiking, backpacking and horseback riding.
Learn more about Central Idaho dark sky preserve.
Cévennes National Park (France)
While much of France has urbanized over the centuries, Cévennes remains uniquely sparse thanks to the mountainous terrain in this region. There is no lack of people — some 71,000 inhabitants within 250 villages — but the region is mostly made up of farmland, with nearby activities including mountain biking, fishing, hiking and spelunking (cave exploring). Local authorities have also done their best to preserve the sky views, IDA says.
Cranborne Chase (England)
The newly designated dark sky preserve of Cranborne Chase in Dorset, U.K. features a (from 2019) chalk formation, sharp hills and numerous clays and gravels, IDA says. The interesting landscape adds to the beauty of the night sky, which is preserved between the counties Dorset, Hampshire and Wiltshire. Adjacent to this reserve is Salisbury Plain, home to the famous Stonehenge monument.
Exmoor National Park (England)
If you're looking for a dark sky reserve within a short drive of urban centers, Exmoor National Park in Devon, U.K. offers exceptional skies and accessibility at the same time. History buffs can also visit Bronze Age burial mounds or a deserted medieval settlement in the region, IDA says.
Learn more about the Exmoor National Park.
If you're taken aback by the dark sky views in County Kerry, a barren region in Ireland, know that you are not alone. Neolithic inhabitants of the region built stone monuments nearly 6,000 years ago to keep track of the sun, moon and stars, and some of the Ogham-language inscriptions in the region might describe celestial observations, the IDA says.
Mont-Mégantic, which is near the large city of Sherbrooke in Quebec, has some unique features to it for visitors, including an observatory. The 34 municipalities in this region have agreed to outdoor lighting regulations to control the spread of light pollution, which IDA says would be a good model for other interested urban areas who wish to follow suit.
Moore's Reserve (South Downs, England)
"It is remarkable that any relatively dark areas remain between London and the south coast of England," IDA says about South Downs National Park on the English coast, which lies only 60 miles (100 km) from the greater London area.
The park has been able to keep its dark skies even with 108,000 residents and a highly urbanized center within a reasonable driving distance. In fact, nearly 10 million people live within a two-hour driving distance of this park. The dark sky reserve has been named the Moore's Reserve in honor of local astronomer Sir Patrick Moore (1923-2012) to honor his contributions to the field.
NamibRand Nature Reserve (Namibia)
The NamibRand Nature Reserve in Namibia represents one of the largest private nature reserves on the continent. While also providing a shelter for the local ecology and wildlife, the reserve's mandate has more recently expanded to include protecting the night skies. Schoolchildren are among the visitors who commonly sleep in "open air" units to see the sky overhead, IDA says.
Pic du Midi (France)
The Pic du Midi, a popular mountainous reserve in the French Pyrenees, attracts roughly 1.5 million visitors per year, largely on the back of its IDA designation as a dark-sky zone, IDA says. (The zone also encompasses a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization World Heritage site and a French national park.) The nearby University of Pau and Pays de l’Adour is currently conducting scientific study of the sky to best preserve it for future generations.
The Rhön Mountains in Germany, or the "land of endless horizons" as the mountainous region is often called, is sandwiched between the populous states of Hesse, Bavaria and Thuringia. The core zone has some more populated regions surrounding the area, which work to make sure their outdoor lighting doesn't interfere with the pristine night views, according to IDA.
River Murray (Australia)
The Murray River reserve in Victoria, Australia was originally put into place to protect the endangered southern hairy-nosed wombat, but astronomy was added into the area's mandate (in part) to recognize that the core region is exceptionally dark, IDA says. Local regulations restrict development in the park to structures that will assist with conservation management, and only a "few rough tracks" represent available facilities within the park boundaries.
Snowdonia National Park (Wales)
This mountainous region Snowdonia National Park in Wales has, traditionally, had few humans settle within its boundaries. This has allowed us modern-day people the opportunity to experience the dark skies, IDA says. What also makes this site interesting is its sheer size, with 810 square miles (2100 square kilometers) sprawling across about a tenth of the land area of Wales.
Just 45 miles (70 km) from Berlin, Westhavelland, a dark sky reserve in Germany, features a sparse population, stunning wetland and a beautiful night sky on clear nights. Local officials are working to push their "astrotourism" efforts with public outreach, a communications program and an annual WestHavelländer AstroTreff star party, IDA says.