Sedona, Arizona
Sedona, Arizona
Published November/December 2015

Star Light, Star Bright

Marvel at the luminescent wonders of the sky at 5 of the world’s best stargazing destinations

BYMelissa Gaskill
The night sky contains as much beauty as any daytime landscape. The swath of the Milky Way galaxy, billions of stars scattered across the sky like a sparkling streak of celestial paint. Constellations, those ancient imaginings of creatures formed by patterns of the stars. A full moon, white as snow against black space. These sights have inspired art, culture, music, and literature throughout the ages. And doesn’t every child wish upon a star?
 
In this modern world, though, dark skies grow harder and harder to find, making memorable stargazing a rare treat. These five special places around the world have attracted professional astronomers with their excellent conditions and also offer stellar experiences for the rest of us.
 
Sedona, Arizona
In 2014, Sedona became the world’s eighth International Dark Sky Community, a designation from the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) that recognizes night skies unobscured by manmade light. 
 
Sedona Star Gazing’s professionally led tours include viewing of the constellations, accompanied by the stories behind them, plus an up-close look through telescopes at star clusters, galaxies, double and shooting stars, satellites, the surreal rings of Saturn, features of other planets, and the moon. Tours include no more than 12 people per astronomer and telescope, and last about one and a half hours. Chairs and blankets are provided. 
 
Sedona offers a wide variety of accommodations, from camping to luxury resorts. Sedona Dream Maker Bed and Breakfast has a rooftop deck for stargazing.
 
Other excellent Arizona stargazing options include the nightly SkyNights programs at University of Arizona’s SkyCenter atop Mount Lemmon north of Tucson, and independent viewing at Chiricahua National Monument in southeast Arizona, an area of spectacular darkness. Lowell Observatory, open to the public daily, is located in Flagstaff, which, in 2001, became the world’s first International Dark Sky City.  
 
Fort Davis, Texas
Some of the darkest skies in the continental United States cover the Davis Mountains in West Texas, where The University of Texas McDonald Observatory’s three domes occupy mounts Locke and Fowlkes. 
 
Most Tuesday, Friday, and Saturday evenings, the observatory hosts star parties that include constellation tours relating practical uses of the stars, mythology, and scientific understanding of various patterns and objects in the night sky. Guests then view distant objects, such as Jupiter and other galaxies, through telescopes, including a 24-inch Ritchey-Chrétien telescope (a highly accurate device with a large field of view) and an 18-inch scope with a wheelchair-accessible fixed eyepiece. The visitor center exhibits, gift shop, and cafe remain open throughout the parties. 
 
Nearby Fort Davis offers a variety of accommodations, including historic Hotel Limpia, the circa-1935 Stone Village Tourist Camp, and the Civilian Conservation Corps-built Indian Lodge at Davis Mountains State Park, which also offers camping. 
 
Top-notch stargazing also occurs at nearby Big Bend National Park — an IDA Gold Tier Dark Sky Park (Gold Tier denotes a sky free from all but the most minor impacts of light pollution) — and Big Bend Ranch State Park, where rangers host occasional star parties. 
 
Haleakala National Park, Hawaii
This park on the island of Maui boasts many superlatives: more endangered species than any other site in the National Park Service, 115-mile-long views on clear days taking in five other Hawaiian islands, five unique ecosystems, more than 850 species of plants, and world-class night skies. 
 
The air around Haleakala’s 10,023-foot summit is exceptionally clear, and sunrises and sunsets here draw crowds. Those who come a little early for the former or stick around after the latter can enjoy some of the best stargazing in the world. Excellent spots to do so include the Haleakala Visitor Center at 9,740 feet or the summit building, the highest point on Maui. The Milky Way, satellites, stars, and meteors are visible with the naked eye. Visitors can rent 10x50 or 7x50 binoculars to get a closer look at more stars and possibly the moons of Jupiter. Star maps are available at the park headquarters or visitor center.
 
The park has campgrounds and wilderness cabins. Hotels and other lodging nearest the summit are available in Kula.
 
Sutherland, South Africa
This remote town in the country’s Northern Cape enjoys mostly cloudless skies, 4,770 feet of elevation, and impressive darkness — all conducive to excellent views of the night sky. On the edge of town, Sterland Stargazing has an observing area with five 11-inch telescopes and tour guides who aim them at spectacular deep-space items such as Saturn’s rings, Alpha Centauri, the colorful Jewel Box Cluster of stars, or stars and clusters in the constellation Sagittarius. The Southern Cross — only visible in the Southern Hemisphere — and the bright Milky Way are visible to the unaided eye. 
 
On a nearby hilltop 1,000 feet above Sutherland, scientists from Germany, India, New Zealand, Poland, the United Kingdom, and the United States operate the South African Large Telescope (SALT). Fifteen other international observatories also occupy the hilltop; collectively these and SALT are known as the South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO). Guided tours include exhibits on the radio spectrum and how SALT identifies individual stars, plus a look at the telescope’s enormous primary mirror, made up of 91 hexagonal segments.
 
Area accommodations include Skitterland Guesthouse, a stone structure dating back to 1860, and a number of other guesthouses. Camping is available at Sterland Stargazing.  
 
Atacama Desert, Chile 
Dry air is clear air, so deserts make for great stargazing. High altitude also helps, limiting interference from Earth’s atmosphere. Both conditions exist in Chile’s Atacama Desert region in the Andes Mountains, and star-seekers can take advantage of that fact on tours with San Pedro de Atacama Celestial Explorations (SPACE), held each clear night except during full moons. The experience includes unaided skygazing and observation through a collection of 10 telescopes, including the largest public one in South America. The telescopes reveal sights such as large and small Magellanic clouds and globular clusters, including 47 Tucanae, which lies some 15,000 light years away in the outskirts of our galaxy. When conditions are right, the Milky Way shines brightly enough here to create shadows.
 
Guests at Atacama Lodge, next to the telescope park, can savor more than the dark nights of this desert: horseback riding; mountain climbing; sandboarding on the dunes; and visits to nearby attractions such as Moon Valley, Geysers of the Tatio, lagoons populated by Flamingos, and the largest salt lake in the world. 
 
Other Chilean stargazing options include the European Southern Observatory’s Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) operations facility, about 12 miles away from SPACE, and its Paranal and La Silla Observatories, 215 miles away.
MELISSA GASKILL is an Austin-based writer who began stargazing with her father as a small child and continues to seek out dark skies whenever possible.
Milky Way over Sutherland, South Africa / © Tanya Schmitz
Milky Way over Sutherland, South Africa / © Tanya Schmitz
If You Go 
Sedona, Arizona
Tours operate all year; $60 adults ($50 each for groups of 5 or more), $35 children ages 6 – 12.
 
Tucson, Arizona
520-626-8122
 
Fort Davis, Texas
$12 adults, $8 children ages 6 – 12 (5 and under free). Reservations recommended, and required after Jan. 1, 2016. 432-426-3640
 
Haleakala National Park, Hawaii
Open to visitors 24 hours a day, 365 days per year. Three-day pass is $15 per vehicle. Temperatures can be as low as 30 degrees Fahrenheit at the summit. 808-572-4400; nps.gov/hale 
 
Sutherland, South Africa
Tours: 100 Rand ($10 USD)
 
Atacama Desert, Chile 
Tours in English, French, or Spanish start at San Pedro de Atacama Celestial Explorations; 20,000 pesos ($31 USD) per person, limited to 24 people.
 
Paranal Observatory has free tours Saturdays 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.; La Silla tours on Saturdays at 2 p.m. Tours of the ALMA operations facility leave the San Pedro de Atacama Saturday and Sunday at 9 a.m. and return at 1 p.m. free of charge, but reservations required.
 
 
Learn More
For more information, visit AAA.com or call your local AAA Travel agent toll-free at 1-888-870-9392.
 
 
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