On January 17, 1994, a magnitude 6.7 earthquake struck Los Angeles, leaving 680,000 of the city's residents without power. That night, reports of a "giant, silvery cloud" in the sky poured in to emergency centers across the city. The sight that alarmed so many people was actually the Milky Way, unveiled from behind the city's powerful glow.
As populations and urban centers continue to boom, so does the light pollution that blocks the night sky and its celestial bodies. Two-thirds of the U.S. population and more than one-half of the European population can no longer see the Milky Way with the naked eye, according to The First World Atlas of the Artificial Night Sky Brightness. In addition, 63 percent of the world population and 99 percent of Americans (in the contiguous U.S.) and Europeans live where light pollution is greater than the threshold set by the International Astronomical Union.
Yet anyone who's gazed upon a clear night sky knows how precious, exciting and beautiful this vision can be. Full of constellations, planets and meteor showers, the night sky is a natural treasure that rivals the most beautiful mountains or coastlines. Luckily, clear skies are still available for anyone who wants to experience them. Found across the world, the destinations in our slideshow are recognized as some of the best spots to see stars, constellations, galaxies and more.
To choose the featured locations, we used several methods. The first was each site's rankings on the nine-level Bortle Scale. The Bortle Scale was created by John E. Bortle and introduced in the February 2001 edition of Sky & Telescope magazine to help amateur astronomers compare the darkness of observation sites. It measures stars' brightness, as well as any interference from light pollution and sky glow. The darkest skies on earth fall into Class 1, while the brightest skies-such as those in the inner-city-are in Class 9. For this list, we used only skies that fall into Class 1-3. For a detailed description of each class, click here.
We also looked to dark-sky preserves. The majority of the best-rated preserves are in Canada, and for good reason. Based on the work of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, the Canadian government established extensive standards for these areas. Outside of Canada, designations are generally self-proclaimed and can therefore result in mislabeling.
Other selections came from the collection of Certified International Dark Sky Parks. These areas "possess exceptional starry skies and natural nocturnal habitat where light pollution is mitigated and natural darkness is an important educational, cultural, scenic, and natural resource," according to the International Dark Sky Association. We chose areas with the highest award: the gold designation. Criteria for this designation include a Bortle Sky Class of 1-3 and a full array of visible sky phenomena from auroras to the Milky Way.
Finally, we also added a few spots used by top astronomers for research. These places are home to international observatories and attract scientists from across the globe.
Look through our list and, once you've chosen a spot to visit, follow these tips:
1. Be patient. It takes 15 minutes in the dark for your eyes to adapt to the low light.
2. Cover your flashlight with red cellophane or use a red lens to protect your night vision.
3. Time your trip with a new moon (e.g. you can't see it). This is the best time to see constellations and other features of the night sky.
4. While you can buy 7x50 binoculars (the most popular size for stargazing), make sure you at least have the standard 7x35 binoculars on hand.
5. Time your excursion with a meteor shower for added excitement. Click here for a calendar.
6. Check out the organized activities at our top spots (they're listed in our slideshow).
7. Download star maps or charts to help you identify constellations.
Credit: Corey Douglas
Cherry Springs State Park-Pennsylvania, USA
This park is an ideal place to visit in the spring, with an intoxicating combination of the sweet smell of cherry blossoms and clear night skies. Established as a Dark Sky Park in 2008, the 48-acre protected area sits within Susquehannock State Forest and features a Stars-N-Parks Program for the public. Within the park, there is the gated Astronomy Observation Field and also a Night Sky Viewing area north of Route 44.
Death Valley National Park-California, USA
As the newest gold-tier International Dark Sky Park and the largest national park unit in the lower 48, Death Valley offers ample space for stargazing. Averaging less than two inches of rain per year, you're almost guaranteed clear skies. Visit April, May, September or October for the most comfortable nighttime temperatures. During these months, the average low is in the 60's and 70's.
Clayton Lake State Park-New Mexico, USA
Originally built as a sanctuary for migratory birds, this area has also become a mecca for stargazers. In 2006, Clayton Lake State Park became only the second park in the United States to build, maintain and operate an observatory. Four years later, it became a gold International Dark Sky Park. Officials regularly put on star parties for visitors, as well as for children from local schools. For more information about these gatherings, visit the New Mexico States Parks website.
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