While outdoorsy summer travel can afford some pretty striking views, be it the Grand Canyon, the Great Wall of China or anyplace in between, some of the most awe-inspiring sights actually take place in the dark of night. On a cloudless evening, desert landscapes and wide-open expanses of natural land provide some of the best stargazing opportunities in the world. Far removed from the glow of cities, these are some of the ultimate destinations on the planet for marveling at the natural night sky.
Atacama Desert, Chile
One of the driest, most cloud-free deserts on the planet, nestled between the Chilean Coast Range and the Andes, Chile’s Atacama Desert offers the perfect formula for stargazing—it’s high elevation, dry air and total lack of light pollution makes it an astronomer’s wonderland. Both the La Silla Observatory and the Paranal Observatory are based here for studying the sky, but it’s also ideal for hikers and campers looking to marvel at the stars, the planets and everything in between, with no artificial interference whatsoever. Coupled with the jagged, almost eerily-quiet terrain, a visit to the Atacama Desert feels more like hiking on another planet than it does a South American desert.
Kruger National Park, South Africa
From hot air balloon rides and elephant-back rides to a multitude of regional safaris, there’s lots to see and do in South Africa’s magnificent Kruger National Park, home to more than 7,000 square miles of savanna. Be sure and stay up late though, because you’re not going to want to sleep on these unparalleled night skies. In the summertime especially, a wide array of constellations can be easily seen from the park, from Orion and Pisces to Vela, Phoenix, Gemini and much more. Use a pair of binoculars and you might even be able to see Saturn’s rings. Visit the Singita Game Reserves to embark on a twilight jeep ride led by rangers specialized in astronomy.
Great Basin National Park, Nevada
If you’re not afraid of the dark, Great Basin National Park in Eastern Nevada is paradise for star-gazers. One of the darkest destinations in the United States, the park was designated an International Dark Sky Park in 2016, a rare distinction that comes in handy both for astronomers and recreational visitors. This is thanks to the park’s perfect combination of limited light pollution, high elevation and low humidity. When the moon is aglow, it illuminates the forested landscape like a giant ambient chandelier, but it’s even more impressive on a moonless night. On such occasions, thousands of stars twinkle, along with five planets, meteors, the Milky Way and the Andromeda Galaxy, all easily seen with the naked eye. Great Basin takes full advantage of its reputation with unique nighttime activities like the Star Train, an old train that heads north from Ely with stops along the route for passengers to disembark and gaze through telescopes. There are also ranger-led full moon hikes, which are great for nights that are too bright for good old fashioned stargazing.
NamibRand Nature Reserve, Namibia
Trek deep into the Namibian desert and you’ll find yourself in the heart of the NamibRand Nature Reserve, a setting seemingly untouched by human development save for an assortment of safari encampments. The reserve is Africa’s first International Dark Sky Reserve, among the darkest destinations on the continent thanks to its isolation—the nearest small town is about 60 miles away. Here, thousands of stars are able to shine bright, casting a swath of light across the rolling mountains and sand dunes that encompass the NamidRand Nature Reserve.
Big Bend National Park, Texas
By day, the sweltering sun shines down over an expanse of cacti, rugged mountains and the mighty Rio Grande, but by night, a new type of landscape emerges in Big Bend National Park. One of the most isolated national parks in the U.S., situated along the Mexico border in West Texas, the vast park has the least light pollution of any other national park in the lower 48 states. Considering the human population is sparse, with limited street and house lights, it’s an optimal setting for gawking at upwards of 2,000 stars (for reference, that’s about 1,700 more stars than can typically be seen even in small cities and towns).
A 14-hour drive north of Perth in Western Australia, at the mouth of the Ningaloo Marine Park, Exmouth is a region you have to really work to get to. The rewards are bounteous, though, with endless oceanic activities like swimming with whale sharks and glass-bottom boat tours, along with hiking and walking tours. Then there’s the starry sky. The ultimate beachside locale for stargazing, Exmouth is a place where visitors can pack their days with activities before winding down and looking up from any of the area’s beaches. The only sound comes from the ocean and the only light comes from outer space; a rare combo of nature at its most glorious.