Travel

Spectacular Nighttime Adventures for Serious Stargazers

Hike a Volcano. Trek the Sahara. Off-Road Under the Northern Lights.

By AnnaMarie Houlis ·
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Eric Hanson/Getty Images

There are approximately four hundred thousand million stars in our galaxy, about a hundred thousand million of which make up the Milky Way. On any given night, the sky projects 88 officially recognized constellations for us to gawk at (thanks, sky). But most of the world’s population lives in places where the air quality doesn’t live up to the World Health Organization’s standards—which means that light pollution, amongst other factors, makes stargazing pretty pathetic. 

But for aspiring astronomers willing to make the trek, there are gorgeous locales with clear skies ideal for stargazing, pointing out that one constellation you know and then going back to just stargazing. 

These are they.  

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Hike a Volcano in Tenerife, Canary Islands, Spain
Tenerife has a lot going for it—a high altitude, a close proximity to the equator and some distance from tropical storms—which means that it boasts clear, dark skies. But what sets this place apart from the rest is really the fact that a law controls flight paths in order to protect the island's stargazing conditions. And, because of that, visitors can see 83 of the 88 officially recognized constellations from Tenerife. Those who want to dive into all that galactic goodness can hike up to the top of the volcanic Mount Teide. But it’s a considerably difficult trek because of the progressive change in altitude (1,367 to 3,718 meters). The last stretch is along the Telesforo Bravo Trail, which takes trekkers along lava canals to the volcano’s crater.

Eric Hanson/Getty Images

Play Astronomer in the Atacama Desert, Chile
The Atacama Desert is a 600-mile stretch of Chilean charm, and it’s world-renowned for its astro-tourism. After all, the desert boasts the trifecta of stargazing conditions: high altitude (5,000-meter elevation), unpolluted skies and dry air with virtually no cloud coverage. There are dozens of observatories scattered about, but perhaps the most impressive is the ALMA Observatory. International scientists visit to use the radio telescope housed there—the most powerful in the world—and search for our cosmic origins deep in space. Amateur astronomers (i.e. you) can check out the control room and labs on the weekend, too. 

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Tour the Aoroki Mackenzie Dark Sky Reserve, New Zealand
New Zealand lays claim to the world’s largest dark sky reserve, which sits on an elevated country plateau: the Aoroki Mackenzie Dark Sky Reserve on the Mackenzie Basin. It’s located in the rugged South Island, encircled by craggy mountains on all sides—specifically, Aoraki Mount Cook National Park and glacial Lake Tekapo. From here, stargazers can catch the Magellanic Clouds—satellite galaxies of the Milky Way visible only from the southern hemisphere. Tours of Mt. John Observatory, which is used by American, German and Japanese astronomers, can also be arranged.

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Trek by Camel through the Sahara Desert, Morocco
Imagine 360-degrees of nothingness—just golden sand dunes 50 meters tall. All you can hear is the sound of camel footsteps shuffling in the sand, aglow beneath a starry sky. For an authentic Arabian adventure, travelers explore the orange ocean by camelback, watching the sun set behind serrated sandbanks, sandboarding and sleeping in Bedouin tents in serene solitude. The Moroccan Sahara offers unparalleled, unobstructed views of the pitch black, infinite night sky. Camel treks can be arranged from the nearby Merzouga, a small Moroccan town in the Sahara Desert that hugs the Algerian border. 

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Off-Road Under the Northern Lights, Iceland
Plunge into the pitch black winter night up in the mountains of Reykjavík—just consider yourself warned that the Northern lights vary in strength, and what you get to see is largely up to chance. There is a wealth of Jeep tours, though, which will allow you free retries if the tour fails to deliver you to the bright dancing lights of the aurora. And nota bene: the best time to see the Northern Lights in Iceland is September through mid-April, when there are full dark nights.

John Crux Photography/Getty Images

Road Trip Across the Outback, Australia
The outback is…big. Like, big big. It’s a vast, unpopulated and particularly arid area comprising Australia’s interior and remote coasts. Traveling between Adelaide and Darwin, for example, is about 1,865 miles. The best way to traverse this expansive land is by 4x4—and the most convenient way to do it is by renting a camper van in a four-wheel drive model. The isolated town of Alice Springs is considered the gateway, but you’ll want to venture to landmarks like Kakadu National Park for idyllic stargazing conditions, plus aboriginal rock paintings, because why surround yourself with just celestial wonders when you can enjoy terrestrial ones as well? That would be silly. 

AnnaMarie Houlis excels in sleeping in middle seats, occupying shared armrests and asking strangers questions to which they have no answers because they're not watching her airplane movie.

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