5 Of The World’s Best Places For Viewing The Night Skies

milky wayIf you grow up in Southern California, school field trips to the Griffith Observatory are practically a requirement. For whatever reason, I always found the Planetarium more frightening than enlightening, especially in the sixth grade, when David Fink threw up on me on the bus ride home.

Despite many youthful camping trips with my family, I also can’t recall ever paying attention to the night skies (possibly because many of these trips were in the cloudy Pacific Northwest). Fast-forward 20-odd years, and to a solo camping trip on Kauai’s North Shore. It was my last night and the rainclouds had finally blown away. I stared up at the starry sky awestruck. It’s the first time l ever really noticed the stars, due to the lack of light and environmental pollution. I’ve been a stargazer ever since, and coincidentally, many of my travels have taken me to some of the world’s best locations for it.

Below, my picks for top-notch night skies, no student chaperone required:

Atacama Desert
, Chile

This stark, Altiplano region in Chile’s far north is the driest desert on earth, as well as home to the some of the clearest night skies on the planet. You don’t need anything (other than perhaps a great camera) to appreciate the stars, but a stargazing tour, offered by various hotels, hostels and outfitters throughout the town of San Pedro de Atacama, is well worth it.

I highly recommend the Astronomy Tour offered by the Alto Atacama Hotel & Spa, located just outside of San Pedro proper. For hotel guests only, this two-year-old program is led by one of the property’s guides, a naturalist and astronomer. The hotel has its own observation deck and a seriously badass telescope; you won’t be disappointed even if stargazing isn’t your thing. In addition to learning the constellations of ancient Quechua myth such as the Llama and Condor, you’ll have incredible views of the Milky Way, and be able to see telescopic images of Sirius and Alpha Centauri with a lens so powerful you can actually see a ring of flame flickering from their surface.

%Gallery-157717%alto atacama observatoryExmouth, Western Australia
Uluru (aka the former Ayers Rock, which now goes by its Aboriginal name) is considered Australia’s best stargazing, due to its location in exactly the middle of nowhere. In reality, the Outback in general has night skies completely untainted by pollution. But as I’ve discovered after many years of visiting Australia, the only bad places to stargaze are urban areas. The skies are also stellar above remote coastal regions, most notably in Western Australia (which is vast and sparsely populated).

The best skies I’ve seen are in Exmouth, located along the Ningaloo Reef. At Sal Salis, a coastal luxury safari camp, an observation platform and stargazing talk will help you make sense of the Southern sky. Be prepared for striking views of the Milky Way stretching across the horizon, seemingly close enough to touch.
mauna kea
Mauna Kea, Hawaii
In 1991, the year of the Total Solar Eclipse, hundreds of thousands of visitors flocked to the Big Island’s Mauna Kea Observatory – located at the top of the volcano – to watch the sky grow dark mid-morning. I was waiting tables on Maui, so all I noticed was a brief dimming, in conjunction with some of my tables pulling a dine-and-dash. A visit to the volcano, however, will assure you stunning views if you take a Sunset and Stargazing Tour offered by Mauna Kea Summit Adventures. Day visitors can hike, and even ski in winter.

Bryce Canyon, Utah
This national park, known for its bizarre rock spires (called “hoodoos”) and twisting red canyons, is spectacular regardless of time of day or season. On moonless nights, however, over 7,500 stars are visible, and park rangers and volunteer astronomers lead Night Sky programs that include multimedia presentations and high-power telescopes; schedules and topics change with the seasons.
aurora borealis
Churchill, Manitoba
Located on the southwestern shore of Hudson Bay on the fringe of the Arctic Circle, the village of Churchill is famous for three things: polar bears, beluga whales and the Northern Lights. Its location beneath the Auroral Oval means the “best and most Northern Lights displays on the planet,” according to Churchill’s website, and you don’t need to sign up for a tour to enjoy the show. Save that for the polar bear viewing.

[Photo credits: Atacama, Frank Budweg; Mauna Kea, Flickr user sambouchard418;Aurora Borealis, Flickr user Bruce Guenter]

10 days, 10 states: Hiking the hoodoos of Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

“It’s a hell of a place to lose a cow” -Ebenezer Bryce, early settler

Amidst a gaggle of peace-sign obsessed Japanese tourists assembled for the sunrise on Bryce Point, an elderly man with a cane somehow managed to glacially sneak up on me.

“That,” he breathlessly stammered as we watched the rising sun dance upon the red rocks of the Bryce Canyon amphitheater, “is exactly what I came here for.”

Still alarmed by his stealthy presence, I smiled as he slid a shaky hand into his jacket pocket and eventually emerged with a yellow, disposable Kodak camera. A well placed eye in the viewfinder, a solitary click, a lingering moment of reflection, and the man turned back towards the parking lot with the air of having said goodbye.

Though the moment was fleeting, a profound point had been made: Bryce Canyon, Utah is the type of place you see before you die.

Staring out into the abyssal “how-on-Earth-did-it-get-like-that” geology of the amphitheater walls, it’s a surreal feeling to be standing in one of the last places in the contiguous 48 states to be explored by modern man.

Once the dwelling of the Fremont and Paiute tribes, it was Mormon pioneer Ebenezer Bryce who first forayed into the mysterious canyon in the 1870’s in search of suitable ranching and grazing lands. Settling in a primitive one room cabin at the base of a landscape completely foreign to westward expansionists, it was Bryce who is rumored to have made the astute statement regarding the lost cow.

At an air-sucking and frigid elevation that ranges from 8000-9000 feet, all cows aside, I feel that Bryce Canyon would be a hell of a place to try and live in a one room cabin in the middle of nowhere. Although set out in the middle of the desert, the weather forecast is calling for snow.

%Gallery-138990%While snow in the desert is always a counterintuitive concept, it’s this combination of cold temperatures and desert snow that gives birth to the unearthly rock formations that dominate the canyon. Melting snow or rainwater will slowly seep its way into fine cracks in the sedimentary rock, and as the temperature drops and the water freezes, the expanding ice will wedge the rock apart until it erodes to the valley floor below.

The result of this liquid assault is rock spires called hoodoos that can tower up to 200 feet over the red canyon floor. According to Paiute mythology, the hoodoos are the frozen remains of the Legend People who were turned to stone by that old southwestern trickster, the coyote.
Descending below the canyon rim on the short but steep Navajo Loop trail, it’s a theory that doesn’t require stretching your imagination.

Ambling down “Wall Street”, the narrow section of trail where the vertical walls of the canyon reduce the trail to a shoulder-width red sliver, I almost expect to see some “Occupy Bryce Canyon” protesters squatting in the canyon recesses. Instead, I round the bend and find two towering spruce trees well over a hundred feet tall leading a lonely existence in an environment otherwise devoid of green life. Though only 7:30am, it’s not the first time today I find myself scratching my head asking “how?”

Though intriguing, I didn’t walk this trail to ponder over spruce trees. I came for something bigger. Something manlier. Something that would make me feel like a conqueror.

I came here to stand beneath Thor’s Hammer.

Ridiculous, I know. It’s just a rock. But it’s the rock with the best name of any natural formation that I’ve seen yet since setting out to explore “10 days, 10 states, 10 great American sights”. Simply standing beneath Thor’s Hammer makes me want to sail ships and eat meat. It makes me want to pillage.

There would be no pillaging in this canyon, however. At least not today. I came to Bryce Canyon to catch the sunrise, and to gaze at one of darkest skies in the country while nestled in a cold but star-kissed tent.

I came to Bryce Canyon to hike amongst the hoodoos and reflect on isolation.

I came to Bryce Canyon to see it before I die.

Follow Kyle on the rest of his journey as he explores “10 days, 10 states, 10 great American sights”