The 18 International Dark Sky Reserves Where Stars Run Riot

Vibrant Milky Way over snowcapped mountains in Snowdonia National Park
Snowdonia National Park is one of six International Dark Sky Reserves located throughout the U.K. Matt_Gibson / Getty Images

One-third of humanity, including 80% of Americans, can't see the Milky Way because of light pollution. The night sky is becoming more invisible with every skyscraper and subdivision built to accommodate a growing population, but International Dark Sky Reserves make sure certain parts of the world stay dark enough to see the stars.

Dark skies are not only fun to look at, they're also essential to conserving ecosystems. Light pollution disrupts the entire predator-prey balance. It gives diurnal animals an advantage over their nocturnal counterparts and helps apex predators see nighttime foragers they wouldn't normally be able to see.

The International Dark-Sky Association preserves important light-free locales with its coveted International Dark Sky Reserve designation. Those seeking the title go through a rigorous process to make sure lighting is compliant with the IDA's lofty standards.

Here are the only 18 places in the world to have earned International Dark Sky Reserve status.

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Mont-Mégantic, Québec

ASTROLab Observatory on an overcast day atop Mont Mégantic

Marie Nouvellon / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Mont-Mégantic was the first International Dark Sky Reserve in the world, established in 2007. It's no surprise it received the earliest designation, as the peak has housed the famed Mont Mégantic Observatory since 1978. The observatory is owned and operated by the Université de Montréal and Université Laval. It's the second largest telescope in Eastern Canada, located on the region's highest point accessible by car.

Prior to its designation as a Dark Sky Reserve, the dozens of municipalities in the reserve battled a worsening light pollution problem for 20 years. The effort to transform Mont-Mégantic into a dark sky oasis included replacing 2,500 light fixtures, which successfully reduced light pollution by a quarter.

Today, the observatory on Mont-Mégantic's peak doubles as an ASTROLab, where visitors can learn about all things space. This is the centerpiece of the monadnock's annual Astronomy Festival.

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Exmoor National Park, England

Colorful Milky Way over vast landscape of Exmoor National Park
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Exmoor National Park's designation came in 2011, two years after UNESCO's International Year of Astronomy. "Dark sky awareness in the park bloomed" during this time, the IDA says, inspiring "a variety of programs on astronomy and conservation." Shortly after, about 70 square miles of the moorland came under the IDA's protection.

The core area of the Dark Sky Reserve is about 30 square miles and packed with points of interest, from Bronze Age burial mounds to the medieval-era village Hoccombe Combe. The park celebrates its dark skies with an annual Dark Skies Festival in the fall. It also rents out professional telescopes to visitors and operates Dark Sky Discovery Hubs, where people can attend presentations and book stargazing tours.

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NamibRand Nature Reserve, Namibia

Milky Way over sand dunes in NamibRand Nature Reserve

Anton Petrus / Getty Images

The NamibRand Nature Reserve is the only Dark Sky Reserve in Africa. The IDA calls it "one of the naturally darkest (yet accessible) places on Earth." Located in southwestern Namibia, the park covers 772 square miles of plains, dunes, and mountains. The nearest communities are small and some 60 miles away.

This private reserve's role in preserving the night sky has much to do with the local flora and fauna. Nocturnal and diurnal species like aardvarks, pangolins, meerkats, and hyenas inhabit the area, and they rely on the darkness to hunt and forage. Most safari packages offered in the region include stargazing as an essential part of the experience.

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Aoraki Mackenzie, New Zealand

Boardwalk going toward Mount Cook under a starry sky
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Mount Cook, also known by its Maori name Aoraki Mackenzie, is the highest mountain in the Southern Alps range. Its position near the west coast of New Zealand's sparsely populated South Island (home to just over a million people) makes it a haven of darkness, free from any city's light pollution.

Since becoming an International Dark Sky Reserve in 2012, light has been strictly controlled in the 1,686-square-mile area. A number of stargazing tours are available for visitors, but perhaps the best scene is the one from inside the University of Canterbury's Mount John Observatory, located on a 3,376-foot mountaintop.

The IDA says preserving darkness in this region also helps preserve its heritage, as the indigenous Maori "not only used the night sky to navigate the island but also integrated astronomy and star lore into their culture and daily lives."

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Brecon Beacons National Park, Wales

Milky Way over lush valley and mountains in the distance
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The U.K. alone is home to six of the world's 18 International Dark Sky Reservations. One of those is Brecon Beacons National Park, a remote Welsh mountain range where the IDA says sheep outnumber people 30 to one. Although 33,000 people live in the park, the communities use special lighting to protect the darkness. The goal, according to the IDA, is to make 100% of lighting in the core zone dark-friendly.

Brecon Beacons National Park now holds an annual Dark Sky Festival in September, but you can stargaze any time of year at Usk and Crai reservoirs, Llanthony Priory, Hay Bluff, the visitor center, and on Sugar Loaf Mountain.

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Pic du Midi, France

Milky Way over cloudy peaks with light pollution from Barcelona
Christophe Lehenaff / Getty Images

Pic du Midi is a mountain in the French Pyrenees and the site of the Pic du Midi Observatory. Designated in 2013, it was the first International Dark Sky Reserve in mainland Europe. The Hautes-Pyrénées, where Pic du Midi is located, also has its own dark sky designation, RICE (for "Reserve Internationale de Ciel Étoilé"). The organization works with local municipalities to install sustainable lighting and tracks the evolution of the area's light pollution.

Pic du Midi's peak is not like most summits. It has a cable car and a luxury hotel at the top where stargazers can experience a full "Night at the Pic."

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Kerry, Ireland

Stars and pink clouds over ocean and rocky cliffs

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The only thing that could possibly make stargazing more romantic is doing so by the sea. In Kerry, the stars sparkle on the surface of the water. You can admire them atop majestic, thousand-foot-high cliffs. Kerry became Ireland's first International Dark Sky Reserve in 2014. According to the IDA, the Kerry Mountains cut the remote coast off from nearby cities, leaving 270 square miles of sky pure and unpolluted.

Here, dark skies are a part of the region's ancient history. Axial stone circles built by early inhabitants of the Iveragh Peninsula some 6,000 years ago are thought to have been designed to track the sun, moon, and stars.

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Rhön, Germany

Milky Way sprawling over evergreen forest at night

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The Rhön provides such unparalleled views of the night sky that it's often called the "land der offenen fernen," or the "land of endless horizons." While most International Dark Sky Reserves consist of a buffer zone surrounding a core zone, the Rhön is unique in that it has three separate, noncontiguous cores: Hohe Geba, Lange Rhön, and Schwarze Berge.

The reserve covers 664 square miles and was established in 2014. It's one of only two Dark Sky Reserves in Germany, and it doubles as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. On the darkest nights, you can even spot Messier 31—aka the Andromeda Galaxy—2.5 million lightyears away. This is the most remote object the human eye can see without technical aids.

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Westhavelland, Germany

Tent near campfire in the forest under starry night sky
Anton Petrus / Getty Images

The largest contiguous wetland of any individual European country is located inside this Dark Sky Reserve. What makes Westhavelland Nature Park really special is that it's only about 50 miles from Berlin. But with extensive education programming and a renewed focus on astrotourism, the area was able to isolate itself from the city's light pollution and earn International Dark Sky Reserve designation in 2014.

The park celebrates its celestial culture with astro-friendly accommodations that offer guests telescopes and binoculars, not to mention an annual WestHavelländer AstroTreff star party, held every September.

The core viewing area of the Westhavelland Dark Sky Reserve is between the towns of Gülpe and Nennhausen.

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South Downs, England

Vibrant Milky Way over grassy hillsides in South Downs
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The 628-square-mile patch of coastal countryside in South Downs was named Moore's Reserve upon its International Dark Sky Reserve designation. The name comes from the late British amateur astronomer Sir Patrick Moore, who wrote more than 70 books on the subject.

Similar to Westhavelland, South Downs is close to a major, light-emitting city—greater London, less than 100 miles away. "It's remarkable that any relatively dark areas remain between London and the south coast of England," the IDA says. Even more impressive, the area is home to 108,000 residents. Establishing Moore's Reserve has helped thwart further development and keep this sliver of "the Downs" dark and pure.

One of the best ways to experience the reserve is to visit during the annual Dark Skies Festival. The event features two weeks of star parties, talks, and astronomy-related activities.

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Snowdonia National Park, Wales

Starry sky over mountains and deep blue lake
Matt_Gibson / Getty Images

Snowdon is the tallest mountain in Wales and 19th tallest in Great Britain. The area around it, known as Snowdonia National Park, supports a population of only about 25,700—or 30 people per square mile. This helps to minimize light pollution, making the Milky Way, major constellations, nebulas, and shooting stars all the more visible from the rugged Welsh mountaintops.

According to the Park Authority, the five best places to admire the night sky are Llyn y Dywarchen, Llyn Geirionnydd, Llynnau Cregennen—all three lakes—Tŷ Cipar, and Bwlch y Groes.

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Central Idaho, U.S.

Milky Way over snowy mountains reflecting on lake
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Even though the IDA is based out of Tucson, Arizona, the U.S. didn't get its first official Dark Sky Reserve until 2017. A 1,416-square-mile swath of central Idaho received the 12th ever International Dark Sky Reserve designation due both to its considerable visitor services and lack of development, which the IDA sums up as an overall "wilderness quality." However, it notes that the astrotourism industry is building in the area to attract more stargazers.

The Central Idaho Dark Sky Reserve is mostly concentrated in the vast Sawtooth Mountains. It spans Ketchum, Stanley, and the popular ski destination that is Sun Valley. The reserve provides a detailed map featuring 13 Dark Sky Viewing Sites, most of them located off Highway 75.

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Cévennes National Park, France

Starry night sky over mountains and lake in Cévennes
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Cévennes National Park, a mountainous region in Southern France, is not totally uncivilized. Rather, it's home to 71,000 people, 250 villages, and more than 400 farms. Still, it manages to keep development—and the light pollution that comes with it—to a minimum. This reserve, established in 2018, is the largest in Europe. It covers the full 1,147 square miles of the park, plus a 242-square-mile buffer zone. It includes the départements of Lozère, Gard, Ardèche, and Aveyron.

Turning the park into a Dark Sky Reserve required retrofitting a large portion of some 20,000 exterior light fixtures and promoting the area as a stargazing destination through two annual awareness events: Jour de la Nuit (“Day of the Night”) and Nuit de la Chouette (“Night of the Owl”).

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Cranborne Chase, England

Colorful Milky Way above treetops in Somerset
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Cranborne Chase is an Area of Outstanding Beauty (often called AOBs) located in the heart of Southwest England. It overlaps the counties of Dorset, Wiltshire, Hampshire, and Somerset. Its beauty hailing from rugged countryside, Cranborne Chase provides pristine views of the Milky Way and Andromeda Galaxy on rare cloudless nights.

The Cranborne Chase Dark Sky Reserve, established in 2019, has "the largest central area of darkness of any International Dark Sky Reserve in the U.K.," program manager Adam Dalton said in a press release announcing the designation. It covers nearly 400 square miles and is located just two hours from London.

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River Murray, Australia

Bright stars reflecting in river surrounded by forest
John White Photos / Getty Images

Australia's only International Dark Sky Reserve—established in 2019—covers a 1,235-square-mile area around a portion of the country's longest river. The core area of South Australia's River Murray Dark Sky Reserve coincides with the Swan Reach Conservation Park, established in 1970 to protect the southern hairy-nosed wombat. Because the animal is nocturnal, the park had to remain dark.

With conservation at its proverbial core, this wild oasis within the Mid Murray Council area restricts all development not related to research and offers no facilities for visitors. Not even nice, paved roads. Four-wheel drive is required to access this untouched patch of Mallee bushland, but you can see the stars more easily from the more civilized buffer zone, which includes the Ngaut Ngaut, Brookfield, Ridley, and Marne Valley conservation parks.

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Alpes Azur Mercantour, France

Milky Way and stars above snowy mountain and lake
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The Alpes Azur Mercantour International Dark Sky Reserve covers a mountainous area of France spanning nearly 869 square miles. The three main stargazing zones are Mercantour National Park, the Gorges de Daluis, and the biological reserve of Cheiron. Here, more than 3,000 stars can be observed over beautiful snow-capped peaks and reflection lakes.

The IDA designated the Alpes Azur Mercantour an International Dark Sky Reserve in 2020, but astronomers have reportedly frequented the area for centuries. In fact, one of the peaks—Mont Mounier—houses one of the world's first mountain observatories, established in the late 1800s.

With the designation of France's third International Dark Sky Reserve, the IDA aims to help 75 municipalities in the region curb their light pollution to make Alpes Azure Mercantour one of the "top 10 most beautiful places to observe the night sky on the planet."

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North York Moors National Park, England

Milky Way in orange and blue sky over tree silhouettes
Chris McLoughlin / Getty Images

England's North York Moors National Park is so dark that the northern lights are even sometimes visible. All 556 square miles of the park were designated an International Dark Sky Reserve alongside nearby Yorkshire Dales National Park in 2020. It's no surprise North Yorkshire has received ample recognition from the IDA, considering the county has been putting on an annual Dark Skies Festival since 2016.

What makes North York Moors National Park such a perfect stargazing destination is a mixture of northeast England's signature dry climate causing clear skies and clifftop locations providing panoramic views of the horizon. According to the North York Moors National Park Authority, 2,000 stars can be spotted from some of the darkest spots. Those spots include Boulby Cliff, Old Saltburn, and the cliffs at Kettleness.

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Yorkshire Dales National Park, England

Rural road lit up in headlights under star-filled sky
Philip Silverman / Getty Images

Only about an hour's drive from North York Moors National Park, fellow Dark Sky Reserve Yorkshire Dales National Park is another place to potentially catch the aurora borealis. You'll experience the same scenes here as you would in North York Moors down the road, but this reserve is larger by about 300 square miles.

According to a Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority leaflet, the best places to stargaze in the park are the Malham National Park Centre, the Buckden National Park Car Park, the Hawes National Park Centre, and the Tan Hill Inn.