There’s a line from Joni Mitchell’s 1970 song, Big Yellow Taxi, that says: “You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone”. Which might explain a big trend that’s happening lately in travel: the popularity of dark sky locations. People are gravitating towards places that allow them to see something that is becoming increasingly rare in today’s light-polluted world: starry night skies.
Henk has always been a dark sky seeker (even ‘geeker’, perhaps!), given his interest in astronomy and astrophotography. And I grew up in Northern Ontario where we didn’t have to go far to escape light pollution and be able to see the Milky Way in all its glory. In fact, many Canadians are lucky to live close to places where it’s relatively easy to see the stars.
But this is not the case for many people around the world who have grown up in city centres where lights and smog pollute the skies and residents are more likely to see airplane lights in the sky than stars. Which is why it’s nice to know that there are places around the world that are being protected specifically as dark sky locations. Here are some of the best places to see stars in Ontario, Québec, and California.
Best Places to See Stars in Ontario
There are 22 designated Dark Sky Preserves in Canada, of which 8 are in Ontario, including Killarney Provincial Park, one of the province’s most beautiful Northern Ontario parks and now a dark sky location, too. Which makes this a really convenient destination for visitors since they can book a campsite or yurt in the actual park and be close to your bed when you are done stargazing.
The park also has two observatories right on the grounds where they host astronomer-led events, sometimes in conjunction with Science North in Sudbury. But the best part about this dark sky location is that guests at the park can even book this research-grade telescope for their own private star party.
Other Ontario preserves include:
Lake Superior Provincial Park
North Frontenac Township
Bluewater Outdoor Education Centre in Wiarton
Bruce Peninsula National Park and Fathom Five Marine Park
Point Pelee National Park
Torrance Barrens Dark-Sky Preserve
and the only private property designated as a preserve, Gordon’s Park on Manitoulin Island.
Best Places to See Stars in Québec
Québec has 2 officially designated Dark Sky Preserves, the most well-known being the Mont-Mégantic International Dark-Sky Preserve, which is one of only 13 areas in the world that are recognized internationally for their strictly regulated dark sky characteristics. Mont-Mégantic also has an on-site observatory that offers all kinds of astronomical programming as part of this commitment.
TIP: Reservations for the astronomical presentations are required during busy seasons, and many of these are in French only, so check before you go if you don’t speak French.
Perhaps the most unique dark sky preserve in Québec is found in an area of the province that measures so dark on the ‘dark sky meter’ that even astronomical authorities found it hard to believe: that place is Au Diable Vert, near Sutton in the Québec’s Eastern Townships.
ObservÉtoiles Augmented Reality Planetarium near Sutton
Tucked between two sets of mountains with virtually no artificial illumination to interfere with the views, the exceptionally dark skies at Au Diable Vert and its higher elevation (around 1000 feet above sea level) make it an ideal location for stargazing.
But what makes Au Diable Vert truly special is a unique attraction that is the first of its kind in the world: an outdoor, augmented-reality planetarium called ObservÉtoiles that is so innovative that National Geographic has jumped on board to partner with them!
Jeremy Fisher, the creative entrepreneur behind the project, saw an opportunity to build a high-tech dark sky experience that dials up the concept of simple stargazing. So he built a 180-guest state-of-the-art amphitheatre where visitors relax on heated seats, gaze at the heavens above and listen to astronomers who lead presentations, point out objects in the sky and explain some of the mysteries of our universe.
But Fisher didn’t stop there: he sourced a company in the Netherlands who makes patented headsets that allow visitors to use their smart phones to activate an augmented-reality astronomy program. Once activated, the program knows where you are looking in the sky and superimposes zodiac illustrations of the constellations onto the actual stars in the sky! There are other programs on the app that identify planets and their position in the galaxy, and the effect is nothing short of stellar (ha ha).
TIP: The admission fee to ObservÉtoiles includes the headset and app that visitors can take home with them to use anytime.
Aster Observatory in Temiscouata-sur-le-lac
It may not be an official dark-sky preserve, but if you want to have access to an actual observatory in Québec, head south of the St. Lawrence to the region of Temiscouata-sur-le-lac. Here you’ll find the Aster Museum and Observatory, an educational centre dedicated to astronomy that includes a telescope that is open to the public.
The Aster museum itself is compact and informative but the real treasure here is Marc-Andre Paradis, who has worked here for 19 years after retiring from the military. Informed, funny and passionate about sharing his knowledge, Marc was hooked on astronomy from the first time he opened an encyclopedia to the A’s, and his passion is contagious.
While his witty dialogue is entertaining for kids and adults alike, nothing makes him happier than when visitors look through the telescope and make what he calls a ‘personal connection with the sky”.
Stargaze from Bed at Canopée Lit near Tadoussac!
It may not be an official dark sky preserve or an observatory, but if you just want to gaze at the stars while lying in the comfort of a queen-sized bed, check out Canopée Lit near Tadoussac. This is a private forest where you can sleep in plastic-domed ‘Bubbles” perched on platforms in the trees. And when you turn the lights off inside, the ‘roof’ disappears and you’ll feel like there’s nothing between you and the stars above.
Best Places to See Stars in California
California has 3 places designated as International Dark Sky Parks, and its no surprise that all of them are in the desert. With less moisture in the air, deserts provide better atmospheric conditions for observing the sky, and there typically aren’t many communities nearby to contribute to light pollution. (Although in the case of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, 2 hours northeast of San Diego, the closest community of Borrego Springs has actually adopted dark-sky practices itself and earned the designation of International Dark Sky Community).
I was lucky enough to visit the other two parks, Death Valley National Park and Joshua Tree National Park, on a recent visit to California and in both cases, the stargazing was amazing.
Death Valley National Park
Death Valley National Park feels like a million miles from nowhere, which is exactly where you want to be when it comes to observing night skies. It’s one of the reasons why it is one of the darkest dark sky locations in all of the United States, not just California.
The tricky thing, though, is finding a place to stay when you’re done looking at the heavens, without driving hundreds of miles. Fortunately, there is a luxurious property right in the heart of Death Valley that has been there since before the area was designated as a National Park: the Oasis at Death Valley. This historic property has recently undergone a 100-million dollar renovation which means you can enjoy all the comforts of a resort retreat when you return from stargazing.
The resort is also only a short drive to places like Badwater Basin, and the Harmony Borax Works, two great places with wide open skies for admiring the stars. (and two interesting places to visit during the day, too!)
Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Tree National Park is famous for its sculpted rock formations and unique cartoon-like trees (although the namesake Joshua tree is actually a member of the Agave family and more like a yucca plant than a ‘tree’). Whatever their biological classification, the area has a particularly high concentration of these twisty trees, and preserving and protecting them is one of the reasons why the park was created in the first place.
Protecting those trees means keeping development from happening in the park and that is good for preserving dark skies, too, as it means there is practically no light pollution in Joshua Tree and plenty of places to stargaze.
One of the most popular places to gather is at the Sky’s the Limit Observatory near the park’s north entrance where visitors have the chance to look through the on-site telescope during scheduled “Star Parties” held throughout the year. Astronomy enthusiasts set up their own telescopes here, too, and there is usually someone to help point out constellations and planets. One thing you’ll find about star gazers is that they love to share what they know, so bring a chair, sit back and enjoy the ‘show’ above.
TIP: Joshua Tree National Park never officially closes, which means you can always enter the park after dark, even if the entrance fee stations aren’t staffed. Just drive on through, and if you leave the park before the station re-opens in the morning, it costs you nothing!
Dark Sky Locations Are Trending in Travel
Stargazing definitely seems to be trending these days, with more and more parks and communities being designated as dark sky locations, and more observatories and educational programming being developed for the public.
It’s not clear whether ‘dark sky tourism’ signals a growing movement to reduce light pollution and preserve dark sky locations for future generations to enjoy, or it is just a novel way to attract visitors to a destination. But whatever it is, dark skies are definitely the new black.
This post was compiled based on experiences that include hosted stays and press trips in California, Ontario and Québec. But any opinions or recommendations are entirely our own.