The top spots for dark skies and bright stars.
We were all excited back in the fall of 2006 when the Griffith Observatory reopened after a four-year renovation. But the Visitor Access Program was a bit of a buzzkill since you had to book a timed-entry reservation on the website.
Well, some good news. Today there's no need for a reservation. The Observatory is wide open. However, as with most things in LA, the early bird gets the parking spot.
We showed up around noon and parking spots closest to the entrance were all filled up so we had to drive about a half-mile down the hill and then walk up to the Observatory.
Still the entrance was free (tickets to the planetarium show are $7) and the views are breathtaking, even with a slight touch of smog. Best of all, we loved being inside an educational place in Los Angeles. It felt like exploring a secret counterculture of some sort.
Sure, Hawaii wins the prize for the Western Hemisphere's best stargazing. But it's much easier to to glimpse those sparkly darts without all that pesky tropical foliage obstructing the view. Hunter S. Thompson was on to something when he sent his protagonists on a drug-fueled trip into the Nevada desert in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
For those looking for the euphoria of desert tourism without any medicinal enhancement, look no further than the family-friendly Kitt Peak National Observatory on the Tohono O'odham Reservation an hour-and-a-half outside Tucson, Arizona. The admission price ($39; $34 for students) includes a box dinner, orientation in which participants learn to use star charts and use of observatory binoculars to locate constellations. At the end of the three-hour program, visitors can glimpse some of the farthest planets through Kitt Peak's dome-mounted telescopes. Groovy.
[Photo: Time Inc.]
Astronomers say Hawaii's stargazing remains unparalleled. And never willing to let a tourism opportunity go untapped, agencies offer star parties, parks and planetariums throughout the islands. All that means Hawaii has more publicly accessible astronomy per square mile than anywhere else on Earth, says Jaunted contributor Alex Salkever in Sunset magazine.
The star-struck publication explains the geography that makes constellation spotting so easy in the Aloha State:
A host of factors makes the Hawaiian Islands fabulous for stargazing. The vast Pacific Ocean surrounding the islands provides a 2,500-mile light-free buffer zone, ringing the archipelago in inky blackness. The ocean also creates stable air above the Hawaiian Islands, and this atmospheric stability means that stars look less fuzzy and their finer details can be seen, often with the naked eye.
Kaupoa Beach on Molokai, or the "Friendly Isle", offers particularly clear skies. Guests of the Lodge & Beach Village at Molokai Ranch can take advantage of free stargazing tours out to the beach, and non-guests can share in the fun, since, as in all of Hawaii, beaches are free and open to everyone.
[Photo: Mattie Shoes]
The world's largest observatory rests atop the summit of a dormant volcano, Mauna Kea, in Hawaii. Astronomers from 11 countries operate the telescopes, and just next to the professional observatory, amateurs take advantage of the crystal clear skies. One enthusiastic guide company, Mauna Kea Summit Adventures, had this to say about the summit:
Since starting this outfit 25 years ago with an old Land Cruiser and a basket full of sweaters, my guides and I have had the enviable job of guiding nice folks, like you, to the beauty of Mauna Kea... We invite you to experience, what is, quite possibly, the most dramatic and stimulating scenery to be found anywhere, either on or off planet earth.
Did they say it's the best place in the universe? That's either hyperbole or we're not doing our job here by stumbling upon this place just now.
We spend our days trying to figure out where and how we can experience the world's greatest cultures. But sometimes a person needs to get away from the crowds, lie beneath the stars and contemplate his or her menial existence. Too bad all the bloody street lamps and headlights make catching the untainted night sky more difficult than snapping a picture of the Olsen twins smiling.
In comes Deerlick Astronomy Village in eastern Georgia. The 96-acre site guarantees its guests the darkness and quiet they need to play Galileo on long weekends away:
"It's like a lake house for geeks," said Chris Hetlage, co-founder of the village, as he tromped through the darkness toward his observatory.
Stargazers have bought the 17 plots on the grounds to build their darkness-friendly cabins. Next to the houses is an observation field where non-residents are invited to camp for free.
Residents are required to keep outdoor lights a dim red--it doesn't affect the eyes the same way as white light--and line windows with foam board or other light-blocking materials to prevent rays from escaping. We're not sure how exactly a housing development combats urban sprawl, but it sounds like it's at least keeping rural Georgia in the dark.