“Stargazing is connecting with something that goes beyond ourselves and our understanding,” says Dan Zafra, editor of Capture the Atlas, a travel and photography website. Every year, Capture the Atlas recognizes the best photographs of our galaxy in the Milky Way Photographer of the Year awards and in doing so, reveals some of the best starwatching spots on the planet.
“Our goal is to raise awareness about the beauty of the night skies,” says Zafra, who also aims to inspire “not only photographers who want to capture the stars, but anybody who want to have an experience outdoors gazing at the stars.”
And indeed, when you see the work from this year’s winners like Bryony Richards, a petrologist and astrophotographer who captured the Milky Way above Utah’s Capitol Reef National Park, you’ll immediately want to plan a starwatching trip. “Stargazing is a very deep and moving experience, and a very good reason to travel and discover a new area of your country or the world,” says Zafra.
The 2021 winners spanned the planet from New Mexico to New Zealand, Chile to Spain. “Most images were taken in some of the darkest areas on our planet,” says Zafra. “But it doesn’t matter where you live—even in heavily light-polluted places like Philadelphia (where I live), you can find beautiful dark locations at a relatively short distance like the Adirondacks.”
Throughout time, many civilizations—Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Native Americans—have had a strong connection with the night sky. “It’s always been important, not only as a guidance, but also as a source of spiritual connection,” says Zafra, who also leads astrophotography tours where he takes people to shoot the stars, sometimes for the first time. “Something changes when they see and know more about all the wonders that are usually hidden in the night sky,” he says.
So it’s no surprise that astrotourism is a fast-growing industry, and it’s becoming more and more popular in places on this list, including Hawaii, the Canary Islands, Chile and New Zealand. “Some cities, like Kanab (Utah) or La Palma (Spain), adapt their lighting and regulations to protect the night skies, and that helps not only to protect the skies from light pollution but also to boost tourism for local companies,” says Zafra.
Here are 15 spectacular stargazing locations from the 2021 awards. To learn more about these locations and see even more amazing places around the world, you can check out the full list of 2021’s Milky Way Photographer of the Year awards.
Capitol Reef National Park, Utah
Utah is know for its dark skies—and one place that has particularly beautiful stargazing and awe-inspiring natural formations is Capitol Reef National Park in the Colorado Plateau Desert. This is where Bryony Richards captured this dazzling nighttime shot of the Temple of the Sun. “It seems like more than a coincidence that the temples line up perfectly with the Milky Way, their vibrant orange colors seemingly reflecting the color of the stars above,” says Richards.
Grand Staircase-Escalante, Utah
Spencer Welling shot “Chamber of Light” below a remote set of cliffs in Grand Staircase-Escalante, another excellent stargazing spot in Utah. “Due to its remoteness, this natural stone chamber provides some of the clearest, most pristine views of the Milky Way,” says Welling.
Zion National Park, Utah
Another Utah location know for its incredibly dark skies and magical star spotting: Zion National Park. “For as long as I can remember, nightscapes from this park have captured my imagination,” says photographer Brandt Ryder.
Big Sur, California
The Pacific Coast near Big Sur has some magical stargazing. Marcin Zajac showcased this view of the Milky Way from a cove with an 80-foot waterfall that cascades onto the beach. “If I had to choose my favorite place on earth, this might be it,” says Zajac.
Bisti Badlands, New Mexico
Bisti Badlands is a place in the mountainous West that’s not only known for its great beauty, it also has a rich history and a sacred culture. “Always remember that while these are amazing natural wonders, these sites hold far greater significance for the Navajo people,” says photographer Christine Kenyon. “Let us all protect and cherish these lands for generations to come.”
Adirondack Mountains, New York
In upstate New York, the Adirondacks region is home to some of the darkest skies on the East Coast. “I feel like I am home when I am hiking in the Adirondacks,” says photographer Daniel Stein. “This shot, then, captures the magic which I feel fills my heart when I am there. Not only does it consist of a lake which seems to take the formation of a heart itself, but it also shows just how much the East Coast has to offer: beautiful woodlands combined with still water and rolling hills.”
Tenerife, Canary Islands – Spain
On the island of Tenerife is the Teide Volcano National Park—heaven for stargazers. Lorenzo Ranieri Tenti loved shooting “the beautiful galaxy over an incredible volcanic landscape—a real night-photographer’s wonderland.” According to Tenti, the glow on the horizon of this photo is caused by the calima, a warm wind from Africa.
La Palma, Canary Islands – Spain
Another stargazing Mecca in the Canary Islands is La Palma, which is where Antonio Solano captured this striking shot. “I went up to the Roque de los Muchachos, where I enjoyed a nice dinner with my girlfriend while watching the spectacular sunset over the sea of clouds that is typical of this location,” says Solano.
Riaño Mountain Reservoir – Spain
Spain is also home to the dramatically gorgeous—and dark—Riaño Mountain Reservoir, where Pablo Ruiz photographed this wintertime Milky Way view. “The composition of the winter Milky Way over the mountains and the reservoir created magical scenery,” says Ruiz.
Villarrica Volcano, Chile
Below the equator in the Southern Hemisphere, you’ll get an entirely fresh perspective and see night sky gems you can’t see up north—like the red-colored Carina Nebula, which is in the upper left corner of Tomas Slovinsky’s photograph of the Villarrica volcano. Also visible in this shot: the Southern Cross constellation, located in the image just above the volcano. “If you’ve never seen the Southern Sky, it’s significantly different and truly amazing,” says Slovinsky.
Iguazu Falls, Brazil
Getting so close to the Iguazu Falls at night is a rare thrill. In order to access it after dark, you’ll need to obtain a special authorization from the environmental agency that is responsible for national parks in Brazil. Victor Lima got that authorization and took this dazzling image that showcases the Santa Maria Jump, one of the main waterfalls of the Iguazu Falls complex. “Right over the fall, we can see Saturn and the zodiacal light illuminating the horizon. Further up there is the Milky Way Core,” says Lima.
Hormozgan Province, Persian Gulf – Iran
Iran isn’t easy to access these days, but if you make it there, head to Hormozgan Province on the Persian Gulf, where Mohammad Hayati took this epic shot. “In this picture, you can see the Milky Way rising on a fascinating spring night on the Persian Gulf coast,” says Hayati. “The stunning cliffs of this area make every viewer imagine and even talk to them.”
Mungo, NSW – Australia
A 12-hour drive from Sydney is Mungo, a national park where photographer Daniel Thomas Gum found some of the best skyscapes he’s ever witnessed. “It was otherworldly—think Game of Thrones,” he says.
Great Ocean Road, Victoria – Australia
On the south coast of Victoria is a set of rocks that is one of the most emblematic landscapes of Australia. People usually visit during the day, but at night, you’ll be entranced by the starry sky. “This incredible location has always amazed me, even before I had any interest in photography,” says photographer José Luis Cantabrana.
Fanthams Peak, Mt. Taranaki – New Zealand
New Zealand’s Fanthams Peak is definitely for intrepid star watchers. “This is one of the most challenging shots I have ever captured, as it required climbing for four hours in 70km/h winds to reach the ice summit of Fanthams Peak—a volcano on the side of Mt Taranaki,” says Larryn Rae. But if you make it here, you’ll feel the same kind of pride that Rae felt after catching this image of the perfect clear skies.
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