The Best Dark Sky Parks for Stargazing in Wine Country | Wine Enthusiast
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Six Dark Sky Parks for Wine Travel Beneath the Stars

Stars, planets and the Milky Way have enthralled humans since we first gazed into the night sky. Unfortunately, in modern times, 80% of North American residents have lost their view of the cosmos to artificial light pollution.

Why protect the natural state of night skies? Plants and animals rely on the rhythm of light and dark to eat, breed, sleep and foil predators. That’s why dark sky regions often complement good viticulture: the vineyard’s microbes, flora and fauna benefit from the protected circadian rhythm.

In 2001, the Tucson, Arizona-based International Dark Sky Association launched to raise awareness about the harmful effects of light pollution and designate some of the world’s least polluted skies as parks, reserves and sanctuaries. As of August 2021, the organization has certified over 180 International Dark Sky Places (IDSP) around the world.

The group offers several classifications of dark sky regions. The largest category, International Dark Sky Parks are recognized for their clear, bright night skies. IDS Reserves consist of a dark “core” maintained through light control measures in populated outskirts. IDS Sanctuaries are remote, often fragile sites.

If you’re looking for the best places to take in the night sky with a glass in hand, here are few of the best dark sky preserves in wine country.

Campsite on Solitude River, Idaho / Courtesy Solitude River Trips
Campsite on Solitude River, Idaho / Courtesy Solitude River Trips

Idaho, United States

Designated in 2017, the Central Idaho Dark Sky Reserve is a 1,416-square-mile expanse near the Sawtooth Mountains that spans the communities of Sun Valley, Ketchum and Stanley. One of only 17 Dark Sky Reserves in the world, it’s also the first in the U.S.  to earn an additional gold-tier designation for exceptional stargazing.

While camping is the simplest way to enjoy the scenery, floating down the Middle Fork of the Salmon River through the Frank Church Wilderness may be the best. Solitude River Trips organizes leave-no-trace multi-day rafting journeys with riverbank glamping beneath a stunning celestial canvas.

Guests are encouraged to bring and share wine from pre-trip excursions to vineyards in Idaho’s Southwest, where rich Syrah and ripe Malbec make the perfect pairing for a campfire steak beneath the stars.

The Milky Way above Lake Takapō, New Zealand / Getty
The Milky Way above Lake Takapō, New Zealand / Getty

Canterbury, New Zealand

Designated in 2012, the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve comprises the Aoraki/Mt. Cook National Park and the Mackenzie Basin of New Zealand’s South Island. Locals recognized the damage caused by light pollution as early as the 1980s when the first measures to improve visibility at Mt. John Observatory were initiated. Preserving the night sky in New Zealand also has an important cultural layer for the indigenous Māori, who used the stars to navigate the island and incorporated astronomy into their daily lives.

To see the bright lights of Sirius, Canopus and Alpha Centauri, or the hazy Magellanic Clouds, visitors head to Lake Takapō / Tekapo’s Dark Sky Project, which sits almost equidistant between the two wine regions of North Canterbury and Central Otago. Both regions specialize in Pinot Noir, while Sauvignon Blanc has become a signature grape in the north, and Riesling and Chardonnay cultivated to the south. For an epic road trip, start in Christchurch, pass through the reserve, and finish in Queenstown.

Night sky above Cévennes National Park, Languedoc, France / Getty
Night sky above Cévennes National Park, Languedoc, France / Getty

Languedoc, France

Earning Reserve designation in 2018, Cévennes National Park covers a 1,147-square-mile swath of the Massif Central. A region of mountains, plateaus, valleys and gorges located in South-Central France, the park rises above the vineyards of the Languedoc. Human occupation stretches back at least 400,000 years, though today the population hovers at 71,000 people across 250 traditional stone villages.

Cévennes is the largest dark sky reserve in Europe, making it popular with starry-eyed trekkers. One can book a seven-day hiking experience with an astrophysicist, a mountain guide and donkeys. To the south, by the Mediterranean Sea, the lively city of Montpellier provides an ideal base for adventures to nearby vineyards. Languedoc is known for its earthy, rugged reds based on Grenache, Mourvèdre and Syrah, as well as mineral-tinged whites made from Picpoul, Grenache Blanc and Vermentino.

South Downs National Park, Moore's Reserve,  Sussex, United Kingdom / Jamie Fielding
South Downs National Park, Moore’s Reserve, Sussex, United Kingdom / Jamie Fielding

Sussex, Britain

Britain contains more designated dark sky areas than anywhere else in the world. For wine lovers, Moore’s Reserve in South Downs sits smack in the middle of sparkling wine country. South Downs National Park earned Dark Sky Reserve designation in 2016, a remarkable feat given its location only 60 miles from the fringe of London’s greater metropolitan area. The name honors English astronomer Sir Patrick Alfred Caldwell-Moore for his achievements in the field.

Local astronomy groups host star-gazing parties, and park rangers throw a two-week event in February called the Dark Skies Festival. The “Downs” are named for an area of chalk—the same chalk escarpment system found in the soil of the nearby Sussex wine region. Known for traditional method bubbles made mainly from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, even Champagne producers have begun to put down roots in the area.

View of Milky Way from cave in Elqui Valley, Chile / Getty
View of Milky Way from cave in Elqui Valley, Chile / Getty

Elqui Valley, Chile

The Gabriela Mistral in northern Chile’s Elqui Valley comprises nearly 90,000 acres of unfettered galaxy gazing. Designated an International Dark Sky Sanctuary in 2015, the area’s cloak of natural darkness has made it a critical habitat for endangered and sensitive species. It’s named for Chilean Nobel prize-winning poet Gabriela Mistral who spent her summers in the valley.

The area holds numerous observatories that are open to the public. Many hotels sell astro-tourism packages, and some even house their own observatories, like Elqui Domos. Due east from the coastal city La Serena, the landscape of Elqui Valley is dotted with vines of Syrah, Malbec and Carmenère. Further inland, the carpets of vineyards switch from wine grapes to those destined for pisco production.

The Pueblo Missions National Monument, Salinas, New Mexico / Bob Maynard
The Pueblo Missions National Monument, Salinas, New Mexico / Bob Maynard

New Mexico, United States

This southwestern state’s dry climate, high elevation and low population contribute to remarkably clear skies. It’s accumulated five International Dark Sky Parks, including the Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument. Just two hours southeast of Albuquerque and the wineries of the Middle Rio Grande Valley American Viticultural Area (AVA), the monument protects four Spanish mission churches that date to the 17th century. The Manzano Mountains to the west block light pollution from the city, helping the site score park designation in 2016.

Park rangers host astronomy events that guide visitors at this fragile site. If the dates don’t fit your itinerary, apply for a special use permit to linger after dark.