One of the most relaxing things you can do in the great outdoors in Wales is to get out there into the dark skies and star gaze. While you may think you need specialist equipment such as binoculars and telescopes, that may not always be the case. Wales boasts some of the darkest skies in the UK, and is an ideal destination for star gazing or astronomy. For anyone living in a city or town plagued by light pollution (which is anyone who lives in an urban area) then the difference with the naked eye can simply be striking. That might inspire you to go out to buy a telescope or take up night time photography, but you can enjoy the night sky without that.
For naked eye observers, it’s worth timing your star gazing trip to coincide with one of the annual meteor showers and you’ll be in for a treat. We recommend buying a copy of the Philip’s 2020 Stargazing Month-by-Month Guide to the Night Sky Britain & Ireland which is full of ideas on what can be seen in the night sky at any given time.
It does take your eyes time to get used to the dark, and you may need to sit for half an hour before the stars really begin to pop! This means that locations near busy roads can be useless as you reset your night vision with each passing car. The same goes for torches, so we recommend investing in a red torch or headlight as you can use it to see what you’re doing without ruining your night vision.
It gets even better if you have a telescope or you can try out some astrophotography if you’ve got a half decent camera. There’s even an astrophotograhphy mode on some of the latest smartphones (Google Pixel), which will find its way into cheaper phones as standard over time. That’s beyond the scope of this article, but you can check out this article on buying your first telescope and an introduction to astrphotography from the BBC’s Sky at Night.
It doesn’t matter how well kitted out if you can’t see the sky. Of course, the most important thing is to check the weather! You’ll need clear conditions in order to be able to see the stars at all! While you’re at it, find out what phase the moon is at. The full moon will drown out many of the stars, but makes an interesting skygazing target in its own right if you have a telescope or good binoculars.
More importantly, the location you choose needs to be really dark. There are a number of areas in the UK that have been designated as offical International Dark Sky Reserves or Dark Sky Discovery Sites. There aere only 13 International Dark Sky Reserves globally, and two of these are in Wales – and obviously inluded below. Dark Sky Discovery Sites are places that hold regular star gazing events. You can also check out the Dark Site Finder map – which clearly shows you where you need to be heading for the darkest skies in Wales.
Snowdonia was recently designated as an International Dark Sky Reserve, and there are some decently dark skies here that are also easily accessible. Our favourite is Cwm Idwal, but that does involve a short walk from Ogwen Cottage. You’ll need to visit the south and east of the park to find the darkest skies in Snowdonia.
2 Llyn Peninsula
Mynydd Mawr at the far end of the peninsula is one of the darkest spots in North Wales as it’s so far away from the nearest towns. You can see from the Dark Site Finder Map above that its possibly the darkest spot in Wales according to their calculations. There are also numerous beaches that are only a short walk that are also good options for some star gazing.
3 The Cambrian Mountains
Just about anywhere in the Cambrian Mountains are good for star gazing, something finaly recognised by the establishment in 2019 of an Astro-tourism trail. This 50 mile driving route takes you to a total of nine Dark Sky Discovery locaitons:
- Mynydd Llanllwni Mountain, Llanllwni
- Cronfa Ddŵr Llyn Brianne Reservoir
- Coed Y Bont, Pontrhydfendigaid
- Y Bwa/The Arch, Coedwig Ystwyth Forest
- Pont ar Elan Car Park, Cwm Elan Valley
- Y Star Inn Car Park, Dylife
- Ty’n Cornel Hostel
- National Trust’s Llanerchaeron
A full bilingual information leaflet can be downloaded – here – but you’ll need to keep rotating it as it’s designed for print rather than screen!
4 Brecon Beacons
The Brecon Beacons were designated as an International Dark Sky Reserve back in 2013. This is quite an achievement considering how close the heavily populated South Wales Valleys are to the national park. One of the darkest spots in the Brecon Beacons has to be Llanthony in the Black Mountains which you’ll see at around a minute and a half into the video below which also suggests numerous other locations worth a visit.