13 OCTOBER 2017 • 1:33PMOne of the most awe-inspiring stargazing night skies I ever saw was in Tenerife in spring, but it took more than just looking up. I didn’t try to stargaze from Los Cristianos, Playa de las Americas or the light polluted capital city, Santa Cruz de Tenerife.
Instead, my wife and I headed inland and ever upwards in search of somewhere with a legendary reputation among stargazers: the chilly Parque Nacional del Teide. This Unesco World Heritage Centre began to feel other-worldly as soon as the winding road looped into a giant volcanic crater. There was a distinctly lunar look to its vast lava fields, each one representing a violent cataclysmic event, but there was going to be no other lunar sightings; I had made sure we were here during a new moon when the night skies are darkest.
Getting to the peak of El Teide was the easy bit. Hundreds of tourists climb into the Teleférico del Teide (telefericoteide.com) cable car each day for the eight-minute ride (it’s €22.50/£20 for a return ticket), though my late afternoon departure was near empty. It was starting to get colder as the air got thinner even before I stepped out of the cable car at its upper station. Here at an altitude of 11,663ft, the volcanic rock was covered in snow, and so was the peak of El Teide just above.
The darkness spread quickly to leave a night sky of unbelievable clarity. Orion’s three belt stars were sparkling more than I had ever seen, with star clusters like the Hyades and the Pleiades (also known as the Seven Sisters) especially prominent. I can usually see five stars with the naked eye; that night I counted 10. I even saw the glowing triangle of light a sunset leaves in its wake; it’s called zodiacal light – sunlight reflecting off dust in the solar system.
Light pollution is making stargazing of this quality the reserve only of those who can travel, which is a shame, though it’s easy enough to find an International Dark Sky Reserve or Park in the UK (darksky.org). The Brecon Beacons and the Elan Valley in Wales, Exmoor, and Kielder Water and Forest Park in England, and Galloway Forest Park in Scotland all have protected dark skies.
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