Perhaps you hadn’t heard (or should we say, seen), but last Christmas the night sky above the Snowdonia National Park was granted special protection. Officially recognised as an International Dark Sky Reserve, Snowdonia is just one of ten specially selected sites across the globe granted ‘Dark Sky’ status.
But just what is Dark Sky status? Well, any area with superb quality night air - clear and unpolluted enough to allow a good view of the night sky - stands a chance of being shortlisted for this coveted accolade. However, considering how densely populated our planet is, areas of low light pollution are few and far between, making Dark Sky Reserves rare and precious places indeed.
Snowdonia was appointed a Dark Sky Reserve in December 2015 by the Dark Sky Institute, based in Tucson Arizona. It joins a prestigious list of places, including the nearby Brecon Beacons National Park and the not so near, Aoraki Mackenzie Reserve in New Zealand.
But you don’t have to be an experienced astronomer to get the most out of a reserve. Anyone with an appreciation of our universe - young or old, amateur or professional - can enjoy our dark skies. And with one right on our doorstep, we’re encouraging you to grab your binoculars, don your woollies and have a night out with a difference.
Whatever your reason for stargazing: perhaps you’ve been inspired by high-profile scientists like Brian Cox; perhaps you just enjoy an opportunity for quiet reflection, pondering our place in the universe; or perhaps you and the kids want a unique new learning experience, you don’t need to travel far to gaze at the night sky in North Wales.
We’ve compiled a list of our favourite local spots to enjoy Snowdonia’s dark skies, with some top tips to get the most from your night.
1. Moel Hebog
The quaint village of Beddgelert is no stranger to galactic goings-on; a local hotel was hit by a meteorite in 1949, the impact heard for miles around! Moel Hebog is Beddgelert’s mountain. Rising almost 800 metres above the village, it dominates the skyline and provides breathtaking, uninterrupted views of the night sky, in particular the Milky Way. The route is well-trodden but demanding and steep most of the way up - this is one for only the fittest of stargazers.
Our top tip: if arriving before dusk, visit the grave of Gelert, faithful hound of Llewelyn the Great. Perhaps it will inspire you to seek out Sirius, the Dog Star, later that night.
2. Llyn Geirionydd
This is a very popular lake above Betws y Coed, hidden deep in the Gwydir Forest. The lakeside has all the facilities you need for a comfortable spot of stargazing; the public car park and on site toilets are really handy when settling down for a long night looking skyward. We love this spot and think it’s worth the journey to immerse yourself in the stunning natural surroundings of primeval forest and sheer cliff faces.
There are few more atmospheric places to watch the stars. Weather conditions permitting, Geirionydd provides the clearest dark sky views of anywhere in the national park.
Our top tip: take a picnic and enjoy a tranquil twilight picnic at the water’s edge. Just beautiful.
3. Llyn Llydaw
Llyn Llydaw is a brilliant choice for people who really want to enjoy the Dark Sky Reserve, but for whom a summit climb is a little too much. Following the Miners’ Track up from Pen y Pass provides access to the shores of dramatic Llyn Llydaw, a glacial lake in the shadow of Mount Snowdon. This fully-accessible route is a great choice if you have young children or if you’re a stargazer with mobility problems.
Our top tip: night photographers love the seclusion and beauty of this spot. If the conditions are agreeable, venture further onto Llyn Glaslyn for even more breathtaking views and photo opps!
4. Tŷ Cipar
Tŷ Cipar means ‘Gamekeeper’s House’ in Welsh. This little cottage is located between Llan Ffestiniog and Ysbyty Ifan and borders one of the largest areas of blanket bog found anywhere in Wales. By day, birdwatchers scan the skies for birds of prey, including the elusive Peregrine Falcon and diminutive Merlin, but by night this remote spot boasts an amazing panorama of the night sky. Tŷ Cipar is a night photographer’s Mecca and many of the most iconic shots of Snowdonia’s dark skies are taken right here.
Our top tip: ‘As above, so below’: take a subterranean trip through the abandoned mines of Snowdonia at Go Below in nearby Penmachno. This unique tourist attraction takes you deep underground to visit caves, lakes, caverns and ancient workings. We think the trip underground helps you really appreciate the expanse of the cosmos on a long night’s stargazing.
- you see the most stars on nights with a new or crescent moon;
- try to choose places with good sight lines - all of the above sites are perfect;
- don’t start stargazing until at least ninety minutes after the sun has set;
- wrap up warm and take snacks and a flask of your favourite hot drink;
- use a torch with a red bulb. You’ll be able to find your way without affecting your eyes, allowing you to adjust to the dark quicker.