Amazing stargazing in Scotland, on the SnowRoads

When you take to the SnowRoads, your adventure doesn’t hit pause when the sun sets. In fact, a new one begins, and all you need to do is look up. 

Tucked between the mountains of the Cairngorms National Park, the SnowRoads – wonderfully removed from the light pollution of larger towns and cities – provide some of the best dark sky parks and stargazing spots in Scotland. Whether you’re on a short romantic break or a rugged Scottish road trip, this is just one of the many highlights of exploring the SnowRoads in winter

Sparkly jewels in winter skies

With colder, crisp, dark nights drawing in earlier, winter is many a stargazer’s favourite season. Stonehaven-based astronomy enthusiast, Robert Lenfert, whose preferred star-spotting location is the Cairngorms – particularly Deeside – describes winter as the ‘observing season’. Darkness gives us time to enjoy this magical pastime and familiarise ourselves with the skies above us.

“The air is so much colder and less humid in winter, “ explains Robert. “And that increases transparency. When you’re looking at the sky, you look through the earth’s atmosphere as if you were looking through a stream or river. You want it to be settled and clear, which is more likely in winter.”

Some seasons are particularly exciting, playing host to certain ‘star shows’ such as the Orionid meteor shower. These showers are balls of ice and dust which, when released in a ‘shower’, spectacularly light up the sky. It’s nature’s answer to fireworks. 

Robert’s favourite spots to stargaze are around the A939 at Crathie, any spot by Glen Muick and the SnowRoads between Braemar and Spittal of Glenshee. He will often head up there in his van or car and “stay up all night looking at the stars until I crash out. You’d be amazed how quickly time goes by,” he says.

Graham Niven Photography 2024

The best place in the UK for stargazing?

The nearby Tomintoul and Glenlivet area of the Cairngorms National Park has been awarded the prestigious ‘International Dark Sky Status’, making it one of the best places in the UK to stargaze. 

Along the SnowRoads, numerous prime stargazing spots await, including Tomintoul and Glenlivet Dark Sky Park, Mountain Skies Braemar, and Glen Tanar Dark Sky Discovery Site in Aboyne. Walk to one of our three Scenic Route installations, such as Still, to capture your dark sky image.

Plus, if you don’t fancy going solo, at your space-viewing service are some of the many amazing local adventure companies in the region. Book unforgettable stargazing experiences with the likes of How of Torbeg and Hillgoers.

Stargazing highlights on the SnowRoads: what to look out for

Stargazers on the SnowRoads enjoy regular winter showers of meteors, most notably the Geminids, which peak in mid-December, and the Quadrantids, whose sharp peak lasts for only a few hours in early January.

Robert particularly loves spotting galaxies far, far, away (how could we not reference Star Wars here?) and nebulous, which are space clouds of ionised dust that produce an ethereal glow.  

Graham Niven Photography 2024

The skies are so dark in the Cairngorms that, unlike most other places, you can see nebula just using binoculars. Bright nebulae, such as Orion’s Nebula (aka M42), for example, or even the Andromeda Galaxy (M33) show up easily under dark skies.

See if you can spot the Milky Way – an accessible find for amateurs – with its blurred band of light, made from clusters of stars, stretching from horizon to horizon. Watch a while and you’re bound to see a shooting star (just remember to make a wish upon it!). Once your eyes have adjusted to the dark, you’ll might also be able to see some structures within the Milky Way, such as the Great Rift, a band of dust obscuring the stars towards the centre of our galaxy. 

David Newland Photography

Spotting the Northern Lights from the SnowRoads

Under clear, dark skies, the Aurora Borealis – also known as the Northern Lights – are potentially visible from September to March. Paul Haworth, an amateur astronomer who captured the astronomical phenomenon of a meteor streaking across the sky, says the Cairngorms’ northerly latitude and pristine skies make it a perfect place to catch a glimpse of the infamous light display. Its mesmerising shimmering, coloured effect is the result of charged particles from the sun interacting with the earth’s magnetic field, culminating in “dancing curtains of green, red and purple light towards the north”. 

With the winter sun becoming more active, your chances of viewing the aurorae become more frequent, according to Paul. He recommends using a free app called AuroraWatch. Updated in real time, the app tells you when and where viewing the Northern Lights is most likely.

What equipment do I need to stargaze in the Cairngorms?

You don’t need a huge telescope to witness these wonders (though as you do more stargazing, you may find yourself buying one!). A great way to start is to buy a pair of binoculars.  

The wonderful thing about using binoculars in the Cairngorms, where the skies are so dark, is that they behave like a much larger instrument in these ideal conditions. In urban areas, for example, the view might be six inches, but this rises to as much as 12 inches in a dark sky. You can also easily use them to scope out the abundance of wildlife and landscapes along the SnowRoads – from the iconic Scottish red deer to the regal golden eagle – with no set-up time.

Graham Niven Photography 2024

“Because the skies are so dark here,  in the right spots even binoculars show a tremendous amount of stars, nebulae and galaxies,” says Robert. “But even simple stargazing with the naked eye is still awe-inspiring. The skies in the Cairngorms are simply some of the best in the UK for stargazing.”

Of course, you can buy equipment to enhance your experience and what you can see, but this might involve bearing heavier loads than liked. Robert’s 20″ Dobsonian, for example, weighs a whopping 75kg. While it may afford some “simply jaw-dropping views at times,” carrying it can be back-breaking, especially in more remote spots. He suggests instead purchasing an 8″ to 10″ Dobsonian, which is a portable and more affordable (£275-£470) ‘starter telescope’ ideal for any budding astronomist.

Accommodation businesses in the Tomintoul and Glenlivet are kitted out with ‘dark sky packs’, consisting of red light head torches to allow you to walk safely but not affect your night vision, and maps of dark sky sites with information about the stars. You can check with your accommodation before you arrive and request use of the kit.

Graham Niven Photography 2024

How can I make it even more of an adventure stargazing on the SnowRoads?

If you’re brave enough and wrap up warm, why not consider camping in some of the Cairngorms’ remote spots? There’s nothing quite so romantic as sleeping under a blanket of starry night sky, after all. While one of Robert’s favourite stargazing spots is next to Loch Muick, he makes sure not to expect too much shuteye when the stars are shining brightly.

 Our top stargazing tips:

  • Wear lots of layers and bring a hot flask (that’s hot chocolate… or whisky!) 
  • Use a red torch to preserve night vision
  • Pick a crisp, clear night when the moon is not too bright 
  • Make sure you know where you’re heading in the dark and someone knows where you are
  • Avoid looking at your phone as this will mess up your night vision
  • Download apps such as Skyview, Sky Safari and Stellarium, or consider buying a magazine such as Astronomy Now or Sky at Night, which tells you what to look out for each month
  • If you do use apps, then get a red filter app for your phone too which helps your night vision
Graham Niven Photography 2024

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