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Roque de los Muchachos

Roque de los Muchachos Observatory

During a recent trip to La Palma with friends, one of my companions told me that driving a car to a mountain summit or volcanic peak was a bit like turning the scrabble letters face-up so that you could make a 7-letter word every time. Cheating, basically. I suppose I sort of agree with him, but the fact that you can drive to Roque de los Muchachos and park your car in a convenient car park isn't actually cheating on my behalf. Someone else built the road, so why not take advantage of it? And the views.....well, they're spectacular, cheating or not!

Roque de los Muchachos is the highest point of La Palma, at 2,423 m above sea level, not far from the Observatorio del Roque de los Muchachos, where some of the world's largest telescopes are situated. The Roque de los Muchachos is also a part of the Caldera de Taburiente National Park. From the Roque, you can see the islands of Tenerife, El Hierro and La Gomera. From the top of Roque de los Muchachos there's a paved hiking trail that leads to a connected spire, Espigon del Roque, which is possibly the best viewing point on the whole island.

The nearby Roque de los Muchachos Observatory is operated by the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias and is part of the European Northern Observatory. Viewing statistics make it the second-best location for optical and infrared astronomy in the Northern Hemisphere, after Mauna Kea Observatory, Hawaii. The site has some of the most extensive astronomical facilities in the Northern Hemisphere including the 10.4 m Gran Telescopio Canarias, the William Herschel Telescope, and the adaptive optics corrected Swedish 1-m Solar Telescope.

The observatory covers an area of about 2 sq km and was chosen for its clear, dark skies all year round. The remoteness of La Palma and its lack of urban development ensures that the night sky at the observatory is free from artificial light pollution. The mountain-top site has a remarkably stable atmosphere, owing to the local topography and is clear of cloud for 90% of the time during the summer months. Quite obviously, this makes the Roque de los Muchachos area one of the best places in the world for amateur stargazing, and keen astronomers can be seen arriving each evening, hauling their telescopes and sandwich boxes behind them.

I've got to put my hand up and admit that I'm not anywhere close to being an astronomer, but I've spent a couple of nights sitting outside at Roque de los Muchachos, gazing up at the skies. Living in Europe you forget just how many stars there are above, how different the skies are now, compared to when we were younger. La Palma brought that all back to me..