Stargaze at Colorado's 8 Dark Sky sites — The Know
Yes, you can see a sprinkling of stars in the night sky from your backyard in Denver. Or, you can drive just over an hour to Jackson Lake State Park and see thousands of stars, thanks to locals’ efforts to become a dark-sky site.
Last August, Jackson Lake became Colorado’s first state park designated as an International Dark Sky Place and the only designated dark-sky area east of Interstate 25 in the state. There are seven other official dark sky locations in Colorado.
Jackson Lake park ranger Amy Brandenburg, and her colleagues want to preserve the beautiful night sky for viewing by future generations. “The resource, the dark sky, is quite literally disappearing above us and is so easily savable with the flip of a switch,” she said.
Turning down the bright
Rangers at Jackson Lake say the park has long attracted amateur astronomers, but the viewing wasn’t top-notch. To city dwellers the park may have been an oasis of quiet and dim lighting, but it was simply too bright for quality cosmos viewing. There was still too much light pollution.
Brandenburg, started the application process in 2018 with the International Dark-Sky Association and along the way worked with the county electric company and astronomy clubs, and received grants from Great Outdoors Colorado and Colorado Parks Foundation, in an effort to “darken” the sky.
Street lamps were removed from the park and smaller light fixtures were eliminated or altered to adjust where and when light is used. This might mean putting lights on motion sensor switches or having the light emit downward instead of upward or outward.
People come to the park to camp, fish, boat, and more, but wildlife also call this area home and dimming the unnatural lighting is believed to be beneficial to animals, including birds migrating and bats eating mosquitoes at night.
Take it all in
Each designated International Dark Sky Place has different ways of promoting this feature for visitors. At Jackson Lake State Park, stargazers can take in the constellations, shooting stars and moon phases from the beach along the lake, from the campground, from the park’s amphitheater.
An astronomy group meets at the park from July through September. The gatherings are free and open to public. (Contact the park at 970-645-2551 for details.) Visitors are permitted to use the park after normal day-use hours as long as they are engaged in astro-tourism. Camping is permitted with a reservation.
A portion of a grant received by the park was used to purchase a Celestron telescope, which will be set up for use by visitors in summer. Check the park’s website for updates on specific events.
The following Colorado locations with Dark Sky designation have their own features and attractions:
Dinosaur National Monument, which stretches across northwest Colorado and into Utah, is a great place to see the Milky Way galaxy due to the lack of artificial light. All night sky programs are held at the Split Mountain Campground. Check the monument’s online calendar for programs from May to mid-October, though the night sky is, of course, visible year-round and from any spot in the monument.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park has the Black Canyon Astronomical Society, a program created by rangers and volunteers who share weekly summer programs (free with park admission). There are talks, night-sky viewing, and an annual Astronomy Festival. Check the park’s website for the most up-to-date details.
In general, overlooks distant from the park’s road provide ideal viewing with the naked eye or a telescope. Aim for Chasm View, Dragon Point or Kneeling Camel View on a clear night to see the park from a different perspective.
At Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve rangers boast that “half the park is after dark” — and they have a variety of activities that take advantage of the dark skies. During the day, stop by the park’s visitors center for a star map, moon calendar, and to talk to a ranger about current conditions.
Night programs are offered during summer; details are shared on the park’s website. You can walk the sand dunes by the light of a full moon or visit during a new moon to see the skies filled with stars.
At Hovenweep National Monument in southwestern Colorado, visitors are invited to imagine life as one of the ancestral Puebloans who stood on this land long before there was light pollution interfering with the night view.
Stargazing is permitted from the campground or visitors center parking lot. The monument’s ruins are not visible from there, nor reachable at night (hiking trails are open from sunrise to sunset). Check the calendar for stargazing events in the area, typically held during summer.
The towns of Norwood, Ridgway, and Westcliffe and Silver Cliff also have dark-sky designation. Check the city and visitors bureau websites for details on dark-sky programs.
A push that’s underway for dark-sky zones through the San Luis Valley and across the Continental Divide toward southeastern Utah could create the largest official area protected from artificial light on the planet.
When heading out at night in any of these locations, take all safety precautions, starting with checking the weather forecast. Tell someone else where you are going and when you expect to return. Carry a working flashlight or headlamp (to be used minimally), an extra layer for warmth, and water.
Ranger Brandenburg, points out that dark skies can be expanded to other places. “The staff at Jackson Lake State Park hopes that the dark-sky initiative isn’t solely at the park, but inspires visitors to make changes at their own homes and in their own communities.”
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