ON A CLEAR, MOONLESS NIGHT THE NUMBER OF STARS YOU CAN SEE INCREASES EXPONENTIALLY THE FURTHER YOU ARE FROM A CITY.
WITH INTERNATIONALLY-RECOGNIZED DESIGNATIONS, WEST OF 105 OFFERS SOME OF THE BEST OPPORTUNITIES TO SEE AND PHOTOGRAPH THE INCREDIBLE NIGHT SKY IN ALL OF
ITS COSMIC GLORY.
BLACK CANYON OF THE GUNNISON NATIONAL PARK
Recently expanded thanks to the purchase of almost 2,500 acres, the Black Canyon is a spectacular place any time of day and any time of the year. But at the Black Canyon they want that name to mean something, so they go the extra mile to ensure the dark skies are the darkest they can be. Artificial lighting is used only where necessary for safety, motion detectors limit the light used in restrooms and other areas and all outdoor lighting devices use lowenergy, low-impact bulbs with shields that direct light to the ground.
Because of these exceptional skies and the astronomy education programs on offer, the Black Canyon was designated an International Dark Sky Park in September 2015.
The park is always open to stargaze on your own, but from May through to the end of September, rangers and local astronomers present evening talks every Wednesday and Friday night.
WET MOUNTAIN VALLEY
Silver Cliff and Westcliffe, two sparsely populated towns in the Wet Mountain Valley, earned a joint certification as a Dark Sky Community (as opposed to the Black Canyon's designation as a park) from the International Dark-Sky Association back in 2015. It was the first such community in the state, the second in the nation, and the ninth in the world.
The Smokey Jack Observatory in Westcliffe has one of the largest and most state of the art telescopes in the state of Colorado. Maintained by Dark Skies of the Wet Mountain Valley, the group also hosts free public “star parties” where you can mingle and stargaze. The parties are scheduled from May to October based on current astronomical events.
The observatory is open year around and visitors can throw their own private star party, hosted by a trained guide, throughout the year. Amazingly these private events are free but reservations are crucial. Visit darkskiescolorado.org for more info.
DINOSAUR NATIONAL MONUMENT
Apart from the cool name and the 149-million-year-old fossils, Dinosaur National Monument also happens to be one of the darkest places in the country.
Although the monument has a designated spot near Split Mountain Campground where night sky programs are held, most of the monument is good for viewing the night sky with either the naked eye or with telescopes and binoculars.
Dinosaur National Monument offers all kinds of events are offered throughout the year, but of particular interest to those with a penchant for dark skies are the naked eye constellation tours. The tours are followed by viewing planets, nebulae, star clusters and other deep sky objects through telescopes at Split Mountain Campground. Remaining dates for 2018 are September 5th and 8th at 8:45 pm.
Those who want to gaze up at the incredible tapestry of pin pricks on the Bible black sky need do no more than find a dark place and look up (it is worth remembering that the core of the Milky Way isn't particularly visible during winter in the northern hemisphere). For a closer view, the Black Canyon, Westcliff and Silver
Cliff have astronomy groups that meet regularly to peer into the cosmos through very powerful telescopes. These groups are very welcoming and love to share their passion with newcomers. Visit darksky.org for more info.
If you want to take home a memento, you might want to think about joining an astrophotography workshop. Capturing the Milky Way in all of its nebulous splendor is not easy and requires a few bits of equipment as well as some specialist knowledge.
Mike Pach runs night sky photography workshops in the Westcliffe/Silvercliff area. Visit 3peaksphoto.com for more information.
Photos: Mike Pach; (main image), Sangre Photography, LLC / sangrephotography.com (bottom three images)