The best places to stargaze for Colorado's dark sky month

Morgan Tilton

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The town of Ridgway recently received an International Dark-Sky Association designation.(Photo by Val Szwarc.)

To celebrate Colorado's Dark Sky Month, stargaze beneath the most prolific night skies in the state, officially designated by the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) as one of the most idyllic places for celestial observation in the world.

And the Centennial State's inductees continue to grow. In the last two years, nine more destinations received the IDA recognition for a total of 15 dark sky communities and parks across Colorado.

"IDA certification has so many benefits. It helps to protect the night and quality of life for residents and wildlife, because they're really affected by light pollution, as well," said Aaron Watson, the board chair and chapter director of the IDA Colorado chapter.

Clear night skies offer health benefits

In addition to cloaking the starry night sky, light pollution and artificial light affect our circadian rhythms, which are essential for regulating behaviors such as being asleep and awake as well as eating and breeding, according to research published by Harvard University.

That disruption leads to reduced melatonin, which helps regulate the sleep-wake cycle and manages immunity and stress response.

Artificial light has been linked to insomnia, metabolic disease, cancer, heart disease and diabetes, and mental health problems, including among U.S. teens.

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The Milky Way stretches above Top of the Pines with Mount Sneffles on the horizon.(Photo by Val Szwarc.)

Colorado’s newest certified dark sky location is Top of the Pines

Colorado's most recent IDA acclaim is Top of the Pines, which was officially recognized in November 2021.

Top of the Pines is a 175-acre recreation area at the foot of the Sneffels Range in the San Juan Mountains of Southwest Colorado.

The property includes a campground, pavilion, warming hut, ropes course, hiking and mountain biking trails, and a cross-country ski course. Top of the Pines sits 6.6 miles south of Ridgway.

"The skies outside of Ridgway are among the best for small towns in western Colorado, so it's similar to Norwood, Naturita and Nucla," said Val Szwarc, a dark sky advocate, astrophotographer, and retired aerospace engineer based in Ridgway. During the certification process for Norwood, he helped measure the sky brightness with a sky quality meter, a handheld instrument. Szwarc is on the board of directors at Top of the Pines and led the effort for the area's dark sky park designation.

"It's our obligation to reach out to the public to explain the rationale for protecting the night sky assets we have in Southwest Colorado. It's important not only to see the stars but light pollution impacts the migration of insects and birds and wildlife," said Szwarc.

"Many people in Ouray County are willing to go the extra mile and install dark sky friendly lighting fixtures and put in light bulbs with the correct color temperature that are less than 3,000 degrees Kelvin," he added.

Top of the Pines offers camping and education dark sky events to enjoy the night sky. It's common to see folks with telescopes or cameras taking pictures of the Milky Way, said Szwarc.

The next public dark sky event is a star party at the pavilion on Sept. 17.

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The night sky at Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve.(Photo by Patrick Myers.)

Dark sky parks to explore

In addition to Top of the Pines, dark sky travelers can head to Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, which likewise holds an IDA certification in southern Colorado adjacent to the Sangre de Cristo Range.

One of the most incredible places to view the stars is from the sand dunes, which you can hike across at night. (Be sure you understand how to navigate back to your start point in the dark!)

Piñon Flats Campground is open April through October in the park, and you can reserve sites in advance.

On Saturday, August 27, Great Sand Dunes will host the park's annual Astronomy Night from 8:30 to 11 p.m.

Many other parks hold an IDA badge and offer educational programs for learning about the night sky.

In Southwest Colorado, Curecanti National Recreation Area rangers partner with the nearby Gunnison Valley Observatory for astronomy talks, which are held every Friday from June to August (read the dates here).

Participants can view the night sky through a variety of small telescopes. Visitors can also purchase a ticket for a full tour of the telescope dome and peer at the sky through the 30-inch telescope.

Near Lake City, the 58-acre Slumgullion Center is undeveloped. The Lake Fork Valley Conservancy led the charge with the designation approval and offers an astronomy program all summer led by astronomer Phillip Virden. The weekly program is held Wednesday nights from 7:30 to 10 p.m.

West of Colorado Springs, Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument hosts night sky programs once monthly through December.

The other parks with IDA designation include Dinosaur National Monument, Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, and Mesa Verde National Park, which all have excellent camping options.

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The night sky in Westcliffe.(Photo by Scott Dankof.)

Dark sky communities to visit

The remaining seven official IDA destinations in Colorado are communities.

Westcliffe and Silver Cliff are the state's first two incorporated dark sky towns and host dark sky parties and events.

"Westcliffe has a beautiful observatory, and they have star parties each weekend in June. Having that observatory is rare, we don't have many of those in Colorado," said Watson. He added, "The night I stopped by there for an event, there were a number of shooting stars and there was an 'ooooh' and 'ahhhh' every time the stars went over. It's held at Smokey Jack Observatory right downtown."

The observatory has a 14-inch telescope and offers viewings with star guides free of charge. Events include night sky photography workshops, observation nights, and star parties with educational speakers.

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The dark sky near Nucla, Naturita, and Norwood.(Photo by Nola-Svoboda.)

In Southwest Colorado, dark sky adventurers can also head to the towns of Nucla, Naturita, Norwood, and Ridgway to view the night sky. In the region, Watson will be leading a stargazing course to learn about searching for constellations and planets at Gunnison Forks Overlook near Grand Junction on June 24.

In southern Colorado, Crestone is likewise a certified dark sky Mecca. Crestone hosts an annual two-day Dark Sky Community Celebration, which took place in May.

Tips for dark sky trips

Plan your stargazing during a new moon phase when the darkness is least obstructed. Take time to let your eyes adjust — even 30 minutes. Utilize a star chart or planisphere to help you identify star patterns or you can use stargazing apps to learn the constellations.

"If people are out stargazing or doing astrophotography, use a red mode on your headlamp or flashlight to protect your night vision," said Szwarc.

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The infinite stars that are viewable in Crestone.(Photo by Peter Ismert.)

Watson agreed: "The first and most important thing I recommend is to have a red filter on your light. You can buy lights with a red bulb, or you can use red cellophane wrap and put it around your light or use red taillight tape. Red light doesn't affect your night vision as much as the white and blue light."

If you're camping, be mindful of the amount of light your RV, car, or generators create.

Watson said, "Bistro string lights feel nice, but in a dark sky place, that can have a big impact on people, and it's good to turn the lights off. Try to have as low of an impact as possible for other people and other wildlife."

Also, "Only have your headlights on if you're traveling on roadways," said Szwarc.

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The night sky in Crestone.(Photo by Peter Ismert.)

Night sky tourism in the pipeline

"We're really seeing a big tourism push right now—a lot of people are wanting to experience the night sky in Colorado. We're helping to guide that tourism to make sure that tourism is responsible and to make sure tourists are being respectful of the place and the people that live there," said Watson.

Towns can capture tourism dollars from overnight travelers. The energy savings can also be significant.

"In Paonia, we changed out 100 streetlights to dark sky compliant LEDs. Now the town is saving more than $1,000 per month on energy bills, which is huge for small towns and that could be even larger energy savings for large towns. The investment paid for itself in two years," said Watson.

As a member of Dark Skies Paonia, he is helping to establish an IDA designation for the town.

A new state bill was recently signed into law for the Colorado tourism office to support responsible, sustainable night sky tourism through education and outreach. The bill also provides technical assistance programs for applicants seeking IDA designation.

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Adventure journalist Morgan Tilton covers the outdoors with a focus on travel, industry news and human endurance. Featured in more than 70 publications, she’s a recipient of more than a dozen North American Travel Journalists Association awards.

Crested Butte, CO
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