Anyone who has ever spent a night camping in the wilderness knows how incredibly awe striking a clear view of the night sky can be. Seeing a galaxy full of stars in full definition without the intrusion of light pollution inspires wonder, elevates mood, and maybe causes a bit of neck soreness from staring straight up into the cosmos for minutes on end. The benefits of a clear night sky go beyond just conjuring thoughts of faraway galaxies and stars in your head, they have legitimate health benefits as well.
According to the International Dark Skies Association (IDA), light pollution and artificial light can disrupt human sleep-wake pattern (circadian rhythm), which in turn suppresses the production of melatonin which induces sleep, boosts the immune system, can help lower cholesterol, and promotes healthy function of various internal organs.
Clear night skies also beckon to professional and aspiring astrophotographers, who look to capture awe-inspiring celestial images with their cameras. With a vast wilderness at their disposal, Coloradans have plenty of options for seeing the night sky and milky way right in their backyard. Here are 7 options to consider for your next star-gazing adventure.
1. Custer County
The towns of Westcliffe and Silver Cliff, found in the Wet Mountain Valley just east of the Sangre de Cristo mountains, were the first communities in Colorado to be recognized by the IDA. Dark Skies of the Wet Mountain Valley is a non-profit organization that has worked to preserve the dark skies surrounding Westcliffe and Silver Cliff, and hosts a series of public stargazing parties each summer. The local community also constructed the Smokey Jack Observatory, home to a high-tech, computer-guided Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope that allows visitors an incredible view of the Milky Way.
Ridgway is located just south of Montrose and is a gateway to the awe-inspiring San Juan mountains, and just received its IDA certification on July 8. Ridgway’s remote location and its community’s dedication to installing low-wattage lighting in the town help minimize light pollution in the surrounding area, keeping the skies pristine.
Colorado’s second recognized dark sky community, Norwood, is a tiny hamlet in San Miguel County. With only 518 full-time residents, Norwood has minuscule light pollution, and its elevation of 7,000 feet brings you closer to those clear night skies. A sky quality meter (SQM) is a device that measures the brightness of the night sky, in magnitudes per square arcsecond. In laymen’s terms, if a SQM reading is 20.00, that means that a star of magnitude 20 (very dim star), can be seen over a great distance of sky. The darkest limit of a SQM instrument is 22.00, and Norwood has an average annual value of 21.43(!), meaning you can see even the dimmest stars in the night sky.
4. Pawnee National Grassland
Located near Greeley, on the Colorado plains, the Pawnee National Grassland is great for stargazing, thanks in large part to the lack of trees and other natural formations that can block views of the rising milky way. That uninhibited horizon gives you 360-degree views of the night sky. For astrophotographers, framing the famous Pawnee Buttes in a frame with the Milky Way is a definite bucket list item.
5. Dinosaur National Monument
Dinosaur National Monument, located on the border of Utah in the northwest corner of the state, is known primarily for its perfectly preserved dinosaur fossils and the rafting opportunities on the Dinosaur and Yampa rivers. However, it’s remote location in the high-desert almost completely cuts light pollution, and it’s common to be able to see the Milky Way with the naked eye. Dinosaur is the latest addition to the International Dark-Sky Association’s curation of Dark Sky Parks.
6. Rocky Mountain National Park
The most famous National Park in Colorado is an ideal place to catch a clear night sky surrounded by the wonder of the big peaks of the national park. Each summer, Rocky Mountain’s team of park rangers, along with volunteer astronomers, lead unique after-dark programs like Astronomy in the Park, as well as the Rocky Mountain National Park Night Sky Festival. For the darkest skies, make sure to enter the park through the western, Grand Lake entrance.
7. Curecanti National Recreation Area
On a clear night between the towns of Gunnison and Montrose, you’ll be able to see distant planets, stars, stardust, and the Milky Way in the Curecanti National Recreation Area. There are three huge reservoirs found in Curecanti, each providing a reflection of the sparkling sky above, which only adds to the mind-bending beauty of the area. The entrance to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is also located near here, which provides equally amazing stargazing opportunities, as well as the Black Canyon Astronomy Festival.
Nightshift: Stargazing & Astronomy: download this app for stargazing and find the best clear nights in your area and what to expect in the future.
Star Map Tracker: Stargazing
Free version or Premium: $2.99
This app shows over 3,000 stars and constellations. Simply hold your phone up the the sky at night or day and see what’s in front of you. You’ll never wonder again what star, planet, or milky way is above.
Star Rover: Stargazing Guide
This awe striking app shows you the stars…. 120,000 of them as well as all 88 constellations including some artwork to connect the dots. Following the North Star in the dark has never been easier.