Why a Dark Sky Area Should Be Your Next Road Trip Destination

The colorful glowing core of the Milky Way and the starry sky captured at high altitude in summertime on the Italian Alps
The colorful glowing core of the Milky Way and the starry sky captured at high altitude in summertime on the Italian AlpsFabio Lamanna / Shutterstock

It’s hard not to feel small in a place like Westcliffe, CO. With the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the west and the Wet Mountains to the east, you can spot several 14,000-foot peaks—including Crestone Needle and Crestone Peak—from nearly any point in the Wet Mountain Valley. As stunning as that panorama is during the day, I came to Three Peaks Ranch—a family-owned and- operated private ranch just 15 minutes out of town—not for the mountain views, but for the nighttime sky.

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Westcliffe is one of just 34 “dark sky” communities in the world certified by the International Dark Sky Association for showing exceptional dedication to the preservation of the night sky. That’s done through the implementation and enforcement of a quality outdoor lighting ordinance, dark sky education, and citizen support of dark skies. It’s a label that not only honors what communities have done to protect and preserve, but aims to make other people aware of what they’re missing.

“People have become so casual about using a lot of light at night, and in most big cities, the night sky is lost and has been for decades,” says John Barentine, Ph.D., director of public policy at the International Dark Sky Association. “But in places like Westcliffe, they want to keep what they have, and we want to show that it is possible to do that—or to even reverse the trend—through simple acts.”

Barentine’s statement that the night sky is lost is not an exaggeration: In fact, the Milky Way is basically invisible to 99 percent of the population of the United States, according to research published in the journal Science Advances.

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The fact that a majority of Americans step outside at night, look up, and don’t see what they expect to see intersects with rising interest in experiential travel. It’s no longer enough to drive to the Grand Canyon and stand at the rim. “People are looking for added value, something that’s out of the ordinary,” says Barentine. “In the national parks, for example, if you don’t stargaze while you’re there, you’re missing half of the attraction.”

Those two factors have led to a surge in astrotourism—traveling to see the stars, the skies, and space. In recent years, 21 million adults traveled to a different location in the U.S. to watch a solar eclipse, according to the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research. On Airbnb, there are nearly 7,700 home listings that offer telescopes as an amenity, according to a company spokesperson. More than 12,000 guest reviews mention “stargazing,” “watching the stars,” and “telescopes.”

Even during a pandemic, Barentine predicts interest in astrotourism will continue to rise. “Being stuck at home has really brought a lot of people’s attention to their lack of night sky for the first time, and they’ve realized they’re going to have to get away from home to experience it,” he says. While you may not be able to fly to the farthest-flung Dark Sky areas, it’s easy enough to drive somewhere away from bright city lights.

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As social distancing guidelines remain in place, travelers are looking for off-the-beaten-path destinations that offer seclusion without sacrificing adventure.

Tucked in the SW corner of Colorado, Mesa Verde National Park is one of the latest out-there astrotourism hotspots to be tapped by the International Dark-Sky Association. Better known for its Ancestral Puebloan ruins, the remote 52,000-acre archaeological preserve was named the IDSA’s 100th International Dark Sky Park earlier in 2021. Not to be confused with a Dark Sky “Community,” this designation recognizes the exceptional quality of night skies specifically in parks that offer enhanced opportunities for visitors to fully appreciate them—including astronomy-based interpretive programming.

Thankfully, the skies haven’t changed much at Mesa Verde over the last several centuries, where night sky programs are now offered throughout the year. Long before the world invented light pollution, the star show still seen here today is pretty much exactly what it was when the area’s earlier inhabitants were peacefully living here under the galaxies.

Mesa Verde joins a growing set of nearly 170 Dark Sky Places (yet another designation) in 21 countries around the world—close to 40 of them currently administered by the U.S. National Park Service—which have all passed a rigorous certification process for dark sky status. Founded 20 years ago in 2001, the Dark Sky Places Program represents a growing effort by the IDSA to foster community support, education and appreciation of dark sites through public awareness and responsible lighting policies.

Back in Westcliffe, CO—a three-hour drive from Denver—hides another perfect spot for astrotourism. The  population here hovers just above 600, and rental properties span acres of the valley, offering 360-degree views of the night sky (as well as easy access to daytime activities, like summiting the five 14,000-foot peaks nearby).

Westcliffe’s Smokey Jack Observatory opened in 2015. But Suzanne B. Jack (AKA Smokey Jack) had been campaigning for decades to protect the area’s night skies. As the founder of the non-profit Dark Skies of the Wet Mountain Valley, she first convinced the local hospital to use dark sky-friendly lighting fixtures. Since then, the organization has helped bring the entire town around to light pollution control, education, and awareness via art contests, publications included with building permit packets, presentations at local organizations, and star parties.

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The observatory itself is a small, 12-foot by 12-foot hut with a retractable roof, which houses a 14-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope with computer-guided pointing and tracking for private viewings. You can also stargaze through their scope on Facebook Live). As educational as it is to have observatory director Steve McAllister, or one of the other trained star guides, pointing out constellations, planets, and galaxies with a laser pointer and providing close-up looks through the telescope), it’s easy enough to get a taste of the experience on your own in the meantime. All you have to do is look up. (Google helps, too.)

After peering at the North Star, the Big Dipper, Jupiter, Saturn, and several galaxies from the observatory, I sat outside the cabin at Three Peaks Ranch and stared up while fiddling with my camera. It was almost scarily quiet, and so dark I couldn’t adjust the camera dials unless I turned on my cell phone flashlight.

I wanted to capture the night sky—to bring a reminder of the stars back to Denver with me—but mostly I wanted to capture the experience. After months stuck inside my apartment’s four walls, and countless hours exposed to the artificial light of too many screens, to look up and just see starlight was a welcome respite from the overstimulation of life at home.

There are real benefits to seeking less light, too. Research shows that bright artificial lighting (indoors and out) negatively affects sleep and mood, and may even increase the risk of disease. People who live in areas with more outdoor nighttime lights reported delayed bedtimes and wake up times, shorter sleep duration, and increased daytime sleepiness, as well as increased dissatisfaction with sleep quantity and quality, according to a recent study published in the journal Sleep.

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At one point, wide open skies and stargazing may have been a luxury selling point for far-flung destinations like !Ae!Hai Kalahari Heritage Park in South Africa or the Pitcairn Islands in the Pacific Ocean, dark sky sanctuaries that are, by nature, the most remote (and often darkest) places in the world; or protected dark sky reserves like Alpes Azur Mercantour in France and NamibRand Nature Reserve in Namibia. Now, it’s something anyone would crave after being cooped up for months.

And if there’s one thing we’ve learned throughout a pandemic, it’s that adventure can be found closer to home. Twenty-three of the IDA’s dark sky communities are within the U.S., and dark sky parks are scattered across the country, from Tonto National Monument outside of Phoenix, AZ, to Cherry Springs State Park in Pennsylvania’s Susquehannock State Forest.

“People are looking for new experiences that aren’t the kind of conventional travel we’re familiar with,” says Barentine. “And so this need to seek out the stars has been fueled by the realization that they’ve been there the whole time—we just haven’t been paying attention.”

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