Any day I find the latest issue of National Geographic Traveler magazine in my mailbox is a good day. It arrived yesterday, and on page 20 I found a short article on a travel topic that been gaining traction on my “list” for the past several weeks.
The full-page photo of Utah's Delicate Arch against a night sky filled with stars first caught my eye. The gist of the article is, with cities growing ever bigger and brighter, in many parts of the world, the night sky has become dimmed by light pollution.
Stargazing is now a tourist attraction and remote places that have been appreciated for their earthly beauty by day are now becoming known as the best places to view the heavens by night.
Utah is internationally recognized as one of the best places for stargazing because of its remote, but accessible parks, altitude and clear skies. Star parties and nighttime ranger talks are good ways for families to learn more about the night sky and get a closer look through powerful telescopes that are set up for the event. Of course, if you have your own telescope, or just want to look up at the stars unencumbered as our ancestors have for thousands of years, you can be your own star party.
Here are five of the best stargazing sites in Utah.
Natural Bridges National Monument
In 2006, Natural Bridges National Monument in southeast Utah became the first International Dark Sky Park certified by the International Dark Sky Association, whose mission is to reduce light pollution. There are no star parties at Natural Bridges, and the nearest hotel, restaurant or gas station is 45 minutes away by car, but those who make the effort will be rewarded with some of the darkest skies, and brightest stars, in the world.
Nearest city with hotels: Blanding, Utah
Bryce Canyon National Park
Bryce Canyon's website boasts that its night sky is so dark, “Venus will cause you to cast a shadow!” Like Natural Bridges, Bryce Canyon is remote, but Bryce has hotels and services near the park gates. Bryce Canyon actively promotes its night sky and hosts an annual astronomy festival. Visit Bryce Canyon's website or check at the ranger desk for information about night programs during your stay.
Nearest hotels: Bryce Canyon Lodge, Bryce Canyon Grand or Ruby's Inn.
Cedar Breaks National Monument
I asked a ranger from Cedar Breaks during the solar eclipse in Kanarraville, Utah in May 2012, the difference between stargazing at Cedar Breaks vs. Bryce Canyon. He told me that Cedar Breaks' elevation is closer to the stars and fewer people go there, so you'll have more turns at the telescope. The two sites are just 60 miles apart, so you can compare them yourself on the same vacation.
Nearest city with hotels: Brian Head or Cedar City, Utah
Arches National Park
A few miles north of Natural Bridges, visitors to Utah's popular Arches National Park also have excellent stargazing opportunities. Arches, along with nearby Canyonlands National Park and Dead Horse Point State Park, does not have a regular stargazing program or star parties, but they are held occasionally, so contact the park about its calendar in advance if you'd like to plan your trip around a stargazing event.
Nearest city with hotels: Moab, Utah
Antelope Island State Park
Located in the middle of the Great Salt Lake, yet accessible by car, Antelope Island is one of the best places near the Salt Lake and Ogden metropolitan areas to get away from the light pollution and really see the night sky. The Ogden Astronomical Society hosts star parties here nearly every month during the warm weather season. I have attended a couple of these events and as a non-astronomer, it's pretty amazing to see the stars and planets through powerful telescopes.
Nearest city with hotels: Layton, Utah
These are not the only places in Utah to see the night sky. Since this post was first published, six more Utah parks have been added to the list of International Dark Sky Parks:
- Capitol Reef National Park
- Canyonlands National Park
- Hovenweep National Monument
- Dead Horse Point State Park
- Goblin Valley State Park
- Weber County North Fork Park
Every experienced camper in Utah's mountains and parks probably has his or her own favorite stargazing spot. Also, the Salt Lake Astronomical Society regularly hosts star parties in different locations throughout the state of Utah.
Astronomers, the national park service and many others are making efforts to reduce light pollution in throughout the world to ensure that the dark night skies can be seen for generations to come.
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