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Dinosaur National Monument’s Night Sky is a Must-See

The national park site was recently designated one of the best places in the world to stargaze by the International Dark-Sky Association.

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Dinosaur National Monument, which spans about 330 square-miles from Colorado’s northwestern border toward Jensen, Utah, was recently designated an International Dark Sky Park. The distinction was granted in April by the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA), a nonprofit that has a mission to preserve dark skies and combat light pollution worldwide. To date, the IDA—cofounded by U.S. astronomers David Crawford and Tim Hunter, in 1988—has designated this environmental badge of honor to more than 100 places around the globe, including a handful of locations in the Centennial State.

The benefits of a clear, unpolluted night sky are abundant, according to Sonya Popelka, a park ranger who has worked at Dinosaur National Monument for seven years and helped spearhead the rigorous IDA application process. Among the positive effects, observable stars connect gazers with human heritage, astronomical studies—from the moon phases and constellations to the planet’s origin—ancient literature, the practice of discovery, and an awe-inspiring sense of wonder. Beyond potential intellectual and spiritual effects, light pollution wastes a total of $2 billion per year in the U.S. and negatively impacts ecological and human health, according to research from the U.S. Department of Energy, the International Dark-Sky Association, and the National Institute of Environmental Health Science.

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“People don’t realize the night sky is gone until it’s gone,” says Dan Johnson, spokesperson for Dinosaur National Monument. “The nice thing is that, compared to a lot of other natural resources that we manage, dark sky is one of the easiest things to bring back….It’s not like preserving an endangered species. It’s a really simple thing that anyone can play a role in.”

Dinosaur National Monument’s recognition for its skies has been years in the making for Popelka. Prior to her station on the Western Slope, she worked with the National Park Service (NPS) at New Mexico’s Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument and Acadia National Park in Maine. Early on in her career, she was introduced to the NPS Natural Sounds and Night Skies team, which measures sky brightness at national parks, and works to protect dark skies as a natural resource. Popelka felt drawn to the cause, and co-created community sky programs in both regions, before helping Dinosaur National Monument garner its acclaimed dark-sky park status.

“I was happy to find Dinosaur’s park management had been talking about [seeking] dark sky designation for decades,” says Popelka. In 2015, she started tackling the official International Dark Sky Park check-list. Moving the needle required a commitment from Dinosaur National Monument’s management team, followed by measurements of darkness, dark sky photography, an inventory of the light fixtures—with details like color temperature and above-ground height—and a 10-year plan for retrofitting or replacing poor outdoor lighting.

Photo by Jacob W. Frank

The IDA takes its dark-sky business very seriously. The organization earmarks locations within six categories: incorporated communities (such as Westcliffe and Silver Cliff, Colorado); reserves; sanctuaries; urban night sky places; unincorporated developments; and public and private parks. The lattermost category includes Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park and Dinosaur National Monument. The Rocky Mountains help block peripheral domes of light (which can reach up to 43 miles overhead, reports National Geographic) from the highly-populated Front Range, making the eastern edges of the Dinosaur National Monument the most remarkable in terms of unobstructed night sky.

At its core, the dark-sky movement is about the problem of light pollution. “This dark sky park status is a step amongst many toward preserving dark skies for future generations. It opens the lines of communication for further discussion about how to address light pollution outside of the monument,” Popelka says. It doesn’t hurt that, in addition to being a conversation starter, an International Dark Sky achievement a tourism booster, too. “Astro-tourism is seen as a huge benefit to the Southwest. Many East Coast communities don’t have these views on the Colorado Plateau. We have something special.”

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If You Go…

Don’t Miss: To commemorate Powell’s odyssey and celebrate Dinosaur National Monument’s magnificent stargazing opportunities, the park is hosting a hike and stargazing night—telescopes included—at Gates of Ladore Campground, June 8 at 7:30 p.m. A second nighttime event features a full moon hike at Echo Park Campground, June 17.
Odometer: For 297 miles, drive west on I-70, and then north on CO-13 and CO-64, to reach Dinosaur National Monument’s Canyon Visitor Center.
Accommodations: The monument houses six campgrounds, however, there are no hotels or dining options within the park.
When to Go: Colorado’s Canyon Visitor Center is open from late May to early October (9 a.m.-5 p.m.). But the monument—and camping—is accessible year-round. “In the spring and fall seasons, and especially in the winter, you don’t need to be up as late to see the dark sky environment. The summer dark sky arrives much later in the day,” says Johnson.
Gear to Pack: Grab a sky chart and a “good pair of binoculars, which can be better than a cheap telescope for exploring the night sky and learning the constellations,” says Popelka.
Travel Tip: Gates of Ladore campground, 106 miles north of the Canyon Visitor Center, is another great spot for catching crystal-clear celestial views
Before You Go: Study the current season’s constellations and upload your night sky observations at globeatnight.org.

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