Editor’s Note 6/15/21: This story has been updated to reflect current pricing and reservation requirements.
The season of stargazing is upon us, and there’s no better place to take in the majesty of a sparkling night sky than one of Colorado’s designated Dark Sky destinations. The International Dark-Sky Association (IDA), a nonprofit that works to preserve dark skies and combat light pollution, has identified close to 100 locations worldwide for their pristine sky-scapes, and several are located right here in the Centennial State.
But Dark Sky designations go well beyond a place’s awe-inspiring beauty—IDA also praises galaxy-gazing as a source of scientific discovery, heritage, and storytelling. Conversely, the organization maintains that light pollution has a negative effect on humans’ health and the environment. Around 30 percent of all outdoor lighting in the U.S. is wasted, which amounts to more than $3 billion worth of energy and 21 million pounds of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere each year.
In celebration of Colorado’s unspoiled skies (and to raise awareness of them as a valuable resource), Gov. Jared Polis recently designated June as Dark Sky Month. Throughout the month, you can find educational events and festivities at all six of the state’s IDA-designated locales. But even if you miss the events, you’ll still be rewarded by visiting these sites—with stunning starlight and darkness that you’re not likely to forget.
Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado’s most recent IDA designation, is home to North America’s tallest dunes, which juxtapose against the snow-capped, rugged Sangre de Cristo Range.
Odometer: 480 miles round-trip from Denver to the park entrance
Adventure Tip: Backpack into the vast expanse of gold sand and arrange your personal backcountry site beneath a star-filled canvas. The 30-square-mile dunefield is a 1.5-mile trek from the park entrance. Obtain permits for $6 online.
Dark Sky Month: The national park is hosting a collection of events to celebrate Dark Sky Month. Listen to how NASA research supports national parks and enjoy telescope viewing on June 6 at 8:45 p.m. Study nocturnal animals and enjoy a laser-guided constellation tour and telescope viewing on June 7 at 8:45 p.m. Learn how to help recover starlight at Disappearing Dark, a 30-minute program hosted on June 8.
Where to stay: If you don’t choose to backpack, stay overnight at Piñon Flats Campground ($20 per night; reserve sites up to six months in advance)
Westcliffe’s Smokey Jack Observatory (SJO) is home to one of the nation’s most impressive telescopes—a 14-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain with computer-guided pointing and tracking. The observatory is located in town on the west end of Main Street.
Odometer: 296 miles round-trip
Adventure Tip: The Sangre de Cristo Range is home to 10 of Colorado’s most rugged, stunning 14,000-foot peaks. If you’re looking to tackle one, check out Humboldt Peak, which is one of the easier ones.
Dark Sky Month: Celebrate the year’s first appearance of Jupiter at the planet’s star party on June 7, 9–11 p.m.
Where to stay: Pitch a tent among 15 dispersed sites at South Colony Trailhead. Note: To help mitigate environmental impact, if these campsites are full, consider camping at Alvarado Campground ($22 per night; reservations required for 27 of the 50 sites from June to August).
This small town sits in the Wet Mountain Valley of south-central Colorado with views of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
Odometer: 292 miles round-trip from Denver to Silver Cliff
Adventure Tip: North of Silver Cliff, mountain bikers can check out the Monarch Crest trail, a 36-mile single-track ride that’s lauded as “epic,” according to the International Mountain Bike Association (IMBA).
Dark Sky Month: Swing by the Sangre Star Festival (June 19–21), or reserve a guided viewing at the Smokey Jack Observatory, free of cost.
Where to stay: Step back in time overnight at Mingus Ranch cabin, a restored 20th century ranch that was renovated by the U.S. Forest Service ($50 per night, reservation required).
From the top of Wright Mesa, Norwood, Colorado—IDA designated in 2019—boasts views of the La Sal Mountains to the west and the San Juan Mountains to the east.
Odometer: 658 miles miles round-trip from Denver to Norwood
Adventure Tip: Take a scenic drive or motorcycle along the red sandstone canyon walls of the Unaweep Tabeguache Scenic and Historic Byway, which follows the Dolores and San Miguel Rivers—plus, the northern section is a hidden gem for bouldering and rock climbing.
Where to stay: After stargazing, stay over at Gateway Canyons Resort near the Unaweep Canyon.
In Southwest Colorado, Black Canyon is an intimidatingly deep, sheer, and narrow chasm carved by the Gunnison River over the past 2 million years. Warner Point drops 2,722 feet to the water—more than double the height of the Royal Gorge suspension bridge. Check out our full guide to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison here.
Odometer: 510 miles round-trip from Denver to the North Rim ranger station
Adventure Tip: The North Rim Road and ranger station reopen mid-April (and close in November): Head to the North Vista Trail for a 6.7-mile, out-and-back hike with jaw-dropping views, including the Exclamation Point lookout and the 360-degree vista from the crown of Green Mountain.
Dark Sky Month: Gather at the South Rim Campground Amphitheater for an astronomy discussion and telescope viewing of the night sky, every Wednesday and Friday, May through September, at 7:30 to 8:30 p.m.
Where to stay: Three campgrounds are available throughout the park. Shaded by Pinyon-Juniper trees, the North Rim Campground hosts 13 sites ($16 per night; first-come, first-served).
Dinosaur National Monument—one of the most recent IDA designations—spans from Colorado’s northwestern border to Jensen, Utah, for 330 square miles.
Odometer: Approximately 566 miles round-trip from Denver to the Canyon Visitor Center
Adventure Tip: Paddle a multi-day whitewater raft trip on the Yampa and Green Rivers to experience the bright planets like John Wesley Powell, who journaled about his marvel of the star of Vega inside Gates of Lodore, where the aforementioned rivers meet.
Dark Sky Month: The monument is hosting a hike and stargazing night—telescopes included—at Gates of Ladore Campground on June 8. A second nighttime event features a full moon hike at Echo Park Campground on June 17.
Where to stay: Six campgrounds are located around the monument, and Gates of Ladore campground offers incredible views near the confluence ($10 per night; first-come, first-served).
Learn more: Check out the International Dark-Sky Association’s Bringing Back Dark Skies event at Fiske Planetarium in Boulder, Colorado, on June 12.