During a normal summer, Mesa Verde National Park park rangers and staff are busy leading daily guided tours of the signature cliff dwellings and archeological sites built by Ancestral Puebloans. But in 2020, visitation to the national park in southwest Colorado decreased by 50 percent due to the COVID-19 pandemic. With fewer visitors and tours, staff had some time on their hands.
“A silver lining of the pandemic was having time to dedicate to projects on the back burner,” says Spencer Burke, a park ranger at Mesa Verde. “One of those projects was getting certified as an International Dark Sky Park.”
This month, the park officially became the 100th International Dark Sky Park in the world and just the fourth in Colorado. (Other Colorado parks with the designation include Jackson Lake State Park, Great Sand Dunes National Park, Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, as well as five other monuments and communities throughout the state.)
Becoming a certified International Dark Sky Park is no easy feat. Essentially, the location has to be dark enough that you can see the Milky Way with the naked eye. It requires precise measuring of the darkness of the night sky using meters and photographs, recording every artificial outdoor light within the park, changing lights to those with lower wattage to reduce light pollution, and making a long-term commitment to working with local municipalities to preserve dark skies in the area. Mesa Verde staffers have slowly been working on the certification process for at least eight years.
“We’re in one of the darkest places in the Lower 48. Thanks to a sparsely populated area in the Four Corners region, our high elevation, and low humidity, it makes the stargazing here really good,” Burke says. “Mesa Verde is famous for its cliff dwellings. That’s what everyone comes here to see. I hope this designation is a catalyst for people to come to Mesa Verde for really incredible dark skies, too.”
The best places to see constellations within the park, according to Burke: From your campsite at the park’s Morefield Campground or from a pullout along the main park road. Stick to the developed areas within the park, as backcountry access and dispersed camping isn’t permitted due to the unique archeological and cultural sites throughout the park. Hiking is only allowed on designated trails.
But because two-thirds of the park’s exterior lighting had to be swapped out to meet specific low-light requirements for the dark sky certification, the Milky Way is now made visible by stepping outside of your hotel room at the park’s Far View Lodge at night. The park plans to swap out all of its lighting within the next few years.
“The night skies are part of the cultural landscape of this place,” Burke says. “You can see the same night sky as the Ancestral Pueblo people saw when they lived here, surrounded by the same trees and animals. The landscape and the sky haven’t changed much since then.”