Destination Darkness

The Increasingly Rare Starscapes of the Colorado Plateau National Parks

The Milky Way over Chimney Rock National Monument, Colorado (managed by the U.S. Forest Service). NPS photo by Jacob W. Frank.

The Milky Way over Chimney Rock National Monument, Colorado (a site managed by the U.S. Forest Service). NPS photo by Jacob W. Frank.

The Owachomo Bridge at Natural Bridges National Monument. NPS photo by Jacob W. Frank.

The Owachomo Bridge at Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah. NPS photo by Jacob W. Frank.

The Colorado Plateau stretches for 130,000 square miles across the Four Corners region of Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona. The area is well-known for its red rock canyons, arches, and hoodoos, formed by wind erosion or carved by the Colorado River and its tributaries. The Colorado Plateau is also home to 27 national park units, the highest concentration in the country. These parks protect not only the fantastical rock formations, but also the region’s cultural history, including Ancestral Puebloan artifacts and ruins.

As light pollution steadily increases across the country, the national parks on the Colorado Plateau are being recognized internationally as places to experience an extraordinary and diminishing resource—dark night skies. Less than one-third of the country’s population lives in a place where they can see the Milky Way, and “astrotourism” is on the rise. In many national parks, stargazing programs draw more visitors than any other ranger-led activity. In 2012, Bryce Canyon National Park alone reported over 50,000 night-sky related visits, contributing over $2 million to the local economy.

Pervasive light pollution across the United States. NASA Earth Observatory image by Robert Simmon.

The pervasive problem of light pollution across the United States. NASA Earth Observatory image by Robert Simmon.

Colorado Plateau national parks offer naturally dark, star-filled skies thanks to the region’s high elevation, air quality, aridity, low population density, and frequent cloudless nights. In 2007, the International Dark-Sky Association designated Natural Bridges National Monument in southeastern Utah the world’s first International Dark Sky Park. Last year, the association awarded International Dark Sky Park status to Chaco Culture National Historic Park in northwestern New Mexico for its natural nighttime darkness, commitment to reducing light pollution, and public outreach and education programs. Just last month, the association also recognized Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument as the newest dark-sky park for its superior opportunities to view the night skies. Only 14 places in the world can claim this prestigious distinction.

The Navajo Loop Trail at Bryce Canyon National Park. Photo © Tyler Nordgren.

The Navajo Loop Trail at Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah. Photo © Tyler Nordgren.

The National Park Service (NPS) has helped to protect darkness as a precious resource in the region by establishing the Colorado Plateau Dark Sky Cooperative in 2013. The goal of the cooperative, the first of its kind, is to create a model for dark-sky protection that focuses on voluntary improvements to outdoor lighting in communities and on public lands. The group also promotes the enjoyment and tourism potential of stargazing and astronomy on the Colorado Plateau.

Glowing Kivas in the Balcony House at Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado. NPS photo by Jacob W. Frank.

Glowing Kivas in the Balcony House at Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado. NPS photo by Jacob W. Frank.

Within the cooperative, several communities are helping to protect natural darkness and are hosting festivals and events that celebrate the night sky experience. Flagstaff, Arizona, the world’s first International Dark Sky City, has adopted night-sky-friendly lighting regulations, defying the pervasive increase in light pollution across the country. Torrey, Bryce Canyon City, Springdale, and Moab are just a few of the communities in Utah that are working with their neighboring national parks, local businesses, and astronomy groups to host night sky programs and events.

How you can help

  • Use light only when you need it: Use motion sensors and timers to turn lights on and off as needed. Think twice about installing an outdoor light.
  • Shield your lights: Shielded fixtures allow no light to shine above the horizon. Several types of these light fixtures are now available and existing lights can be adjusted to point downward or retrofitted with simple metal shrouds.
  • Use lower-powered lights: An efficient, shielded light fixture can use a smaller wattage bulb and still be effective.
  • Talk to your neighbors: Share your appreciation of the night and ways to protect it with your family, friends, neighbors, and community leaders. Encourage them to make the night a better place for your community and nearby parks.

What are the benefits of shielded light fixtures?

  • Reduce light scattered upward where it dims the view of the night sky.
  • Improve habitat for nocturnal wildlife.
  • Reduce energy use and associated costs.
  • Preserve rural character of communities.
  • Boost local economies through dark-sky tourism.
  • Promote enjoyment of the stars and astronomy.
  • Provide safe, glare-free illumination of structures and walkways.
  • Improve human health and sleep patterns.

Despite NPS’s commitment to protecting night skies, threats remain. At Chaco Culture, for example, light pollution emanating from expanding urban areas including Albuquerque and Farmington, New Mexico, and the growing demand for oil and gas development in the northwestern corner of the state have the potential to impact the quality of the night skies at the park. Natural gas flaring and an increase in intensive artificial lighting from construction activities, vehicle traffic, and support facilities can all create light pollution at the park’s higher elevations and inside the canyon. NPCA and its partners are currently working with the New Mexico Bureau of Land Management to reduce the impacts of new oil and gas development on the park. NPCA has also been working to assess similar impacts from energy development adjacent to Arches and Mesa Verde, as well as address concerns with high voltage transmission lines across Dinosaur and near Saguaro, a coal mine west of Bryce Canyon, potash mines near Petrified Forest, and development at the entrance to Natural Bridges. NPCA’s continued work on these issues aims to ensure that the skies in these special places remain star-filled, now and in the future.

The next time you are planning a national park adventure, consider traveling to a dark-sky park where you can step out into the night, turn out your light, and enjoy the wonder of the Milky Way. A few parks in the Colorado Plateau make it easy with special events, including:

For more information, visit the NPS night sky website and the International Dark-Sky Association website.

This story was adapted from the latest issue of NPCA’s Southwestern Regional Office Field Report. Nate Ament, Colorado Plateau Dark Sky Cooperative coordinator, and Chad Moore, NPS night skies team leader, contributed to this story.

About the Author

Southwest Program Manager Cory MacNulty

Cory MacNulty is program manager for NPCA's Southwest Regional Office. She focuses primarily on protecting the extraordinary natural and cultural resources in Utah’s 13 national parks from threats such as private inholding development, surface coal mining, transmission lines, and air pollution. She is also building bridges for long-term protection of the parks by connecting gateway community leaders with their neighboring national parks through the Utah Gateway Community Forum.