By Jennifer Broome
Escape the city lights and explore a starscape of planets, shooting stars, meteor showers, the Milky Way and galaxies far, far away.
There are over 60 dark sky parks, communities and reserves in the United States designated by the International Dark Sky Association. Get off the beaten path to be wowed by starry skies. With your telescope in tow, start in a lunar landscape in Idaho and end with a grand view in Arizona for six dark-sky stops on a star-filled road trip.
Craters of the Moon National Monument & Preserve in southern Idaho has a moon-like landscape created during eight major eruptive periods starting some 15,000 years ago. It’s been 2,000 years since the last eruption. Thanks to sparse development in the Snake River Plain, Craters of the Moon is on the edge of one of the largest areas of natural nighttime darkness in the contiguous United States. After exploring the cinder cones and lava tubes during the day, marvel at the Milky Way stretching across the night sky. Idaho Falls Astronomical Society hosts star parties in June and September. The national monument is about 1.5 hours from Idaho Falls, Twin Falls and Sun Valley.
Combine stargazing and walking where dinosaurs roamed along the Utah and Colorado border. Dinosaur National Monument’s canyon country is in Colorado. Hike Harpers Corner Trail to an overlook with dramatic views and the Green River flowing 2,500 feet below. The Utah side is where some of the world’s best-preserved dinosaur fossils have been found. Marvel at nearly 1,500 dinosaur bones in the Quarry Exhibit Hall then drive the Tour of the Tilted Rocks to see petroglyphs, pictographs and stunning scenery of geologic layers. Dinosaur’s remote location and its high elevation and low humidity create stargazing opportunities. From mid-June to early September, night sky programs are held near the Split Mountain Campground. On a clear, moonless night you could see the Milky Way and perhaps the International Space Station.
Stargaze standing atop one of the 2,000-foot cliffs in Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. The dramatic steep-walled canyon in western Colorado was carved by the Gunnison River and weathering. See the Painted Wall and other geological wonders of the canyon from the 12 overlooks on the South Rim. On the North Rim there are six overlooks. South Rim’s Chasm View, Dragon Point and Sunset View overlooks or the more remote North Rim’s Chasm View Nature Trail and Kneeling Camel View are prime stargazing spots. In summer, Black Canyon Astronomical Society members, park rangers and volunteers do weekly free astronomy programs. Dark skies are celebrated in an annual multi-day festival on the South Rim in September.
Its name is a Paiute/Ute Indian word meaning “deserted valley.” Hovenweep National Monument in southeastern Utah and southwestern Colorado is home to ancient village ruins dating back to 1150-1300 A.D. during the Pueblo III period in the Four Corners region. Explore the towers, cliff dwellings, pueblos and petroglyphs during the day. The largest and most accessible ruins are in the Square Tower Unit. Based on some of rock art panels, several structures seem to mark major celestial events like the alignment of the Hovenweep Castle marking summer and winter solstices.Trails are open daily from sunrise to sunset. Stargazing is allowed from the visitor center parking lot and campground only where rangers lead night sky programs in spring and summer.
With 16 dark sky communities, places and parks, Arizona has more certified dark sky sites than any other state. End your star-filled road trip along Route 66 in Flagstaff, Arizona, the world’s first international dark sky city. Every astronaut to walk on the moon trained in Flagstaff. Spend an evening at Lowell Observatory peering through telescopes, including the 24-inch Clark Refractor first used in 1896. Astronomer Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto here in 1930. See celestial heavens through six advanced telescopes on the plaza of Giovale Open Deck Observatory at Lowell. Explore the Flagstaff Area National Monuments. Walnut Canyon, just 10 minutes from downtown, has more than 80 dwellings, including about 70 living spaces, of the Sinagua people who lived in the area between 1100 and 1250. Enjoy the view from the overlook at the visitor center or hike the Island Trail, including a 240-step staircase, for a closer look of the ruins.
Drive 12 miles north of Flagstaff to explore Sunset Crater Volcano and Wupatki national monuments on a 34-mile scenic loop road with a 2,000-foot elevation change from ponderosa pine forests to Painted Desert views. Sunset Crater is a cinder cone formed during early stages of an eruption between 1040 and 1100. Hike the one-mile Lava Flow Trail to experience the area’s unique topography. View a stunning starscape with volunteer astronomers and park rangers during one Sunset Crater’s summer night sky events. Ancient pueblos dot the red rock outcroppings on the prairies of Wupatki, meaning “tall house” in the Hopi language. Wupatki was first inhabited around 500 A.D. and flourished during 1100-1225 with Cohonina, Kayenta Anasazi and Sinagua Ancestral Puebloans. It’s a sacred place for Hopi, Zuni and Navajo tribes. Walk the half-mile trail of Wupatki Pueblo, the grandest one in the national monument. See a meteor shower or the Milky Way just as ancient people would have on a ranger guided hike in the winter at Wukoki Pueblo, a castle-like ruin towering over the desert landscape. The Grand Canyon is only 80 miles from Flagstaff. While it’s an extremely popular destination, take your telescope to Desert Point or Lipan Point for a grand view of the star-studded night sky without the crowds.
Add an awe-inspiring dark skies road trip to your “must do” list this year! Call 800-750-5386 or visit AAA.com/Travel and start planning!
(Traveler Spring 2020)