Colorado’s rugged mountains and vast plains aren’t just a daytime playground; come nightfall, they transform into a stargazer’s paradise.
When our family visits Colorado at least once a year in our RV, we’re not just after the thrill of the hike or the rush of the rivers; we’re also chasing the tranquility of the stars as astrotourists. Light pollution is the arch-nemesis of astrotourism, but Colorado still boasts many sanctuaries of darkness where the Milky Way shines bright.
Understanding Light Pollution in Colorado
The Bortle scale might just become your new best friend in the world of stargazing in Colorado. Picture it as a measuring tape for the night sky’s darkness, with a range from 1 to 9. A Bortle class 1 sky is the ultimate stargazer’s dream, pristinely dark, revealing the cosmos in all its splendor, while a Bortle class 9 sky is city-lit to the point where only the moon, planets, and a handful of stars can punch through the brightness.
The state offers a full spectrum of Bortle scale experiences, from the light-soaked skies of Denver to the inky blackness found in remote areas like the San Juan National Forest.
Our Colorado light pollution map reveals a state with a tale of two skies: the vibrant city lights sculpt the skies with their glow, but the remote mountains and plains offer a canvas of darkness, perfect for celestial sightings.
Colorado Light Pollution Map
Also, check out our RWT Adventures stargazing map to find the best Bortle class locations for your next nocturnal adventure.
Colorado Dark Sky Areas: Low on the Bortle Scale
Alison and I love Colorado, and here’s some dark sky spots you won’t want to miss:
The pristine skies of the Mount Zirkel Wilderness offer an unspoiled view of the cosmos. State Forest State Park is another northern gem, where the Milky Way stretches across the sky like a celestial river.
The central highlands around the Collegiate Peaks are renowned for their dark, star-filled nights. In the heart of the Rockies, Buena Vista and Salida are gateways to some of the state’s most brilliant nocturnal vistas.
The southern skies glow with stars at the Great Sand Dunes National Park, a sanctuary from light pollution. The Wet Mountain Valley, near Westcliffe and Silver Cliff, offers dark skies perfect for Milky Way sightings.
The wide-open spaces of the Comanche National Grassland provide a celestial showcase near La Junta. In the east, the skies above the remote town of Eads are dark enough to reveal a sky brimming with stars.
The Uncompahgre Plateau’s dark skies west of Montrose offer a stunning night-time display. Near Durango, the San Juan National Forest’s skies are so dark that stargazing there feels like a journey to the edge of the universe.
The Brightest Nights in Colorado: Light Pollution Hotspots
These are some of the areas you’ll want to avoid if you are looking for truly dark skies.
Fort Collins’s city lights significantly brighten the sky, overshadowing nearby natural darkness. Greeley’s growth contributes additional glow, extending the reach of light pollution in the region.
Denver’s metropolitan area creates a vast dome of light, significantly diminishing the view of the night sky. The suburban sprawl into areas like Centennial and Castle Rock further amplifies the central glow.
Colorado Springs lights up the southern skies, with its urban brightness visible from miles away. Pueblo, too, adds to the southern light pollution, especially along the I-25 corridor.
The eastern plains, typically known for their dark skies, are experiencing increasing light pollution, especially from towns like Lamar and La Junta. These smaller hubs are starting to affect the region’s night skies, challenging their once pristine stargazing conditions.
Grand Junction stands out as the primary source of light pollution in western Colorado, its city lights encroaching upon the natural darkness of the surrounding areas. This urban glow significantly alters the night sky quality in the region, extending beyond the city limits.
Geographical Influence on Stargazing in Colorado
Colorado’s diverse landscapes greatly influence the quality and experience of stargazing across the state. Each region, with its unique features, offers distinct views of the night sky.
Rocky Mountains and High Plains
The Rocky Mountains and the adjacent High Plains dominate the central and northern regions of Colorado. The high elevation of areas like Rocky Mountain National Park and the relative remoteness of the High Plains provide exceptionally dark skies, ideal for observing deep-sky objects and the Milky Way.
Western Slope and Plateau
In the western part of the state, the Western Slope and the Colorado Plateau are home to several renowned dark sky parks, including the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. The region’s vast open spaces and minimal light pollution make it a haven for stargazers.
Southern Colorado and San Luis Valley
Southern Colorado, particularly the San Luis Valley and the surrounding mountains, is working towards creating the world’s largest International Dark Sky Reserve. This area is characterized by its high altitude and clear skies, offering stunning views of the night sky.
Eastern Colorado and Plains
The eastern plains of Colorado, while flatter and more open than the mountainous regions, still offer excellent stargazing opportunities. The lower light pollution levels in this region provide clear views of celestial events.
Stargazing Tips and Gear for Colorado
For an optimal stargazing experience in Colorado, here are some tips and gear recommendations:
Best Time to Stargaze
Aim for clear, moonless nights, especially during the new moon phase, when the sky is darkest. Higher elevations can offer better views, but always check the weather forecast for cloud cover and other conditions.
A good quality telescope or binoculars can significantly enhance your stargazing experience. Don’t forget a comfortable chair or blanket for extended observation. A red flashlight is helpful as it is less harsh and preserves night vision.
For those interested in astrophotography, a camera with manual settings and a stable tripod is essential. Experiment with long exposures to capture stunning images of the night sky.
Dress in layers as nights can be cooler, especially at higher elevations. Pack enough water and snacks, and remember to practice Leave No Trace principles to keep these dark sky areas pristine.
Whether you’re an experienced astronomer or a beginner, the Colorado skies are sure to offer an unforgettable experience. That’s why we keep returning to this amazing place.
Conservation and Dark-Sky Advocacy in Colorado
Sangre de Cristo International Dark Sky Reserve Initiative
A coalition in Southern Colorado is working to create the Sangre de Cristo International Dark Sky Reserve, potentially the world’s largest. This ambitious project, spanning 4,200 square miles from Salida to the New Mexico border, includes the Great Sand Dunes National Park and the towns of Silver Cliff and Westcliffe. The initiative focuses on adopting Dark Sky compliant lighting, which aims to preserve the natural night environment while addressing practical lighting needs.
Local Community Engagement and Dark Sky Communities
In addition to this large-scale project, Colorado is home to several Dark Sky Communities committed to reducing light pollution. These communities, including Crestone, Norwood, and Ridgway, have embraced the initiative by implementing dark-sky-friendly lighting policies. This is a testament to the state’s dedication to preserving its nocturnal heritage and promoting astrotourism.
Public Outreach and Policy Adoption
The efforts in Colorado extend beyond creating Dark Sky Places. There’s a significant push towards community engagement and education about the importance of dark skies. This involves local governments and individuals coming together to adopt responsible lighting policies and practices. Public outreach programs, educational initiatives, and dark sky-themed events are instrumental in raising awareness and fostering a culture that values and protects the night sky.
Wrapping It Up
Colorado’s night sky is a canvas of cosmic wonder, thanks to the state’s diverse landscapes and dedicated conservation efforts. So, get out there and enjoy all the incredible stargazing opportunities the state has to offer.
About the Authors
We are avid stargazers Jason and Alison Takacs also known as Roadtrippin’ with Takacs. With our two boys Preston and Grayson, we seek out some of the darkest skies in the country while also going on many incredible hiking and other outdoor adventures. As part-time RVers, we try to see as much of this amazing world as possible in our spare time and hope you will join us through this blog on RWT Adventures and other forms of social media as we explore the night sky and other natural wonders as hardcore astrotourists.