Looking up at the Stars in Utah’s Dark Sky Parks
“The cosmos is within us. We are made of star-stuff. We are a way for the universe to know itself.”
― Carl Sagan
One reason to visit Utah is to immerse yourself in nature. The Japanese term, ‘forest bathing’ (shinrin-yoku) refers to the physiological and psychological benefit of sinking deeply into an experience of nature. In this era of incessant online connectedness, what is at heart a simple exercise can become a profound experience.
Understanding the concept to mean nature more generally, rather than simply trees, Utah with its raw and beautiful landscapes provides a wealth of forest bathing opportunities, both by day and night. Take stargazing, for instance.
The majority of North Americans live in areas where they cannot see much of the night sky due to the light pollution of cities. This is not an issue in Utah.
In 2001, the International Dark-Sky Assocation (IDA) founded a conservation program, which has the aim of preserving and protecting dark sites through responsible lighting policies and public education. Of the over 180 Certified International Dark Sky Places in the world, the highest concentration is in Utah. And you don’t need to go far: within about 150 km of Salt Lake City, there are seven Dark Sky Places, certified by the International Dark Sky Association (IDA).
There are over 24 (and counting) Dark Sky parks throughout Utah, so you really have your pick in location. You can decide upon stargazing as an evening component of your trip, while choosing locations that suit you by day, which could mean anything from hiking, skiing, kayaking, spending time in towns, focusing on wellness or myriad other activities. For instance, one Dark Sky Park, Dinosaur National Monument, is a beautiful park with a dinosaur quarry full of bones and fossils that might be explored by day. Another Dark Sky location, Antelope Island, is surrounded by the Great Salt Lake (great for kayaking and a swim, but be sure to rinse off well and hydrate after from the salt) and the island itself has arguably some of the best birding in the world. An iconic national park like Arches or Zion will wow with its sandstone topography and stunning vistas, remarkable settings to watch the sun go down and the stars emerge.
As well, you have a wide range of options in terms of staying in upscale hotels, finding a rental that suits you, or going all out with the immersion of nature by camping. You can ponder the possibilities with a resource like visitutah.com
Here are some considerations when it comes to stargazing in Utah.
It goes without saying but as with other activities in Utah, its best to pay close attention to what the weather is doing. In terms of stargazing, persistent cloud cover could be disappointing and avoid nights with potential storms on the horizon.
The night sky in Utah is magnificent in any season. Summer yields more of the Milky Way and the highest concentration of the stars. Winter stars tend to be less intense and more subtle, however the dry winter air may make for a clearer sky. With more hours of darkness, you’ll also be able to get started on your star gazing earlier.
The optimal time of night to see the stars is typically an hour to an hour and a half after sunset. From then on, you are in true night, until of course dawn arrives to lighten the sky. When was the last time you stayed up all night and saw the sunrise, by the way? What a magnificent place Utah would be to have this experience again.
Time of month can have impact too. A few days around the new moon is optimal. As the new moon occurs when it’s located between Earth and the sun, this provides darker skies in which the Milky Way can stand out.
As long as there is not significant cloud cover, you will find yourself looking up at a night sky that is unlike any other you’ve ever seen before.
Learning under the stars
Perhaps you already have Astronomy 101 under your belt. If not, there are many ways you can learn a little bit more on the spot to enrichen the experience.
Many of the Dark Sky Parks will have events or programs which you can attend. You can look through a powerful telescope and have a guide share information about the constellations above and the mythology that inspired them. Visit the websites for Utah’s state and national parks to easily find upcoming free stargazing events. Numerous astrological societies and astronomy clubs across the state also host star parties as enthusiasts bring along their telescopes and amazing knowledge.
Another option is to use one of the many apps which identify constellations. Here are some resources you might find helpful.
Helpful Apps and Websites for Stargazing
- Lunar calendar
- Dark sky meter app
- Globe at night webapp
- Clear Sky Chart (forecast information relevant to astronomical observing)
- Stellarium (calculate the sun’s position for sunset)
- American Meteor Society (plan for meteor shower viewing)
All this said, you may find turning on your phone in this remarkable landscape with the wide and bright sky above doesn’t feel like the right move. In that case, skip the events and other people, and find a quiet spot.
Bring some comfortable layers of warm clothing (even in the summer too), maybe some folding camping chairs or a blanket, snacks and plenty of water (or your choice of beverage in a thermos). Bring bincoculars if you like, easy to transport telescope, and a headlamp with the red light for night vision.
Sit back, look up and around, and enjoy an experience for the ages.