With fall in full swing in Colorado and leaf-peeping season nearing its end, visitors to Colorado begin to train their eyes skyward, when winter constellations come into view. With its dark night skies, Colorado is an amazing destination for stargazers.
From one of the hottest outdoor music venues to an off-the-grid backcountry hut, the Colorado Tourism Office highlights eight of the best spots for stargazing in the state.
• Chimney Rock National Monument in southwest Colorado's San Juan National Forest is the country's newest national monument, having received its official designation from President Obama on Sept. 21, 2012. It's also one of the best places to go stargazing in the western United States. More than 5,000 acres of beautiful high desert terrain surrounds Chimney Rock's striking rock formation from which it gets its name. The U.S. Forest Service offers complimentary full moon programs, which allow visitors the opportunity to watch the full moon rise, learn about the ancestral Puebloans and archaeo-astronomy theories, and participate in night-sky archaeo-astronomy programs and sunrise outings.
• Red Rocks Park and Amphitheater is used to seeing stars all the time. U2, Dave Matthews Band, Widespread Panic and the Grateful Dead are a few of the acts who have performed at this spectacular natural, open-air amphitheater. Located just outside of Denver, it's also an amazing location to spend an evening stargazing. The wide, terraced stairs of the amphitheater are perfect to lay down a blanket and enjoy the heavenly bodies as they come into view.
• Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, located just outside of Montrose in southwest Colorado, offers numerous opportunities to turn one's eyes heavenward and channel one's inner Galileo. The sky in and near the park is considered a "dark sky site" because there is little-to-no light pollution to impair star viewing. Ranger-guided stargazing programs are offered throughout the year, as well as an astronomy festival each summer.
• The UFO Watchtower in Alamosa, Colorado boasts minuscule light pollution and is an ideal stargazing site. Local legend has it that the San Luis Valley is an extraterrestrial hotbed, with dozens of unexplained flying object (UFO) sightings rumored to have occurred in the area since 2007. At the UFO Watchtower, there's little or no light competition obstructing one's view.
• The OPUS Hut is tucked in between 13,000-foot mountain peaks, at an altitude of 11,800 feet, is an incredible backcountry respite. At night, visitors feel as though they can reach out and touch the stars and planets that are visible in the night sky. Rates, which include dinner and breakfast, are just $70 per night. The Hut offers solar powered electricity and hot water, two wood-burning stoves, indoor plumbing and restrooms. Amazing backcountry skiing and snowshoeing are available nearby.
• Rocky Mountain National Park and Estes Park, Colorado offer several unbeatable stargazing areas. The Rocky Mountain Nature Association offers Trek Adventures at Dusk, a custom educational experience specifically for children led by a local naturalist is available via an evening snowshoe tour or bus tour. At the Estes Park Memorial Observatory visitors can explore the night sky with a Mead 12 inch LX200 Schmidt-Cassergrain telescope in a private observation session or during a pre-scheduled public viewing.
• Horsetooth Reservoir near Fort Collins, so-called because of a bizarre rock formation that resembles an actual horse's tooth, offers an uninterrupted view of sparkling night skies. A short hike to Horsetooth Rock boasts a view of Fort Collins on one side and rugged mountains framed by Horsetooth Reservoir and the night sky on the other.
• Gunnison Valley Observatory is the largest public telescope in Colorado. At an elevation of more than 7,700 feet and with virtually non-existent air and light pollution, Gunnison boasts near-perfect stargazing conditions. The entirely volunteer-operated observatory and its powerful telescopes allow visitors to get closer to the stars and planets than ever before.
When planning to go stargazing in Colorado, it's best to be prepared.
Following are a few tips from the pros for having an enjoyable stargazing experience in Colorado.
Each person in your party should bring a flashlight to guide the way to the stargazing site. Bright LED flashlights are recommended. Because maintaining one's night vision requires complete darkness, keep flashlights pointed to the ground at all times.
It can take anywhere from 15-25 minutes for one's eyes to adjust to dark conditions. Be sure to keep any and all lights off the stargazing site.
Since stargazing is not an active pursuit, it is best to wear warm clothes or bring layers to add as temperatures drop in the colder months. A thermos of your favorite soup, coffee or hot cocoa can help keep you warm.
Many stargazing sites don't offer comfortable seating, so it is always a good idea to bring a lightweight, folding camping chair.