dark sky

Heavens above: The Milky Way galaxy, to the left of Mt. Sneffels. (Photo courtesy of Val Szwarc)

The Western U.S. is famous all over the world for dark, starry skies. And the spotlight is growing on southwest Colorado’s effort, in particular, to protect these special places.

Two West End communities — Naturita and Nucla — were recently admitted to the Western Slope conserve-the-night contingent.

It’s an elite group, and there’s no guarantee of belonging. Indeed, it took Nucla and Naturita 18 months and the navigation of “a rigorous approval process” in order to be awarded certification from the International Dark Sky Association (IDA)’s award-winning program. The nonprofit works in 51 countries to minimize artificial light, conserve natural darkness and promote “excellent stewardship of the night sky.”

Naturita and Nucla now join Norwood, Ridgway, Hovenweep National Monument, Mesa Verde and Black Canyon of the Gunnison national parks, and Slumgullion Center, near Lake City, for a total of eight International Dark Sky Places on the Western Slope alone (for perspective, there are just 120 Dark Sky Places on the entire world).

For yet more perspective, consider that Colorado’s first Dark Sky communities were Westcliffe and Silver Cliff, deemed “joint” Dark Sky places by the IDA back in 2015. Naturita and Nucla achieved that same designation, which makes these Colorado communities the only “joint” Dark Sky places in the world.

“They are like bookends on the southeast and southwest sides of the state,” a news release said. “Nucla and Nuaturita’s close proximities and many shared services, utilities and schools made a joint designation the obvious choice.”

A good view — or any view at all — of the Milky Way galaxy is not assured, and “astro tourists” travel from urban and suburban centers all over the world to take in the rich skyscapes that are hallmarks of IDA-certification. Next up for certification on the Western Slope will likely be Top of the Pines (TOP), the nature center just above Ridgway, and the Town of Paonia, which is also seeking approval.

“We hope to submit our certifications for TOP in July,” said Val Szwarc, who has helped guide local communities, including Ridgway and Norwood, through the approval process.

“We’re in the planning stages,” Szwarc added, but we’re expecting to host a multiday Dark Sky event, tentatively scheduled for Aug. 9-12, at TOP.

The theme will be “Watching and Counting” the Perseid meteor showers, and will be aimed at youth (and dark-sky novices) Szwarc said. In the evening, before it gets dark, “we’ll have speakers offering workshops on astrophotography, meteors, selecting binoculars for stargazing (and birding), a screening of the documentary “Saving the Dark” on light pollution, and more.”

Local skywatchers will have their telescopes out, and will be observing late into the evening (they’re happy to share their scopes, and their knowledge, with novices, and to explain what you’re seeing).

Ridgway State Park traditionally offers nighttime stargazing events, as well. “They’re working on those right now,” Szwarc said, “and the details will soon be published.”

Even more stargazing is coming up later this summer, when the Black Canyon National Park will host its annual AstroFest. Tentative dates — subject, as are TOP events, and state park events, to current health guidance — are scheduled for Sept. 8-11.

Don’t want to wait for the Perseids to arrive? Pull out your binoculars and head outdoors right now.

“The Milky Way galaxy is starting to rise in the east, right behind the constellation Scorpio,” Szwarc said. “We’re getting into that period of the summer where the brightest part of our galaxy is prominent in the evening sky. It’s always an interesting time.”

To learn more about the International Dark Sky Association and dark sky places around the world, visit darksky.org.