Dark skies

A view of the Milky Way arcing above Top of the Pines. The crest of 14,158-foot Mt. Sneffels is the highest point on the ridgeline. (Photo courtesy of Val Szwarc)

Ridgway’s Top of the Pines (TOP), a 175-acre recreation area above town, has just become the sixth ‘Dark Sky Park’ in southwestern Colorado, and the second Dark Sky place in Ridgway itself.

Both designations were awarded by the International Dark Association, which works to combat light-pollution and “protect the night skies” worldwide. Val Szwarc, who helped to guide both the Town of Ridgway and TOP through the approval process, said Ouray County commissioners “are delighted” about the designation, which was announced earlier this week at a commissioner’s meeting.

“It’s a big feather in Ouray County’s cap that we have a community, and a park, that both have” these designations, Szwarc pointed out. A commitment to low, natural lights at night not only confers benefits to wildlife, ecosystems and human health, but ‘dark sky’ places attract visitors — dubbed astro-tourists — who not only want to observe the constellations and the Milky Way for themselves, but are likely to care about preserving the planet by day, as well.

“My colleagues in Norwood are pursuing what’s known as an IDA Reserve: they would like all of San Miguel County to be designated a Dark Sky place,” Szwarc. “It’s a pretty high bar, but they’ve made major progress. They’ve made some major improvements to the lighting code.”

Perhaps in the future, ‘Reserve’ status might apply to all of Ouray County, as well.

In the meantime, “The Town of Paonia is pursuing Dark Sky status, and the City of Salida is apparently pretty interested,” Szwarc said. Closer to home, “Ridgway State Park has expressed some interest.”

The skies at TOP are some of the darkest in Western Colorado, which could make them an ideal place for watching for much-anticipated Comet Leonard. The comet “might become 2021’s brightest comet by year’s end,” the website earthsky.org said earlier this week.

Named for astronomer Greg Leonard at Mount Lemmon Observatory in Arizona, who discovered it on January 3 of this year, the comet is approaching the Earth exceptionally quickly, even for a comet (specifically, it is hurtling this way at about 158,000 m.p.h.) and should make its closest approach to Earth by Dec. 12.

Though it will pass from a comfortably safe distance of 21.6 million miles, it could offer thrilling viewing, nonetheless.

Nature provides so-called “once in a lifetime” sky events that are so brilliant as to be unforgettable, EarthSky notes. “Comet Leonard mightbe one of these, if it gets bright enough. If you do see it, at this sweep near the sun, it’ll truly be a once-in-a-lifetime event, though. This comet takes tens of thousands of years to complete an orbit around the sun.”

“The comet is currently residing in (northern-sky constellation) Coma Berenices below the warped, spiral galaxy NGC4656, heading toward (constellation) Bootes,” the U.K. website CometWatch noted in an update on Nov. 24.

“It’s zipping along,” Szwarc said of Comet Leonard. “You can’t wait to see it; you’ll have to be ready by Dec. 12. The challenge is that it will be in the early morning. You want a good view of the eastern horizon; you don’t want any mountains on the horizon. If you live in Telluride, you’ll have to go outside of the box canyon.”

Binoculars “will probably be helpful,” Szwarc added.

“Top of the Pines will probably be one of the best places to see it.”