dark sky

The Milky Way in the West End. (Photo courtesy of Nola Svoboda/ColoradoStargazing)

Increasingly, “Milky Way” is more than a candy bar, or the name of the elegant spiral galaxy that encompasses Earth’s solar system. It’s also a mark of accomplishment: The International Dark-Sky Association, a Tucson-based organization, designates spots with exceptionally clear views of our galaxy’s familiar, milky swath of stars “Dark Sky” places. Dark Sky places “must demonstrate that the Milky Way is readily visible to the unaided eye” and that “no nearby artificial light yield significant glare,” a member of the association explained to the New York Times.

Many of these places are in the American west, where nighttime skies loom large, towns are small, and “light pollution” is low. The communities that have worked to keep local light pollution low and earn a Dark Sky designation understand the benefits to human health and migrating wildlife that dark skies can bring. There’s another benefit too: so-called astrotourism. People travel from all over the world to view thousands of stars at night.

A new $40,000 matching grant from the Colorado Tourism Office will help 10 locales in this state — including the Town of Ridgway and the West and Norwood — promote their dark skies, and End communities of Nucla, Naturita other natural wonders. A Buena Vista-based marketing agency called VistaWorks has been working with these communities on a “comprehensive stargazing resource” called Colorado Stargazing: Experience the Night.

“In partnership with Custer County, Huerfano County, Colorado’s West End, the City of Alamosa, the Town of Ridgway, the City of Gunnison, Mineral County and the Town of Creede, Colorado Stargazing contributed a 2:1 financial match for the grant,” according to a news release.

The “resource” includes “logos, a branded map, event listings, stargazing sites, an album of sparkling images and suggestions for daytime activities to lengthen stays.” Colorado Stargazing is available online at colorado.com/ColoradoStargazing.

Lindsay Diamond, a spokesman for VistaWorks, said stargazers make ideal tourists.

“These are low-impact travelers who really care about leaving no trace,” she said. “They’re visitors who are really thoughtful about a place’s natural resources, communities, and culture. I can’t speak to the IDA’s (approval) process; I’m not part of that community. But certainly, these destinations are all recognizing the benefits” of astrotourism.

The brochure online — “a self-guided tour,” as Diamond put it — offers places “to go where you can see some incredible stars in Colorado. We also plan to add stargazing events when they’re available. We’re in the process now of gathering events from participating locations.” Also included in the profiles of stargazing communities online are places to visit by day. “You have to spend the night to see the stars,” Diamond pointed out, “so we also wanted to offer people options for what to do by day.”

What you won’t find listed yet is a write up on Ridgway: “It’s our most recently added destination,” Diamond said, “and we’re still working on it.” But the Colorado Stargazing 2021 Visitor Guide does offer tips for the best viewing spots in the West End. Hanging Flume Overlook, Miramonte Reservoir, Ledges Rockhouse Campground and Wright’s Mesa — all highly recommended.

“Among the 10 featured locations, visitors will find International Dark-Sky Association designated places, areas just starting the designation process, and everything in between,” a release says. “All of these communities are unified by their high elevation and low humidity, allowing for some of the best stargazing in the world.”

Next stop for the star-marketers: the State of Utah.

“We’ve been expanding our reach,” Diamond said. “We haven’t begun a stargazing program of this magnitude there, but they’re certainly right for it.”