Every September over the past three years, Great Sand Dunes has devoted the entire month to celebrating the dark skies with special programs to observe the moon on International Observe the Moon Night, guest speakers, night hikes, and a day-long Celestial Festival.
On September 15th, about 200 visitors gathered to participate in this year’s festival. Some heard about this event through local press releases or through the park webpage, but many just happened by and were surprised by this stellar opportunity to connect with our place in space.
Afternoon activities included solar viewings and kid’s activity stations, and the evening began with a special guest program by author, astronomer and night sky advocate Dr. Tyler Nordgren. Dr. Nordgren’s presentation, entitled “Stars Above and Earth Below: A Guide to Astronomy in National Parks”, left visitors with a new appreciation for viewing dark skies in national parks and in their own backyards.
The growing crowd then gathered at the dunes for the main event. Several activity stations staffed by park rangers, a Teacher-Ranger-Teacher, local volunteers and astronomy VIPs were ready and waiting to share views of the universe. Visitors could choose from "Night Eyes of the Dunes" night hikes, a constellation challenge, kid’s activities, a solar system hike, and multiple deep sky observation stations. The ever popular "Cosmic Cocoa" station kept visitors warm and ready to explore more of the night sky. Although temperatures were chilly, visitors and rangers alike were rewarded with clear skies and stellar views throughout the evening.
On September 22nd, another such event was held in celebration of the autumnal equinox and International Observe the Moon Night. Throughout the evening, more than 70 people gathered at the edge of the dune-field to observe the moon through a telescope and to go on moon hikes. VIPs and an interpretive ranger were on hand to help these visitors connect with two out-of-this-world landscapes – the dune field and the moon.
Visitors on moon hikes heard stories of the moon, participated in a moon phase activity, and interacted with the environment by making craters in the sand. Some visitors shared stories of the moonwalks they had witnessed, but all made new memories connecting this special place, where footprints last a few days, to our lunar neighbor, where the footprints of exploration are still present.
Thanks goes out to the park’s law enforcement event support, to the Friends of the Dunes for their continued support of the park’s night sky program, to Dr. Tyler Nordgren for his willingness to travel and share his perspective of the value of darkness, and to the Adams State University Astronomy Club for making these events stellar.