Preserving the Dark
National parks preserve some of the darkest skies in the country. In some areas, it's possible to see up to 5,000 stars throughout the night. By contrast, fewer than 100 stars may be visible from more urban environments. What many people don't realize is that light pollution affects more than just astronomers. Nocturnal animals need darkness for survival, and the circadian rhythms of humans and plants rely on an unaltered night sky.
Though light pollution is created by a multitude of lights, these problems can be resolved one light at a time. Black Canyon preserves a primordial dark sky largely unaltered by modernity. The National Park Service wants to keep it that way. To that end, only artificial lighting necessary for safety is in use at the park. Motion detectors limit the light needed within restrooms and other areas in the park. All outdoor lighting devices use low-energy, low-impact bulbs with shields that direct light to the ground where it is needed.
Because of these exceptional skies, astronomy education programs, and responsible lighting, Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park was certified as an International Dark Sky Park in September 2015. The International Dark-Sky Association works to preserve the skies and educate the public about light pollution and how they can make a difference in protecting dark skies in national parks and at home.
How Dark Are We?
Dark Sky Places typically use sky quality meters (SQMs) to measure the darkness of their sky. Readings are usually taken at zenith (the point in the sky directly overhead) and at four other slightly lower points in the sky. SQMs read sky brightness in magnitude per square arcsecond. The lower the number, the brighter the sky. The higher the number, the darker the sky. The highest possible rating is 23. As of 2019, parks must have an average reading of 21.2 or higher to be eligible for consideration as IDA-Certified Dark Sky Parks. Black Canyon readings have historically averaged 21.5. This average is similar to historic readings at Arches National Park. Readings approach 22 at park sites such as Great Basin, Big Bend, and Natural Bridges. Big cities such as Denver, Colorado have readings around 18.
Seeing the Stars
Where to Go
The park does not close, allowing nightlong access for sky viewing. Overlooks that are far from the road are shielded from the light of passing cars. These locations are great for stargazing, using a personal telescope, or for astrophotography. Shielded South Rim overlooks include Chasm View, Dragon Point, and Sunset View, among others. Shielded North Rim overlooks include those along the Chasm View Nature Trail or Kneeling Camel View. Areas at the bottom of the canyon, like East Portal, are suitable for viewing, but the amount of visible sky will be reduced.
Visiting in the winter? Enjoy the unique experience of cross country skiing by moonlight or headlamp. Red light-equipped headlamps or flashlights are best to help preserve night vision and reduce light pollution.
Best Viewing Times and Seasons
Experiencing moonlight in such a dark place can be extraordinary. However, bright light from the moon means faint stars and the Milky Way are not visible. The best time to view our galaxy is during the new moon phase, or at times when the moon rises late in the night. Check the moon phase, moonrise, sunrise, and sunset times for Black Canyon.
The Milky Way shines brighter in the summer than the winter. This is because we face the center of our galaxy on summer nights, while we face the edge of our galaxy on winter nights. As we look to the center, we look at the combined light of more stars than when we look toward the edge. In the summer, the Milky Way rises higher and higher throughout the night, resting directly overhead late in the evening. During the fall, the Milky Way appears directly overhead very early in the evening.
Spot the International Space Station!
Did you know you can see the International Space Station fly overhead? If you're in the right place at the right time, you'll see a bright spot sail across the sky. Look for an open area with a clear view of the sky. Check below for the next sighting.
Astronomy Ranger Programs
Park rangers, volunteers, and members of the Black Canyon Astronomical Society (BCAS) work together to provide astronomy programs. These events occur weekly at the park during the summer. Programs are free to visitors who have paid the park entrance fee. Programs may include talks, night sky viewing with telescopes, or both. The park also hosts a multi-day Astronomy Festival every year. Check the park calendar for program and event listings.
Last updated: October 26, 2019