A Canyon Alight With Stars: A Brief History of Astronomy at Bryce Canyon National Park

Astronomy Festival 2016 Telescope site Brian B. Roanhorse

“Everything in Bryce Canyon National Park—scenic views, trails, night sky, air, animals and grass and flowers and trees, rocks, signs and exhibits, buildings, and the people—everything that happens in the park happens to every park visitor—from the entrance sign at the north end of the park to Yovimpa Point at the south, and as far as the eye can see.”

—1987 Bryce Canyon National Park Interpretive Prospectus


A Brief History of Astronomy at Bryce

Just how far can the eye see? On a typical stargazing night at Bryce Canyon, in Southwestern Utah, this is a question that has an ever-changing answer. At this park, there is an astronomy team whose members come from all over the country, many of whom bring their own telescope equipment and passion for the night. They give their time and expertise to share this ever precious resource with park visitors; on any given night they may be looking at Jupiter, 48 light minutes away, the ring nebula, 1500 light years away, or the Andromeda Galaxy, more than 2 million light years away…

There seems to be present within all of us a deep and abiding connection to the stars. We look up, try to see the patterns, make up our own patterns and stories, and try to comprehend the vast distances the light traveled to reach us from faraway suns. It is important for us as a species to remember that we share a heritage with the stars; however, one resource, both natural and cultural, that many ignore or seldom consider is the beauty and darkness of the night sky.

Two-thirds of Americans, those living in cities and suburbs, can no longer see the Milky Way from their own backyards and must seek it out elsewhere. At a truly dark location over 10,000 stars can be viewed over the course of a night and the Milky Way is perceived as a breath-taking band spanning the sky. But these places are becoming a rarity as light creeps its way across the United States and pollutes the purity of the night. Many national parks have begun to realize the need to preserve the black, untainted night sky for future generations of stargazers. They have begun to understand that a dark sky overhead is a treasure; even though it is intangible, it is just as precious as the earthly counterparts of canyons, pines, and clean rivers. Bryce Canyon National Park realized the importance of the night sky as a resource nearly four decades ago and as a result has become a leader in night sky protection and appreciation.

At Bryce Canyon starlight spills out above the unique red rock formations called hoodoos. Here the sky is a piece of the park that is defended as fiercely as it’s fragile rock formations. Bryce Canyon’s astronomy program is thought to be the longest active astronomy program in the National Park Service. It began in 1969 when the Chief of Interpretation and Visitor Services added a night sky interpretation program to Bryce Canyon’s assortment of visitor offerings. Since its inception, there have been many seasonal and full time interpretive rangers who contributed to the growth of the night sky program with educational lectures, constellation tours, and stargazing. By 2001, Bryce Canyon’s skies had become so well known that the park began hosting an annual astronomy festival. By 2007, a team of 15 volunteers and 4 rangers ran the astronomy program from April to October. Although the rangers form the backbone of the program, it could not have reached its current success without the hard work of many volunteers.

The work of the NPS Night Sky Team, a national program stationed at Bryce Canyon from 2004-2008, has also been integral in shaping the program’s attitude toward the conservation of one of the last great sanctuaries of darkness. This team works with numerous parks to measure and evaluate the effects of light pollution and educates park visitors and surrounding communities about the actions that individuals can take to protect and reclaim the night sky.

After nearly forty years the program has reached a pinnacle of popularity; in 2006, over 27,000 visitors participated in various astronomy programs. Each night anywhere from 100 to 300 visitors gather around the telescopes to look up at their own place in the universe. Here, the National Park Service is proud to present, along with geological, biological, and historical programs, an astronomy program complete with its “Dark Rangers” who protect and share the other side of the park, the park at night, which holds a view just as precious as any that can be seen during the day. Truly, for every night this team operates, there are hundreds of visitors who marvel at the jeweled expanse overhead and who return to their respective homes and countries and think twice about the energy waste that outdoor lighting has created. For every child who listens attentively, there is a hope that he or she will understand and remember the sky of patterned stars and kindle the wonder of the incredible vastness of the universe in which we live.




Von Del Chamberlain, Director of Abrams Planetarium, inspires Don Follows, Chief of Interpretation, to initiate the first astronomy programs at Bryce Canyon National Park

1971-1989 Many dedicated seasonal rangers maintain stargazing programs.

Von Del Chamberlain completes a Sky Interpretation Manual that he provides to the park.


Concern over the impact of the proposed Alton Coal Mine leads the NPS to contract a study examining the impact of light pollution on the park and a second study examining visitor perception of sky glow.


Patrick Wiggins, NASA Solar System Ambassador to Utah begins coming to Bryce 6 times a summer to offer astronomy programs.


Bryce receives its first park-owned telescope, donated by the National Park Service Air Resources Division office out of Denver, CO. This telescope was used in the 1984 study.


Bryce Canyon incorporates night sky scenery into its interpretive prospectus.


Bryce receives a second telescope, donated by the Bryce Canyon Natural History Association.


Kevin Poe, Lead Interpretive Ranger expands astronomy programs with the help of seasonal rangers Randy Dunning and Ron Warner.


The NPS Night Sky Team visits Bryce Canyon in October, collecting accurate data for an all-sky image depicting the quality of the night sky and documenting light pollution sources.


With the assistance of the Salt Lake Astronomical Society, Bryce Canyon puts on its first Astronomy Festival.


Bryce hosts the NPS Night Sky Team, (led by Chad Moore), a group of scientists and interpreters that focuses on the protection and enjoyment of dark skies.


Angie Richman, an interpretive ranger involved with the astronomy program at Chaco Cultural NHP, is brought on staff to bolster Bryce Canyon’s stargazing offerings. Within one year annual visitor statistics for astronomy related programs top 27,000.


Volunteer John Sefick donates a hydrogen-alpha solar telescope to the park. Late morning viewing of the sun becomes a popular activity on the visitor center patio.


Bryce hosts more than 12 astronomy volunteers from all over the country who come to assist with public stargazing programs.


Assisted by Chad Moore of the Night Sky Team, the park expands its Astronomy Festival to include guest speakers and afternoon activities. Over 4500 visitors attend.


Interpreters and volunteers from Bryce Canyon provide stargazing programs at nearby locations, including Kodachrome Basin State Park, Cedar Breaks NM, and Red Canyon in the Dixie National Forest. Stargazing programs at Bryce Canyon become widely known, appearing in guidebooks, web pages, and talked about in the local area.


Bryce Canyon hosts a training course for 17 interpreters from other parks on night skies and astronomy.


A grant funded by park entrance fees supports the purchase of an 11” telescope, accessories, and a trailer to carry equipment to different sites.


The park celebrates 50 years of Astronomy programming. On August 13 the park is certified as an International Dark Sky Park.


This information was compiled and edited by Claire Thoma, Chad Moore and Angie Richman

Last updated: July 28, 2021

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