Photo Credit: Emily Ogden
Utah’s Canyon Country is perfect for stargazers, astronomers, night photographers and nature lovers alike. Home to four International Dark Sky Parks and one Dark Sky Sanctuary, the area has been designated for its exceptional starry night skies and nocturnal environment.
In receiving International Dark Sky designation, it is “specifically protected for its scientific, natural, educational [and] cultural heritage and/or public enjoyment.” Dark Sky Sanctuaries are designated as such because they are “typically situated in a very remote location with few (if any) nearby threats to the quality of its dark night skies.”
Usually, in urban city environments, fewer than 500 stars may be visible. Compare this to up to 15,000 stars that can be seen in the darkened, desert landscapes of Utah’s Canyon Country. These isolated and low-populated areas amaze world travelers with the glow and beautiful skyscape that is unique to only this area. When visitors travel through the area, many are often surprised by the magnificence of the region’s night skies.
During the Summer, various areas have Ranger-led Astronomy Programs that visitors can participate in to learn more about the night sky. For more information about astronomy programs, contact a local visitor center or park service.
Visit these five Dark Sky Places to see the multitude of bright stars for yourself.
Photo Credit: NPS/Jacob W. Frank
Natural Bridges National Monument
Natural Bridges National Monument was designated the first International Dark Sky Park in the world! This monument has three of the world’s largest natural stone bridges that, when made a silhouette to the night sky, are a beautiful experience for anyone looking for a unique adventure. During the summer months, ranger-led astronomy programs are available in the park for anyone interested in learning more about the thousands of stars in the sky.
Photo Credit: Cadence C. Cook
Canyonlands National Park
Canyonlands National Park was also designated as a Dark Sky Park in 2015 to bring awareness to the starry night skies. According to the International Dark-Sky Association, “Canyonlands is in a highly defensible location with little artificial light pollution.” Through the designation, the association not only wants visitors to enjoy the night sky but also to be aware of its rare and fragile state as something worth defending.
Photo credit: Jacob W. Frank
Hovenweep National Monument
Designated in 2014, Hovenweep National Monument is a deserted valley of Ancestral Puebloan Ruins that are said to define a solar calendar device used in their agricultural communities. With a low population density and geographic isolation, this park was designated as a Gold-tier Dark-Sky Park, meaning that it has the darkest night skies that offer a monumental experience no one can forget.
Photo Credit: Brent and Dawn Davis
Rainbow Bridge National Monument
Also in a remote setting, Rainbow Bridge National Monument was designated a Dark-Sky Sanctuary in 2018. The natural bridge is not only of cultural importance, but also one of the tallest and longest natural bridges in the world created in the glacial period. This bridge is more difficult to get to but provides a natural dark environment that makes stargazing a gratifying experience.
Photo credit: Matt Muirhead
Goosenecks State Park
Designated in March 2021, Goosenecks State Park is an incredible overlook on the San Juan River over 1,000 ft (305m) below. This small park affords impressive views of one of the most striking examples of an entrenched river meander on the North American continent. The San Juan River twists and turns through the meander, flowing a distance of over six miles while advancing one and half miles west on its way to Lake Powell. A small campground offers visitors the opportunity to sleep under one of the darkest night skies in the contiguous United States.
In addition to Dark Sky Parks, Utah’s Canyon Country has resources where visitors can learn about astronomy and attend events to learn more about the night sky.
The Canyon Country Discovery Center has unique resources to learn about astronomy. Their main astronomy program, Dark Sky Discovery Series, is an evening, public event that occurs 1-2 times per month. Discovery Center staff presents a different theme each session through discussions and demonstrations, then allows visitors a unique experience exploring the night sky through viewing stars, planets and galaxies in telescopes as well as searching for constellations using iPads.
No matter how you explore the starry skies of Utah’s Canyon Country, each of these places will offer a unique star experience that no one will forget.
To find out more about astronomy in Utah’s Canyon Country, visit www.nps.gov. If you want to book a private night sky activity, call each individual park to speak with the rangers in that area.