As coyotes yipped in the distance, our band of star gazers gathered in front of the ruined Spanish mission at Quarai. It had been a warm shorts and tee shirts sort of spring day. But when the sun set the temperature plummeted into the 40s. I was glad I had worn my winter coat and even happier when I found a forgotten pair of gloves in the pocket.
The juxtaposition of the crumbling mission walls and the sleek telescopes strategically located around the grounds offered interesting photo ops and as it got darker, the view of the unimaginably black sky and endless stars became more and more hypnotic.
Volunteers from The Albuquerque Astronomical Society were on hand to operate the telescopes and help us understand the heavens. They zeroed in on specific stars like Rigel and Betelgeuse, traced the outlines of ancient constellations and made sure we didn’t miss the satellites whizzing across the sky. The moon wasn’t up but that didn’t matter because we got a good look at four of Jupiter’s moons.
Of course I was familiar with light pollution. I’ve spent most of my adult life in or near cities. However, I did not understand what real darkness was until that chilly evening at Quarai. The experience of gazing at the stars will stay with me a long time. It is the essence of what is known as Dark Skies Tourism.
Dark Skies programs are designed for the growing number of “darkness seekers” who are willing to travel to remote locations to view the night sky. For example more than a dozen tourist observatories have opened in northern Chile home to the clearest skies in the world. There is even a governing organization, the International Dark Skies Association, which certifies places as Dark Sky Parks or Sanctuaries.
According to the Association’s website officially designated Dark Sky Parks and Sanctuaries must offer “an exceptional or distinguished quality of starry nights and a nocturnal environment that is specifically protected for its scientific, natural, educational, cultural heritage, and/or public enjoyment.” Dark Sky Sanctuaries are found in very remote locations while Dark Sky Parks are usually more accessible.
In addition to proving their night skies are sufficiently dark, designated Dark Sky sites must also work to avoid light pollution. Lights are turned on only when absolutely necessary and only in areas that need to be illuminated. Lights should not be brighter than needed, must minimize blue light emissions and must be fully shielded, which means the lights point downward.
If the idea of becoming a darkness seeker appeals to you, you don’t need to travel to Chile. With our low humidity, 300-plus sunny days a year, sparse population and clean air, New Mexico offers some of the clearest skies in North America. We have four officially designated Dark Sky Parks and one Dark Sky Sanctuary where you’ll see countless stars. Depending on the location you choose and the time of year you visit, you may also see the Milky Way, the moon, various planets, meteor showers, satellites and the International Space Station.
Although the night sky is the main attraction, it’s not the only reason to visit a Dark Sky site. You may also see nocturnal animals and plants that are hidden during the day.
Many flowers turn their heads to follow the sun, but others are at their best under starlight alone. The evening primrose blooms at night, sending out a powerful scent to attract nighttime pollinators like the sphinx moth. Once this goal has been accomplished, these delicate blooms wither away in the morning sun--often lasting only a single night. Remember: half the park is after dark!
Each of New Mexico’s official Dark Sky sites offers interesting daytime activities as well. Whether you like hiking, photography, geology, dinosaurs or ancient ruins, you’re sure to have a fascinating experience. Come early, stay late and bring the kids.
Plan Your Visit
The International Dark Skies Association has lots of information and links to Dark Skies programs worldwide.
In New Mexico
Explore a relatively young volcanic cinder cone. Drive or hike to the rim. Learn about volcanism, geology and wildlife. Located in northeast New Mexico, Capulin Volcano National Monument is managed by the National Park Service and is an official Dark Sky Park. Check with the park for information on Dark Sky programs and other events.
Chaco Canyon is one of the world’s premier archeological sites. It contains the largest concentration of ancient Pueblo ruins in the Southwest. The National Park Service invites visitors to “explore Chaco through guided tours, hiking and biking trails, evening campfire talks, and night sky programs.” Chaco Culture National Historical Park is located in northwestern New Mexico. Check with the park for information on Dark Sky programs and other events.
Clayton Lake is a New Mexico State Park. It is located in the rolling grasslands of northeastern New Mexico. Visitors enjoy boating, fishing, camping, picnicking and hiking. Clayton Lake is the site of one of the most extensive dinosaur trackways in North America. Dark Sky programs are held lakeside. Check with the park for information on Dark Sky programs and other events.
Located in central New Mexico near the small town of Mountainair, the Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument consists of four separate units: the remains of three 17th century Spanish missions at Abo, Gran Quivira and Quarai plus a visitors’ center in Mountainair. The Dark Skies programs are held at Quarai, which is where several of the photos accompanying this post were taken. The Salinas Pueblo National Monument is managed by the National Park Service. Check with the park for information on Dark Sky programs and other events.
New Mexico’s only Dark Sky Sanctuary is the wonderfully named Cosmic Campground in the Gila National Forest, 3.3 million acres of forested hills, mountains and range land in western New Mexico. One of the darkest places in North America, this remote campground offers unparalleled views of the night sky. The Gila National Forest is managed by the US Department of Agriculture. Contact the park for information on campsite availability and reservations as well as a description of what is and is not provided on site. They also have the details about Dark Sky programs and other events.
The Albuquerque Astronomical Society describes itself as “one of the largest and most active amateur astronomy clubs anywhere.” They organize lots of free educational events including star viewing parties and evenings in the University of New Mexico’s Observatory on the main campus in Albuquerque. Check their site for more information and a calendar of events.