As the sun disappears behind the red rock cliffs after a day of adventuring in southeastern Utah, the stage is set for another world-class outdoor experience – observing celestial bodies under skies so dark they’ve earned international recognition.
On Saturday, July 29, from 9:30 to 11:30 p.m., visitors and local residents are invited to visit the Bar M Trailhead for a free Night Sky event, “Exploring Other Worlds.” The event will begin at sundown, and attendees should expect a late night as the summer sky doesn’t become completely dark until close to 10 p.m., according to Jenna Giddens, an interpretive field operations supervisor for both Arches and Canyonlands national parks.
Rangers trained in astronomy will open the event with a presentation about moons and exoplanets, which are planets in other solar systems. Afterward, they’ll guide attendees in a “tour” of the constellations, an opportunity to learn more about cyclical changes in the observable night sky due to the orbit of the Earth and other celestial bodies.
The most exciting part of the evening for many people is looking through telescopes set up to focus on features invisible to the naked eye. The rangers who lead the events choose features of personal interest to share with their guests, which makes every event unique, Giddens said.
“It’s really rewarding to help people see and understand more about the night sky,” Arches National Park Guide Alice de Anguera added. “So many people have never seen this many stars or never looked through a telescope, and this is a big deal, something really special that is no longer available for people at home.”
No special knowledge or equipment is necessary to enjoy the evening, she added. All that is necessary is a dark location and “your own eyes.”
The parks in the Moab region enjoy skies so free of light pollution that several of them have achieved the designation of “International Dark Sky Park” by the International Dark Sky Association (IDSA) in recent years. Skies relatively free of light pollution are only one requirement to achieve the designation. Designated Dark Sky parks also must retrofit lighting systems for best practices in light-pollution mitigation, and commit to sharing with visitors education about the value of dark skies for the well-being of wildlife and humans, with programs like the Night Sky events.
Utah boasts nine state and national parks with the designation – more than any other state, province or region in the world, according to the IDSA. This summer, Antelope Island State Park received the designation, following Dead Horse Point State Park and Goblin Valley State Park last year. Although Arches National Park has not yet received the designation, designated dark sky parks near Moab include Canyonlands National Park and Natural Bridges and Hovenweep national monuments.
Dead Horse Point State Park Assistant Manager Crystal White, one of the rangers who will present at the event, enjoys sharing with visitors a night-sky experience like those she remembers from childhood, she said.
Growing up in rural Freedom, Wyoming, just outside Jackson, the night sky was so clear she could make out purples and greens in the Milky Way, she said. Today, skies so free of light pollution are in areas too remote for most people to visit.
“When people come here, it’s really striking to see (the night sky) for the first time,” White said. “It’s like coming home.”
The three major parks in the Moab area, Arches and Canyonlands national parks and Dead Horse Point State Park, collaborate to present four to eight Night Sky events every season, often attracting as many as 200 visitors for the unique opportunity, de Anguera said.
“A dark sky full of stars is something every generation of humans (until very recently) has known and enjoyed,” she said. “It has been a privilege to learn enough to be able to share this with our visitors.”
Park rangers host free Night Sky event on July 29
“So many people have never seen this many stars or never looked through a telescope, and this is a big deal, something really special that is no longer available for people at home.”
When: Saturday, July 29, from 9:30 to 11:30 p.m.
Where: Bar M Trailhead, off U.S. Highway 191 about 9 miles north of Moab
The Bar M Trailhead is located off U.S. Highway 191 about 9 miles north of Moab. For more information, go to: www.nps.gov/arch/planyourvisit/calendar.htm.