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Utah boasts the densest concentration of designated Dark Sky places on the planet

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                                A hiker at the Double Arch formation in Arches National Park in Utah in February.


    A hiker at the Double Arch formation in Arches National Park in Utah in February.

                                The Milky Way seen from Arches National Park in Utah in February.


    The Milky Way seen from Arches National Park in Utah in February.

                                A view of Venus and Balanced Rock as the sun is about to rise in Arches National Park in Utah in February.


    A view of Venus and Balanced Rock as the sun is about to rise in Arches National Park in Utah in February.

                                A sunrise view above the Wall Street Overlook formation in Arches National Park in Utah in February.


    A sunrise view above the Wall Street Overlook formation in Arches National Park in Utah in February.

At 4:30 a.m. on Jan. 17, 1994, a magnitude 6.7 earthquake caused a citywide power outage in Los Angeles. I lived there at the time and was among the many Angelenos who made their way outside, looked up and found a spectacular sight: a vast blanket of stars that had been blotted out for generations by light pollution. It was reported that some people were so bewildered by the diaphanous Milky Way, they called 911 and the Griffith Observatory to report strange, unidentified objects in the sky. I only remember being awestruck.

Roughly 99% of the people living in the United States and Europe see only a dim approximation of stars in the night sky, nothing close to the bright firmament that our ancestors witnessed before humans harnessed electricity. The New World Atlas of Artificial Night Sky Brightness, the study that reported the findings, also found that 83% of the world’s population cannot see a naturally dark sky because of the light emanating from cities.

Armed with those statistics, I found myself again looking skyward last October, this time lying face up on a long stone slab at Arches National Park in Utah. Surrounded by strangers, I was trying to locate the Pleiades star cluster, also known as the Seven Sisters, and our nearest spiral galaxy, Andromeda. My first trip in two years since the pandemic required a destination that felt new and otherworldly. As it turns out, that is Utah with its biblical terrain and preternatural cobalt sky, a sky that also happens to be ablaze with stars at night.

Arches National Park is one of 200 International Dark Sky Places, each designated by the Arizona-based International Dark Sky Association, or IDA — a group of astronomers, evolutionary biologists and conservationists that promotes awareness of light pollution and its effects on wildlife, climate change and human health.

For Bettymaya Foott, an astrophotographer and director of engagement for IDA, the detrimental effects of light pollution are profound: “To me, one of the most significant ways it affects us as humans is that it decreases our connection with the universe,” she said. “With all of the divisions going on, looking up to the night sky connects us to the biggest mystery in our world and helps us get in touch with the fact that we are all humans on spaceship Earth.”

In 2001, the IDA began awarding Dark Sky designations to communities, parks, reserves and sanctuaries. To receive the coveted designation, Dark Sky Places must pass through a rigorous application process that includes controlling the directional flow of outdoor lighting, the use of timers, limiting sign illumination and other policies, including ongoing community education.

There are now Dark Sky Places in 51 countries, including the United States, Canada, Britain, Taiwan, the Netherlands, Namibia, Chile, Denmark and the tiny island nation of Niue in the South Pacific. Several U.S. cities have been designated Dark Sky Communities, 26 in all, including Flagstaff and Sedona, Ariz., and Ketchum, Idaho, along with smaller towns such as Homer Glen, Ill., and Horseshoe Bay, Texas. The IDA also lists 89 designated parks, reserves and sanctuaries in the United States. Among them is Arches National Park, one of Utah’s 15 officially designated Dark Sky Places, the most in one province, state or country in the world.

Beneath a waning moon

In planning my trip to Utah, I took some advice from Foott and scheduled my trip as close as I could to the new moon, when the sky is darkest.

“Light from the moon may seem dim, but it can dramatically alter the nighttime scene,” Foott said. “A new moon is the best time to see faint celestial objects that can be washed-out by moonlight like the Milky Way and faint stars. This can also be achieved when the moon has set, or when the moon is only partially illuminated.”

On the morning of Oct. 4 — as the moon was waning — I deplaned at Salt Lake City International Airport, and headed by car to the town of Moab, about 230 miles southeast and the gateway to Canyonlands and Arches, two of Utah’s “Mighty Five” national parks, which also include Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef and Zion.

In my tiny Ford Fiesta with all the windows down, I got my first glimpse of Utah’s often-photographed sandstone formations, spires, buttes and hoodoos (earth pyramids) as well as the undulating canyons and natural bridges that make the state so geographically vivid. With only a few days away from caring for an elderly parent, I was constrained for time, so I needed to bypass another nearby hub for stargazers, Canyonlands National Park, and concentrate solely on Arches, where I planned to meet up with an old friend, Thom Harrop, a Utah native and photographer.

After hours of driving, and a little grubby, I pulled into the former mining town of Moab, which acts as a base camp for tourists, rock climbers, mountain bikers, hikers and stargazers. A range of restaurants in Moab caters to a variety of tastes while a growing number of hotels serves the needs of those who want to kick about the sandstone and then sleep in crisp sheets, a demographic in which I squarely fall.

While still back home in Tennessee, I heard that a long-utilized ad hoc stargazing site at Arches called Panorama Point had recently been upgraded. Joette Langianese, executive director of the Friends of Arches and Canyonlands Parks, the nonprofit organization that was critical in getting the dark-skies designation for both parks, confirmed that they had built an outdoor sky-viewing space with telescope pads and seating for 75 people.

Fighting light pollution

Five miles past the park’s entrance, we came upon the Courthouse Towers cluster: the Three Gossips, Sheep Rock, the Organ and the Tower of Babel, a 300-foot rock sentinel so close to the road it made me gasp. Utah is unlike any place I’d ever been, the topography so extraordinary it was impossible not to be in a constant state of astonishment. We drove until we got to the Balanced Rock — 128 feet of precariousness — and then made our way to our destination.

We arrived at Panorama Point with the setting sun saturating the sandstone’s varying hues of coral and burnt umber. The overlook is well-suited for stargazing because its position on a hill offers unencumbered views. With some sunlight left, we could see the La Sal Mountains and the Fiery Furnace, a collection of narrow canyons, fins and natural arches near the park’s center.

Stargazing is a year-round activity, Foott said. The cooler seasons are better for air clarity because cold air cannot hold as much moisture as warm air, and a moisture-heavy atmosphere can make the sky hazy. The Milky Way’s galactic core is visible from March through November, when I was there. From November through February, she said, it’s the outer edge of our spiral galaxy that we see.

While Harrop was setting up his camera, I talked with Grace and Jim Bishop, an amiable couple who were voyaging through Utah’s public lands.

“We’re here specifically for this,” Grace Bishop said, motioning skyward. “We’ve wanted to do this for a long time, traveling though the national parks in southern Utah primarily for the night sky.”

They were not alone. People from South Dakota, Missouri, Oklahoma, Florida and New Mexico were there.

Twelve long stone slabs were available in the viewing area, long enough for an adult to lie down on, which is what I did. A young family with two boys under 8 sat on the stone next to me. They were looking at a tablet, then up at the sky, making use of, I gathered, this perfect confluence for a family outing during a pandemic: a beautiful setting, ideal weather and a little digital learning beneath the stars.

As the sun retreated below the horizon, my eyes began to adjust to dusk. Watching the night sky change is something I had never done, and it was more eventful than I expected. Every now and then someone would quietly say “wow” as a planet would come into view: Mercury, Venus, Saturn and massive Jupiter, so bright it looked counterfeit. It was as if we were all at a royal wedding waiting for the bride: the Milky Way.

I had downloaded an app called SkyView for $1.99 that, when held up to the sky, would show and name the planet or star within its view, every sky object imaginable, even the International Space Station. I found the Pleiades star cluster and the Andromeda galaxy. I’d heard that, with binoculars, one could see Andromeda’s spiral, so I brought them out; I couldn’t determine its shape, but then again, I didn’t know we had a “neighboring galaxy” we could see until about a month before my trip.

This sky was so lousy with stars it was difficult to make out anything specific, but my app easily found the constellations Pegasus, Leo, Capricorn and Virgo, my zodiac sign. Even with an overcast sky, or in a bright city, sky-charting apps work because our phones know the date, time and our location, and then, using their compass and gyroscope, they can show us what’s in the sky even if we can’t see it.

I put my phone down, gazed up and recognized that what I had thought was a long and high gossamer-like cloud was, in fact, the dust, gas and billions of stars that make up the Milky Way. Over the next hour it became so pronounced that it was one of the most heart-stoppingly beautiful things I’d ever seen, slightly white and effervescent in certain parts, while in other places, tributaries of purple and gray appeared to be emanating from its center; north, south, east and west were rendered arbitrary as Earth became irrelevant. I stayed for at least another hour because I knew I might not have a chance like this again any time soon.

A few weeks after I returned home, I drove an hour and a half west of Nashville into “the country” and looked up. It was a good night for stars, though chilly, but still not star-spangled.

I put my app to the sky and on my screen viewed the vast firmament of stars that I would have been able to see if it were not for the competing light from the surrounding communities. I wondered if viewing stars through smartphones would ultimately be how we would experience a vivid night sky.

For now, I’ll gladly travel.

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