Ever since Ann Donoghue became president of the Northern Colorado Astronomical Society, she’s harbored an obsessive hatred for bad lighting.
Any lamp that spews light into the sky, instead of, say, onto a sidewalk, or puts out enough light to rival the sun earns some gnashing teeth from Donoghue, who lives in Fort Collins.
“It drives me nuts,” she said.
Of course, she’s supposed to notice those things. That bad lighting, what stargazers call light pollution, prevents us from seeing all but the brightest stars.
Donoghue hates bright lights more than Gizmo, but she isn’t as star crazy as you might think. She doesn’t own a telescope big enough for you to see Russia from your house or a galaxy far, far away (although some in her organization do have one). She prefers to bring a good but simple pair of binoculars and travel to some dark place.
Finding those dark places, in fact, is the most important part of any stargazing trip.
“It’s like birding,” Donoghue said. “You’re out to see as many things as you can.”
(There’s a list, by the way, for amateur astronomers to check off nebulas and other features of the night sky the same way a birder might check off a Forty-spotted Pardalote.)
A dark sky black enough to show off the Milky Way is an endangered species in Colorado, thanks to all those bright lights, especially in urban centers. The metro area is the biggest culprit, of course — Donoghue even sees that glow from Cheyenne 60 miles away when she’s out on a stargazing trip — but bad lighting can blot out stars anywhere.
Even so, there are many places in Colorado you can go that will offer up a good show, and a few dark places left in the state where you can see the Milky Way. And they’re not as far as you think.
Rocky Mountain National Park, for instance, is an hour away for most folks, and in the summer the park hosts night sky programs through August. (After a busy summer, Cynthia Langguth, RMNP’s night sky coordinator and park ranger, said there may be classes this fall. Check the website for more details.) There are many lookout spots, and the park even works with Estes Park and Grand Lake to dim their lights and keep the night sky dark in the park, Langguth said.
“The less tangible things the park tries to preserve can be more challenging, such as fresh water or clean air or the night sky because we don’t have as much control over those,” Langguth said. “But even then, that makes our night sky even more valuable and a springboard to talk about the value of darkness on so many levels, to our animals and plant life but also as our place in the universe.”
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The night sky remains vulnerable even when a metro area remains relatively far away. Pawnee National Grassland near Greeley was a popular place to stargaze, but it was dimmed by oil and gas development, Donoghue said. Now, those oil rigs are in place at last, so the bright lights are mostly gone again.
Many stargazers prefer to camp on the Pawnee, which is allowed within 300 feet of most Forest Service roads on public land. The Pawnee is a mix of public and private land, so campers may need a visitor map, said Reghan Cloudman, spokeswoman for the U.S. Forest Service. Many others prefer the relative comfort of the nearby Crow Valley Campground, which offers a view dark enough to see the Milky Way.
“Obviously the farther out you go, the fewer lights there are,” Cloudman said.
Residents of some darker towns in Colorado hope to preserve the night sky. Phillip Virden was living in Texas in the early 1970s when he took his first camping trip to Lake City and saw the Milky Way for the first time. He’s been a resident ever since, and owns the town’s movie theater.
“I looked up and thought, ‘What in the world is that?’ ” Virden said. “I was deeply moved.”
He’s since worked to get the town certified by the International Dark Sky Association, an organization that works to preserve the darkest corners of the world and raise awareness about light pollution.
“That dark sky designation would be wonderful,” Virden said, “but the real idea is to increase awareness about it. The problem is getting worse, and people aren’t even aware of it. I think it’s an urgent matter.”
The good news, Virden said, is that the interest to keep our skies dark way is growing.
“I’ve visited so many of these places, and they’re wonderful,” he said. “The night sky is for everyone.”
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