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‘Reach up and touch the stars:’ The dark is starting to shine through Colorado’s astrotourism

Lake Fork Valley Conservancy starts ambitious project to transform park into a nocturnal classroom
Katherine Heidt, left, and Phillip Virden, who are part of the Lake Fork Valley Conservancy in Lake City, educate the public about the importance of preserving the dark sky and are part of a project that will add a research observatory near a dark sky park in the region. (Hugh Carey/The Colorado Sun)

LAKE CITY – Minute by minute, a deep purple sky streaked with waves of gold and pink across the horizon drifted into darkness, the last traces of the sun slipping below the jagged peaks of the eastern San Juan Mountains. Slowly, and then all at once, it emerged: the first star, faintly visible in a sky just beginning to embrace nightfall.

Phillip Virden, cast in a silhouette, stood below Arcturus, ready to point his laser beam from star to star, a couple dozen astrotourists draped in blankets staring up at him and the boundless sky where star after star blinked into view.

“Your job is to start looking up,” Virden, a self-taught astronomer, told the small crowd, between spilling facts about how the planets appear in the sky and how ancient cultures used constellations as a guide for planting and harvesting crops as well as to inform their spirituality.

The Wednesday night stargazing gathering at a lookout called Windy Point, about 9 miles southeast of Lake City where fewer than 500 people live year-round, was a first for some of the attendees. They ascended to the lookout to gaze at constellations and planets just a few days ahead of the peak of the Perseid meteor shower, an event that sends meteors soaring across the night sky every summer. One Perseid meteor streaked across the sky that night.

Lake City resident Phillip Virden leads a stargazing session Wednesday night with guests at Windy Point. (Hugh Carey/The Colorado Sun)

For Virden, head of a personal education initiative called Lake City Skies and a dark skies coordinator for the Lake Fork Valley Conservancy, the weekly Dark Sky Parties are a staple of his summers and one way he is working to shed light on the importance of the dark.

Virden, 71, along with conservancy staff is embarking on an ambitious project intended to transform the conservancy’s dark sky designated park into a nocturnal classroom where visitors and researchers can gather to peer upward to the canopy of constellations and planets illuminated by the night. For many stargazers, a glance upward in the dark sky park offers a moment to ground themselves in stillness, feel connected to something bigger and find a glimmer of hope in an otherwise turbulent world. But the dark sky has equally important impacts on health and the ecosystem.

“It’s now ingrained in me to look at dark sky preservation as part of the whole ecosystem protection,” said Camille Richard, executive director of the conservancy. “You can’t separate the two. It’s not just protecting it so you can see the Milky Way. It’s protecting it so that we can maintain biodiversity.”

Monkey Head Nebula (Phillip Virden/Special to The Colorado Sun)
Dumbbell Nebula. (Phillip Virden/Special to The Colorado Sun)
Andromeda Galaxy (Phillip Virden/Special to The Colorado Sun)
A dark sky destination for researchers and novice astronomers alike

The conservancy’s park, a 58-acre plot of land known as the Lake Fork Earth and Sky Center, earned its designation as a dark sky park from the International Dark-Sky Association in 2020, two years after it applied for that status. The property went under conservation easement with dark sky restrictions in 2021, following a strict lighting plan that mandates lights out at a certain time and also dictates that park lights be shielded and pointed downward, Richard said.

“We’re becoming recognized as a dark sky destination,” Richard said, noting that dark sky programs have been some of the most popular among the pilot programs the conservancy has operated this summer. Virden’s Wednesday night Dark Sky Parties at Windy Point, for instance, have drawn up to 40 participants.

Colorado is also gaining status as a leader in the dark skies, with 15 locations already designated as dark sky zones by the International Dark-Sky Association and a bunch more in the process to become certified, said Aaron Watson, chair of the board of the International Dark-Sky Association Colorado chapter.

The state is becoming a “showcase of dark sky places because of our amazing view of the night sky and the Milky Way,” said Watson, who lives in Paonia.

Virden and Richard both understand the rarity of being able to clearly see stars upon stars blazing in the night. Eighty percent of the North American population can’t see the Milky Way Galaxy, Virden said, and that’s part of the motivation to preserve the dark sky that remains for future generations.

Their project is moving slowly. But there are plans for a 10,000-square-foot building in the park that will serve as an environmental learning center, where organized groups can visit to learn about the skies and where the conservancy will run dark sky programs for kids. The center will also house the conservancy’s offices, bunk rooms, a commercial kitchen, showers for campers and possibly a planetarium, Richard said.

The land, about 3 miles south of Lake City at the base of Slumgullion Pass on Colorado 149, already holds a 30-foot yurt where the conservancy hosts educational and fundraising events as well as campsites that are mostly developed. And the nonprofit may install additional yurts to accommodate more education groups that want to stay overnight and catch more than a glimpse of the twinkling dark sky.

There also is a 5-acre observation site at the top of Slumgullion Pass that the conservancy is in the process of leasing from the U.S. Forest Service. At an elevation of about 11,000 feet, the bit of land is free of light pollution and thrusts stargazers into the middle of a 360-degree view of constellations, planets, meteors and other skyward wonders, leaving them awe-struck in every direction they turn.

“I feel like I can reach up and touch the stars,” Virden said.

A structure left over from a former campground on Slumgullion Pass. The lot is planned for a 5-acre observation site. (Hugh Carey/The Colorado Sun)

Long term, the conservancy aims to enhance the land with a research observatory outfitted with a telescope. It also hopes to partner with universities and astronomy clubs who can support the improvements. It also plans to create a public observation deck, where visitors can perch to observe the sky and learn about astronomy, dark skies and light pollution. The nonprofit also hopes to get dark-sky designation for the swath of land. Even without the label, Richard said it operates as a “dark sky campground,” guided by International Dark-Sky Association rules.

The conservancy is currently writing the master plan for the environmental learning center and the dark sky observation site on Slumgullion Pass and fundraising for the large-scale project. The conservancy estimates the learning center alone will run around $7 million. A telescope to anchor the research observatory could easily cost $75,000 to $100,000.

Lake City isn’t alone in protecting dark skies from being washed out by light pollution. Other mountain towns, including Westcliffe and Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, have received their own dark sky designations.

Thinking further into the future, the conservancy has a goal of partnering with other areas in the region that also carry dark sky designations to create an “astrotourism” byway that would stretch from the San Luis Valley up through Lake City along the north side of the Black Canyon and then link with the north fork of the Gunnison Valley, Richard said. Although the state’s tourism office has assembled a map guiding travelers to prime stargazing sites where the dark sky has been protected, the conservancy envisions a more official dark sky byway that would tie together different dark sky sites so that tourists could travel from spot to spot to soak up the scenery after nightfall.

A map of prime stargazing sites assembled by the Colorado tourism office. (Provided by the Colorado Tourism Office)

Drawing tourists to Lake City for prime-time viewing of the stars and who will help support the town’s economy is one source of local momentum for preserving the dark sky. But more importantly, Richard is determined to educate visitors about the consequences of light pollution so that they will return home and start shutting off their own lights for the sake of the natural environment.

“We’re trying to protect the nocturnal environment, the dark environment, because that’s good for the wildlife and for plants and pollinators and even us,” she said. “Light pollution really affects us.”

Nearly every animal species that has been studied “has a negative impact from light pollution in some way,” said Watson, the dark sky advocate from Paonia, with the biology of all animals affected by artificial light “because that light is such a stimulating force at night.”

Participate in a stargazing class in Lake City point lasers into the night sky to pidentify stars, planets and galaxies on Aug. 10. (Hugh Carey/The Colorado Sun)

Over millions of years, humans have adapted to a circadian rhythm, a 24-hour cycle that is influenced by light and dark, and also adapted to monthly moon cycles, Watson said. Melatonin, a hormone that plays into sleep, is affected by artificial light, which mimics daylight and moonlight and disrupts the natural cycle of light and dark.

Light pollution also is the culprit behind declining populations among insects, such as fireflies, and birds across the world, Watson said. For instance, most birds migrate at night. Light pollution confuses their navigation, he said, causing “devastating impacts” to birds in migration and leading to a sharp drop in bird counts from 30 years ago.

And with the loss of dark sky, comes the loss of something else: our connection to the universe and to those who craned their necks to stare at the stars long before us, Virden said. He recounted how a variety of ancient cultures relied on constellations and how the stars have influenced music and art through the ages, and he nudged the astrotourists gathered for his Wednesday night Dark Sky Party to let their imaginations take hold while observing the sky gleaming with stars.

“It’s ingrained in our DNA,” he said, adding, “We’re part of this incredible universe ... and to have light pollution deter that connection, we’re losing something very, very valuable.”

When Virden, who learned the night sky by taking star walks at 3 a.m. and 4 a.m., stands high up on Slumgullion Pass in the darkness, he still feels overwhelmed by the endless stretches of stars.

“Life is sacred,” he said. “We take it for granted too often, but doing this connection with the night sky, the next morning you just look at the world differently and appreciate it more.”

Orion Nebula (Phillip Virden/Special to The Colorado Sun)
Trifid Nebula (Phillip Virden/Special to The Colorado Sun)
Whirlpool Galaxy (Phillip Virden/Special to The Colorado Sun)

Michele Thomas, who lives in Texas and was visiting a childhood friend in Colorado last week, slowed down her evening Wednesday to share in that communion with the dark sky. She echoes concerns about light pollution undermining the dark sky, acknowledging that without a serious focus on preserving the dark sky, it will be impossible to enjoy without a telescope or observatory.

As she sunk back in her chair and scanned the world around her, shifting her eyes among the bright moon, Saturn and a variety of constellations, she was struck by the vastness unfurling before her.

“You can’t see any of this during the day,” Thomas said, “but you know it’s still out there and then the sun goes down and, whoa, everything changes.”

The Colorado Sun is a reader-supported, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to covering Colorado issues. To learn more, go to coloradosun.com.