Explore the night sky on a dark desert hike
Published by Salt Lake City Weekly | 2014
Isn’t it time you explored another Utah-provided national treasure: world-class dark skies? A new-moon night sky in the deep desert is like a mini big bang of beauty; it will crush your heart and expand your soul. Patterns of glowing mist swirl through so many stars that it actually hurts to behold. Short and sweet, these “hikes” will get you away from your car but, as it will be nigh impossible to tear your eyes from the dazzling display in the sky, won’t require you to watch your feet (too closely, that is; no stomping those cryptobiotic-soil crusts in the dark). Bring a headlamp (red light is best for night vision) and bundle up.
Clear skies and moonless nights make for the darkest nights and best visibility. Know what else makes for great night skies? Absolutely nothing—no hotels, no motels, no restaurants. Plan accordingly.
Natural Bridges National Monument
An ancient riverbed below, an infinite arch of sparkling universe above, the stunning Owachomo natural bridge frames one of the most arresting sites on Earth: our galaxy rising—not the sun, not the moon, but the Milky Way. It’s that dark here. The first International Dark Sky Park certified by Dark Sky International in the world, Natural Bridges claims a night 15,000 stars strong. So strong, in fact, you’ll cast a star shadow.
Highway 275, near Blanding, 435-692-1234, ext. 16, $6 vehicle entrance fee. NPS.gov/NaBr
Sunrise to Sunset on the Rim
Bryce Canyon National Park
Choose your own after-hours adventure on the Bryce Canyon Rim Trail. Almost a mile of pavement runs from Sunrise to Sunset Points, and smooth walking lets the stars do the talking. Other portions are a bit rougher and, well, out on the rim, so be careful if you wander that far.
The 7,500 or so stars you’ll see are so pretty that the park throws them a party. Check the schedule on the National Park Service website to catch one of the 142 yearly astronomy programs with the Dark Sky Rangers, who will treat you to 2 1/2 hours of multimedia presentations and time on the telescope.
Highway 63, Bryce Canyon, 435-834-5322, $25 vehicle entrance fee. NPS.gov/BrCa
Cedar Breaks National Monument
Billed as a mini-Bryce, Cedar Breaks is less crowded and, rising over 10,000 feet, is already a little closer to the stars. While the view from the Rampart’s Trail to Spectra Point is magnificent, the cliff-edge rim hike is dicey after dark. For a shorter, safer jaunt under the same bedazzled sky, stroll out to Point Supreme just beyond the visitor center. Don’t worry; they have Dark Sky Rangers and star parties here, too, including a laser-light tour of the constellations.
2390 W. Highway 56, Cedar City, 435-586-0787, $4 per person. NPS.gov/CeBr
Pothole Point and Squaw Flat Campground
Needles District of Canyonlands
Snatch up a spot at Squaw Flat Campground and roll down the road to Pothole Point around dark-thirty. Pothole Point, a slickrock plateau littered with potholes, will bring the heavens to your feet. Wander among the glimmering beauty as the glassy pools double the starry sky. The official trail is 0.6 miles, but the bedrock offers safe meandering. Watch your feet as desert potholes hold delicate ecosystems. Head back to camp and continue reveling.
Highway 211, near Moab, 435-259-4711, $10 vehicle entrance fee. NPS.gov/Cany
Capitol Reef National Park near Torrey
The most elusive prize in stargazing is catching the exact moment when the faint glimmer of that first star appears. The gorgeous desert panorama at Sunset Point is the perfect spot to try. Head out a third of a mile to take in the entire evening show, from sunset to full-on star-bright night: the sun sinking low over the warm-hued Waterpocket Fold, the color-wheeled sky fading to black by degrees, that faint magical twinkle—make a wish!
16 Scenic Drive, Torrey, 435-425-3791, ext. 4111, $5 vehicle entrance fee. NPS.gov/CaRe