Light pollution has changed the way that many of us experience the night sky. Depending on where you are, you might see a smattering of stars, or only the ones that shine the brightest. But that’s not the case in Westcliffe, Colorado.
The former mining town in central Colorado’s Wet Mountain Valley embarked on a mission to keep its skies free from light pollution. Together, the neighboring towns of Westcliffe and Silver Cliff make up one of 36 Dark Sky Communities in the world, five of which are located in Colorado. These communities work hard to keep the skies clear of light pollution, and the result is an unobstructed celestial landscape. At just under 8,000 feet in elevation, Westcliffe and Silver Cliff are the highest-altitude Dark Sky Community in the world.
Built in 2015, Westcliffe’s observatory is named for beloved stargazer Suzanne B. Jack, a.k.a. Smokey Jack, who helped found the Dark Skies of the Wet Mountain Valley. It has a retractable roof and telescope to track the night sky.
The observatory hosts events throughout the year including stargazing parties, star festivals, photography workshops, and prime views for astronomical events like comets and meteor showers. For those who can’t make it in person, the observatory also offers virtual star parties, which give visitors a chance to learn more about the starry skies. A 14-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope uses computer-guided pointing and tracking. A camera attached to the telescope projects live images onto a 10-foot screen located in the site’s recently-built amphitheater.
“This need to seek out the stars has been fueled by the realization that they’ve been there the whole time,” John Barentine, director of public policy at the International Dark Sky Association told Men’s Journal. “We just haven’t been paying attention.”
Know Before You Go
In addition to the free public star parties, there are also private events, which require reservations. These can be done through the Dark Skies Colorado website.