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North Park Skies

Author: Marc Honnecke, North Park Local and Star Gazer

North Park still retains some of the darkest night skies in Colorado.   Its low population coupled with clean air and elevations above 8000 feet make for ideal star viewing.   Only under a dark sky, devoid of artificial sky glow, with clear air and higher elevations does the incredibly rich detail of the star clouds and nebula in our Milky Way Galaxy emerge.  It is the ability to see the very faint stars and nebula that transforms the night sky into something spectacular and magnificent.  North Park is fortunate to have all three conditions. On a moonless night with scant cloud cover the views of the night sky are unsurpassed.

As Colorado’s population increases finding dark night sky observing areas has become increasingly difficult.   The North Park Basin is surrounded by mountain ranges: to the East the Medicine Bow and Never Summer ranges block the light pollution from the Northern Front Range cities and Denver area;  to the South the Rabbit Ears Range (a section of the Continental Divide) provides a barrier to the growing skyglow from Grand County and the Summit County urban corridors;  to the West the Park Range (another section of the Continental Divide) provides a barrier to Steamboat Springs’  increasing light pollution; and to the North the Snowy Range and sparsely populated Albany County, Wyoming.  While it may seem counterintuitive, it is the horizontal component of artificial outdoor light spill, not the vertical that is, by far, the major contributor to sky glow and light pollution.  North Park owes its dark night sky to the light blocking effect of our surrounding mountain ranges.

North Park contributes only a limited amount of ‘in-house’ light pollution; the two areas most affected by artificial outdoor lighting are the Town of Walden and the oil extraction pumping complex located some 12 miles to the south of Walden on State Highway 14.   The darkest areas, least impacted by artificial light, occur to the northwest of Walden towards the Wyoming border.   On the simplified artificial light pollution scale where 0 represents the darkest and best possible natural sky and each numbered level represents a twofold increase in sky glow, the majority of North Park is Level 1 and Level 2.  The northwest area of North Park near Pearl is a perfect 0.  Walden reaches Level 6 as does the oil extraction site.  For comparison, Steamboat Springs and Craig reach Level 9, Ft Collins and Cheyenne Level 11 and Denver and Colorado Springs reach or surpass Level 13.  At these higher light pollution levels all but the brightest stars and planets are lost in the bright sky glow. At the lower 0 and 1 levels the acuity of each individual’s eye becomes the limiting factor.

Some 60 percent of North Park is public land so there are ample sites and areas to set up a portable telescope or pair of binoculars or just a camp chair under the stars.   National Forest and Bureau of Land Management {BLM} lands are ideal spots for a night or more of star viewing.  For astrophotographers the mountain topography provides a rich choice of backgrounds to frame photographs.

If you live in the well-lit Northern Front Range, North Park offers an ideal location for star gazing—ample dark sky, public land and relatively short drive.  Please help keep our night sky dark by letting the folks at the Jackson County Chamber of Commerce or our County Commissioners know that North Park’s dark night sky was one of the attributes that brought you here.

Photo by: Josh Milek

Photo by: Josh Milek

The Milky Way from the south end of Jackson County by Nikki Morgan

Milky Way over Buffalo Mountain by Nikki Morgan

Neowise above our western mountains By Nikki Morgan

Troublesome Fire by Nikki Morgan

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