Shape Divider - Style waves_brush
By Kelsey Sinclair
Turn your eyes to the skies at nearby stargazing destinations. If you've never seen an unadulterated night sky, you'll be awestruck by the sight.
The Milky Way is filled with over 200 billion stars, and since the dawn of humankind, the night sky and our view of the cosmos has captivated us.
But in modern times, society largely lost its connection with the stars as light pollution made viewing them in their full splendor impossible for most. Even small towns and farming communities create plenty of light pollution, which dims our view of the universe.
Due to low population density, clean air, clear skies and high elevations, New Mexico has some of the best night skies in the world, even attracting a number of astrotourists from around the world! Despite the current circumstances, it is often still possible to step outside or even make a short drive out of town to gaze up at New Mexico’s greatest natural wonder.
It has been less than 100 years since the scientific community discovered there are more galaxies than the Milky Way, our home galaxy. As space research and exploration continues, more and more exciting discoveries are being made all the time, making this a great point in human history to gaze at the cosmos.
There are five locations in New Mexico that have “dark sky” certification by the International Dark Sky Association. These sites are 99 percent free of light pollution and often have ranger-led night sky programs. Valles Caldera, a park outside of Santa Fe, is working to obtain dark-sky certification.
“Hopefully things will return closer to normal soon. In the meantime, astronomy is one of those things we can enjoy near home,” said Heidi Morris, president of the Pajarito Astronomers Club in Los Alamos.
Click images to view captions
Here are some wonderful night-sky views within driving range of Santa Fe:
1. Glorieta Mesa, 25 minutes or 20 miles from Santa Fe
Glorieta Mesa, also known as Rowe Mesa, is just outside Santa Fe, and while its skies are still within the city’s light pollution, it is a beautiful rural spot that’s great for a quick stargazing session without having to schedule an overnight trip. From the mesa, visitors have an enchanting view of snow-capped peaks in the distance, rocky ridges and wide-open fields, as well as good visibility for stars.
2. Bandelier National Monument, 50 minutes or 40 miles from Santa Fe
Step back into history and imagine life for the Ancestral Pueblo people as you climb into cliff dwellings and keep your eyes peeled for animal drawings carved into the rock. The fun isn’t over after the hike, though — that's when the show really begins! From one of the three campgrounds, families can view impressive night skies with views of planets and galaxies. On select nights, the park’s rangers bring out powerful telescopes to offer visitors a tour of the night sky! Check their event listings in the future for more information on these events.
3. Chama Valley, 2 hours or 105 miles from Santa Fe
A little town near the Colorado border, Chama is surrounded by ranches and green pastures. With so few people, Chama Valley has retained not only charm but amazing views of the sky. There are several campgrounds around Chama, as well as some inns and lodges if you’re not the type to rough it.
4. Chaco Canyon National Historical Park, 3 hours or 180 miles from Santa Fe
Like Bandelier, Chaco Canyon has a long history of human activity with ruins dating back to the mid 800s AD that sustained human inhabitation for over 300 years. In addition to overnight camping, visitors during the summer months can attend a night-time talk at the park’s observatory and gaze through their huge telescopes. The high-desert landscape here was a center of Ancestral Puebloan culture, full of complex structures with ambitious architecture around the canyon. In 2013, the park was designated as a certified dark sky park by the International Dark Sky Association, making it a world-class stargazing destination as well!
5. Cosmic Campground, 4 hours and 45 minutes or 300 miles from Santa Fe
In the Gila National Forest, in southwestern New Mexico near the Arizona border, the remote Cosmic Campground is a primitive camping area far from any light pollution, making the night sky completely unadulterated. There is no artificial light within 25 miles of the site, making the Milky Way easily visible. There are some primitive bathrooms onsite, but it would be smart to bring a roll of toilet paper, just in case, and some hand sanitizer.
Know before you go
You don’t need any expensive gear or telescopes to have a jaw-dropping view of the cosmos, but there are a few cheap and accessible tools you can bring to make the most of it.
“I think many folks get crossed-up thinking they need an expensive, whiz-bang, fancy computerized telescope,” suggested Peter Lipscomb from Astronomy Adventures in Santa Fe. “They can be expensive and have a big learning curve to be used well consistently. For families with children who want to learn about the night sky, I suggest starting out with a pair of binoculars and a planisphere “If, after a year or so, the passion for the night sky is still present, then it may be time to look into getting a telescope.”
A planisphere is a circular star chart with two disks, rotating from one point. It is used, along with the more basic star charts, to identify stars and constellations in the night sky.
App developers have also put their own spin on the star chart by developing a number of free smartphone apps for stargazers. SkyView Free, for instance, is an app with a sleek and modern feel that shows detailed descriptions of objects in the sky among many other handy features.
Keeping your eyes well-adjusted to the darkness is important for seeing the whole array of stars in the sky, but viewing any white light, like phones, flashlights, or car lights, will spoil the stars for your eyes until they can readjust again, which takes about 30 minutes. Instead of using white light, use red-tinted light to maintain dark adaption.
“You’ve probably experienced looking at bright snow or something similar and then found that it is difficult to see for some time after that. In contrast, when your eyes are dark adapted you can see faint objects well for a long time as long as you don’t expose your eyes to bright lights. It is impressive how well you can see the stars at night after the rods in your eye have settled down from being over-stimulated by bright lights such as headlights, streetlights, and computer screens,” Heidi Morris said.
Whether you have more gear than NASA or only your enthusiasm, viewing the bright night sky is a sight you and your family will never forget.
Join a group
The Pajarito Astronomers is tentatively scheduled to hold Los Alamos County-sponsored dark-sky nights at Spirio Field in White Rock on the following dates: July 18, Aug. 22, Sept. 19, and Oct. 10. The June 20 event has been cancelled due to COVID-19 rules.