Utah dark skies offering star-gazers clearer views

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Antelope Island, pictured above, is one of 22 designated dark sky places in Utah. Despite being located near an urban center, low light levels on the island make star-gazing possible. (Dallin Wilks)

Utah residents can find prime star-gazing at any of the state’s 22 designated dark sky places made possible by measures taken to lower light pollution.

According to the International Dark-Sky Association, Utah boasts the greatest concentration of “dark sky places” in the world. However, efforts to preserve dark sky places are ongoing. Light pollution, which is defined by the association as “the inappropriate or excessive use of artificial light,” is the biggest hindrance to the dark sky receiving a dark sky official designation.

Shelby Stock, director of Utah State Parks dark sky programming, said qualifying for a dark sky designation is a lengthy and in-depth process. Stock works closely with Jordanelle State Park and said Jordanelle had been working on its designation since 2016.

Despite receiving the designation in January of this year, maintaining low levels of light pollution is an ongoing process for Jordanelle. “They are still working on it. The International Dark-Sky Association doesn’t expect Jordanelle to be perfect right off the bat, so they give them about 10 years to retrofit all of their lighting,” Stock said.

Stock explained the ongoing adjustments to reduce light pollution including installing motion-activated and orange-toned lighting, as well as incorporating educational outreach programs for park visitors. While these efforts are leading to more exciting star-gazing, the need for dark sky preservation goes beyond the stunning views.  

“Beyond the aesthetic, light pollution, especially in urban centers, impacts sleep cycles as well as the quality of the sleep. It affects animals as well,” physics and astronomy professor Benjamin Boizelle said. “The urban crawl has led to some of the better dark sky places west of Utah Lake to be affected by some of the city lights.”

BYU Astronomical Society President Jason Trump said he feels that light pollution has cultural impacts in addition to biological and astronomical consequences. 

“What is happening is that humans are losing their connection with the night sky,” Trump said. “Astronomy has always played a role in human life. There is something human about seeing the night sky, seeing the Milky Way and seeing the stars.”

A clear view of the Milky Way, found at Antelope Island, is made possible through the reduction of light pollution. (Dallin Wilks)

There are many designated dark places in Utah for star-gazers:

Antelope Island

From its position on the Great Salt Lake, the island is home to interesting wildlife, aptly named for the antelope, bison, mule deer and big-horn sheep that roam its surface. With the mountains in the distance, star-gazers have access to a wide-open dark sky experience not far from the hustle and bustle of Salt Lake City. Antelope Island is accessible by a causeway via Antelope Drive off I-15 in Layton.

Rockport State Park 

Star-gazing enthusiasts visiting Park City only need to look a little north to find the dark skies of Rockport State Park. The smaller park is a hidden gem and a year-round attraction, with boating and fishing activities in the summer, and snowmobiling and ice-fishing in the winter. Rockport Park is east of Salt Lake City, accessible by exit 155 from I-80 and traveling five miles southeast on SR 32.

Zion National Park

As the most recent addition to Utah’s full repertoire of dark sky designations, Zion’s majesty in the daylight now can be equaled at night. In June, Zion became the last of the so-called “Mighty Five” national parks located in Utah to receive this official designation from the International Dark-Sky Association. Zion National Park is located on State Route 9 in Springdale, accessible by I-15 South Exit 27.

The Visit Utah website has more information and resources on Utah dark sky places.

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