The sky seen at Top of the Pines

Colorado’s Darkest Skies

Two people sit in folding chairs, their telescope between them. They are camping at Jackson Lake State Park to see the stars.

Photo courtesy of 5280 Magazine

If you’re looking at the Colorado sky, it may be increasingly difficult to pick out the namesake of Beetlejuice. Betelgeuse, the tenth brightest star in the night sky and the second brightest star that is part of the Orion constellation. As humans have progressed from the dim light of campfires to the blinding high intensity of halogen, our views of the stars above have often been compromised. Light pollution can confuse wildlife and cause big-city dwellers to barely see the moon, let alone the symphony of stars twinkling overhead. Fortunately, a movement has sprung up to protect the velvety blackness of the earth’s night skies. DarkSky (formerly the International Dark-Sky Association) educates about the harmful effects of light pollution, offers suggestions to mitigate excessive illumination — and points the public to places where they can enjoy star-studded nights gazing up at the wonders of space.

In Colorado, 15 places have formally received DarkSky certification as a Dark Sky Park or Dark Sky Community. The parks are Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Curecanti National Recreation Area, Dinosaur National Monument, Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument, Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, Hovenweep National Monument, Jackson Lake State Park, Mesa Verde National Park, Slumgullion Center, and Top of the Pines, while the communities are Crestone, Norwood, Nucla/Naturita, Ridgway, and Westcliffe/Silver Cliff. Here are a few of our favorites.

The sky filled with stars and meteors during a shower at Jackson Lake

Photo courtesy of the Fort Morgan Times


While our mountains in the West get lots of love, the Eastern Plains can too often be overlooked. An oasis in the high desert, Jackson Lake State Park is anchored by a reservoir with 2,700 surface acres and is a popular spot for birding, boating, and swimming and sunning at one of the state’s all-too-rare sandy beaches. It’s the first designated Dark Sky state park, and the 260 campsites are a peaceful place for stargazing throughout the year. The seasonal marina sells snacks, but the nearest collection of restaurants are half an hour away in Fort Morgan, so pack a cooler! While you’re in the area, be sure to visit the Pawnee National Grassland.

The sky seen at Top of the Pines

Photo courtesy of DarkSky International


Located at the foot of the Sneffels Wilderness Range and convenient to Telluride, Ouray and Ridgway (itself a Dark Sky Community), the 175 acres comprising Top of the Pines were a Girl Scout Camp before being purchased by Ouray County. Now an environmental education and special events site, Top of the Pines is open to the public and is also one of the most coveted wedding venues in the Rockies. It was designated an International Dark Sky Park in 2021. Rustic tent camping is available from May to October, and the Town of Ridgway is a short 15-minute drive.

The night sky filled with stars at Black Canyon

Photo by Greg Owens, courtesy of 5280 Magazine


Want to experience the night skies as the Ancestral Puebloans did a thousand years ago? Head to the southwest corner of the state and do your stargazing from the majesty of Mesa Verde or Hovenweep. Thirty-one first-come, first-served tent sites are offered at Hovenweep (no hookups), while Mesa Verde offers more options, including a lodge. Both are convenient to the quaint town of Cortez, which offers a cute 1950s-style retro motel and access to an award-winning winery.