Just after the sun has dipped behind the mountains in the tiny town of Westcliffe, the world seems to go quiet. All may appear dark but there is an entire other world waiting to be discovered if you’re willing to stay up past your bedtime!
On clear nights, twinkling stars, bright planets, and the elusive milky way, all come out to play and provide a spectacle for the eyes. Unfortunately, if you live in a large city or even a small town it is hard to see all the wonderment the night sky offers, this is not the case in Westcliffe, CO.Stargazers gather near the west end of town at Bluff Park, overlooking the Wet Mountain Valley and the Sangre de Cristo mountains. The views here are undeniable during the day with ranches dotting the valley floor and jagged mountain peaks rising high into the clouds. But the real show starts at night when a thick blanket of stars appears, lighting up the night sky.
Westcliffe and the adjoining town of Silver Cliff are the pinnacle in the United States of a movement called Dark Sky. This international movement seeks to ensure future generations can see the Milky Way the way our ancestors once did. As the first internationally recognized dark sky community in Colorado, 9th in the world, and the highest anywhere, Westcliffe and the adjoining town of Silver Cliff are the darkest towns in Colorado, perfect for stargazing.
What does it take to be a Dark Sky Community?
There are only 20 dark sky communities in the world. Westcliffe and Silver Cliff are Colorado’s only certified Dark Sky Communities. To become an IDA International Dark Sky Community the town or city must adhere to strict implementation and enforcement of a quality outdoor lighting ordinance, like adding shielding units to outdoor lights so that light is being directed down and not up. The intent of this organization is to help preserve and protect dark skies through responsible lighting policies and public education.
So how did Westcliffe and Silver Cliff earn this notable designation of an International Dark Sky Community? Situated between two parallel mountain ranges, the Wet Mountains and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains block out most of the skyglow from nearby cities such as Colorado Springs, Cañon City, and Pueblo. Also due to the altitude, sitting at 8,000 feet plus brings you closer to the stars than any other Dark Sky community in North America.
The Smokey Jack Observatory
Tucked away in the Southwest corner of Westcliffe’s Bluff Park sits a small building with a retractable roof, called the Smokey Jack Observatory. Here visitors can discover an up-close look at the moon, colliding galaxies, Saturn’s ring, and different colored stars, all through the state-of-the-art, 14-inch computerized telescope.
There are several ways in which to enjoy Colorado’s dark skies at the observatory. Reserve the SJO for a free, private viewing with the help of their trained, knowledgeable Star Guides. Donations are accepted as this is completely funded by the community and visitor donations. Email firstname.lastname@example.org to make your reservation.
Or join them May through October for one of their dark sky parties. Each party is centered around current astronomical events and are posted on their website.
Over the years it has become increasingly difficult to see the billions of stars that come out at night, let alone the Milky Way, near any metro area. It is estimated that 80% of the population in the United States and Canada live where light pollution blocks the views from the stars and Milky Way. Because of this, there are many kids that will never see the Milky Way and so it is a commitment made by the town of Westcliffe and Silver Cliff to preserve and protect our night sky for future generations to see.