COSMIC CONTEMPLATIONS: In Search of Darkness


by Zach Schierl
Cedar Breaks National Monument

Summer is my favorite time to look at the night sky. Not just because it is warmer and less frostbite-y, but because as the temperatures rise, our nighttime gaze turns towards the core of the Milky Way, the brightest and most brilliant portion of our home galaxy.

The sight of a dark, star-filled night sky complete with the Milky Way stretching uninterrupted from horizon to horizon is truly one of our planet’s most stirring sights. Sadly, it is also a scene becoming rapidly endangered. As of 2016, only about 25% of Americans live somewhere dark enough to see the Milky Way from their backyard. The percentage that can see it in its full glory is so small it might as well be zero. Even the lights of a modest urban area like Cedar City can wash out more than 80% of the stars visible to the naked eye, creating a fog of light that is hardly dreamy.

Even the lights of a modest urban area like Cedar City can wash out more than 80% of the stars visible to the naked eye, creating a fog of light that is hardly dreamy

While city dwellers may struggle to see the stars, elsewhere in Utah are vast swaths of land where humanity’s imprint on the night sky is almost non-existent. Places like Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and Capitol Reef National Park are among the only remaining places in the country where you can go at night and see no signs of artificial light anywhere. Utah now has eight certified International Dark Sky Parks, more than any other state. These are county, state, and national parks that have identified by the International Dark Sky Association as ideal places to observe the night sky. One of them is in our own backyard: Cedar Breaks National Monument.

The remote location and high altitude of Cedar Breaks combines to produce one of the darkest, clearest views of the night sky in the area. While the monument was originally set aside in 1933 for its geologic beauty, more and more people are coming to Cedar Breaks specifically to experience the half of the park that comes out after dark. Every Saturday during the summer, the “Dark Rangers” at Cedar Breaks lead visitors on a tour of the night sky, both with the naked eye and a fleet of telescopes. These “star parties” allow visitors from Iron County and around the world the chance to experience the disappearing night for themselves.

Most of us don’t spend much time outside at night anymore, what with our smartphones, tablets, TVs, computers, and electric lights. Yet the night sky has been inspiring our artists, writers, poets, and scientists, for centuries. Just what makes the night sky so special can be hard to comprehend in the modern age, when we so rarely encounter it. At places like Cedar Breaks though, the night sky is on full display and it is easy to see why the stars have moved so many for so long.

The Summer Milky Way from Cedar Breaks National Monument (Zach Schierl/National Park Service)

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