Colorado Dark Sites
Although my backyard in Colorado Springs is pretty dark for an essentially suburban location, and pretty high up at about 6350 feet, it's a lot more fun to travel into the mountains to some really dark sites for astrophotography. Fortunately, Colorado offers some excellent high-altitude locations with very dark skies, and many of these are easily accessible on public lands. Part of the adventure is finding interesting, out of the way sites, and presented here are some of those I've used for astrophotography.
The image above was taken from the Color Landform Atlas of the United States created by Ray Sterner. Used by permission
1) Badger Spring, Badger Flats, Puma Hills These sites are all located within a few miles of each other off of the same back road in the Pike National Forest - about 50 miles west of Colorado Springs and at elevations around 8900 feet. These are not the darkest locations I can find (you can see light domes from Denver and Colorado Springs up to about 15 degrees elevation), and they can be quite crowded with cattle on occasion, but theyíre much darker than my yard, and close enough for one night outings. 39 deg 03.162 min N, 105 deg 28.165 min W, 8876 feet elevation.
2) South Park. This is a huge basin at about 8800 feet maybe, another 10 miles or so west of the Pike NF sites. There is no cover out here, but man, is it dark and there are no obstructions. I donít use this area anymore due to the frequently high winds, but I did take my first ever "tracked" astrophoto at this site - of Hale-Bopp using a two-arm barn door drive.
3) San Luis Lakes State Park Just over three hours from Colorado Springs, San Luis Lakes State Park sits in the San Luis Valley alongside the magnificent Sangre De Cristo ("Blood of Christ") mountain range. This site features very dark skies, but is one of the coldest sites I've used, despite being nearly 5000 feet lower than a high site like Cottonwood Pass. At night in the winter, the lake makes spectacular and eerie sounds - groaning, creaking, and crackling as the ice moves in the bitter cold.
4) Mirror Lake This has got to be one of the finest sites an astrophotographer can find. Itís at 11,000 feet in the Gunnison National Forest, about 130 miles west of Colorado Springs. It is exceptionally dark here, and has had the best seeing conditions Iíve ever noted. Because of the elevation and remoteness of this site, it is unavailable after the first heavy snow in Fall until around May or June.
5) Goodenough & Dogfish Reservoirs This site is at the end of a dead-end, 3-mile stretch of 4WD road, itself near the end of a long and remote forest road, in the Grand Mesa National Forest at an elevation of 10,500 feet. The route to this site is circuitous and long (maybe 230 miles from home), and I have only used it in combination with planned camping and fishing trips with my wife. Nevertheless, this site is just as good as the Mirror Lake site, and just as inaccessible in Winter and Spring.
6) Cimarron River/Owl Creek Pass Running north out of the San Juan Mountains in southwest Colorado, the Cimarron River joins the Gunnison River to head west, eventually joining the Colorado. Up high, the river is formed by three main forks, called the East Fork, Middle Fork, and West Fork (pretty clever, eh?). Each of these forks has a bad road along it, surrounded by jagged peaks, ridges and pinnacles. The meadows near the top of the West Fork are particularly beautiful in July, when masses of wildflowers are in bloom. Just to the west lies Owl Creek Pass, another of many back road mountain passes in Colorado.
7) Cottonwood Pass Now this is a high site! It's on the border of the San Isabel and Gunnison National Forests, which runs along the continental divide up the Sawatch Range and Collegiate Peaks. Just west of the summit of the 12,126-foot pass is a small scenic overlook and picnic area at 12,000 feet. The view from the top is breathtaking - guess that's why the Forest Service put a scenic overlook there! There's enough space to set up my gear close to the truck, but out of site of the road, which drops away as it winds down to the Taylor River area.
8) Karval Reservoir State Wildlife Area This site is out on the eastern plains of Colorado about 70 miles east of Colorado Springs. There's a tiny reservoir in a small depression in mostly flat to rolling terrain, and this site has turned out to be one of the darkest I've used in the state. The seeing can also be excellent out here, since it's well away from the mountains. Bugs can be a problem in the summer, but it's an excellent, easy to get to site and very, very dark. 38 deg 43.0 min N, 103 deg 30.46 min W, 5002 feet elevation.
Dark Sites Elsewhere in the West
There's nothing like an astrophotography adventure to a new site, since half the fun of this hobby is the adventure itself. Here are a few interesting places I've been to that were great for both astrophotography and to visit in their own right.
Chiricahua National Monument, AZ Not the darkest, but one of the best places to go. I long ride from home, but no airplanes and an excellent southern horizon some seven degrees of latitude south of my usual sites.
San Mateo Mountains, Cibola National Forest, NM The darkest site of all, south of the VLA in New Mexico. 33 deg 47 min N, 107 deg 03.2 min W, 7523 feet elevation.
Hovenweep National Monument, UT Super dark dark site with fascinating ruins. Well worth the ride, and a very welcoming Astro-friendly ranger staff. Go in the winter to have the campground to yourself. 37 deg 22.965 min N, 109 deg 04.284 min W, 5233 feet elevation.