Spend a Night Under the Stars at SW Utah’s First Dark Sky Park

Stargazing at Cedar Breaks National Monument is an astounding marvel, with thousands of glittering stars scattered across sky on any given night. The Milky Way arches across the black sky in a cloud of pinprick lights, while the familiar constellations and planets move in a stately procession. Under the vault of stars, we gaze up at billions of years of cosmological history and ponder our place and mortality in the vast dark universe. Few places remain where we can still see the night sky as our ancient ancestors did, but Cedar Breaks is one of them.

Cedar Breaks, the 16th national parkland designated as an International Dark Sky Park, is one of Utah’s best places to view the wonders of the night sky. The area protects a dramatic amphitheater of eroded stone sculptures similar to Bryce Canyon and checks off all the boxes for perfect stargazing. It sits at 10,350 feet above sea level on the Markagunt Plateau, high above Cedar City, the nearest town with light pollution, and boasts clear night skies with few clouds.

The park, an emerging center for astro-tourism, offers a variety of educational programs, including star parties, to enlighten visitors about galaxies, stars, planets, and the vanishing dark sky resource. In 2016, Cedar Breaks was dubbed the Best National Park Night Experience by USA Today readers, beating out iconic parks like Arches, Canyonlands, and Great Basin. Most Americans can’t see the Milky Way where they live, and city dwellers can spot less than 500 stars on a clear night. Cedar Breaks aims to change that by exposing visitors to star-studded skies during its regularly scheduled summer star parties when more than 7,500 stars brighten the night. It’s estimated, according to the National Park Service, that as many as 15,000 stars dot the inky sky on a moonless night.

Check out a Weekend Star Party

The ranger-led party, presented many Saturday evenings from Memorial Day to Labor Day (check the NPS website for exact dates and times), begins just after sunset as the sky darkens about 8 o’clock and ends three hours later. After visitors gather at Point Supreme, an overlook near the visitor center and a half-mile hike from the campground, one of the monument’s “dark rangers” discusses astronomy, how seafarers used stars to navigate, and the importance of Cedar Break’s dark skies.

As stars begin to twinkle in the growing darkness, several large telescopes let you get up close with the night time panorama, including craters, valleys, and mountains on the Moon; the red spot on Jupiter’s surface; the colorful rings encircling Saturn; and distant wonders like the Andromeda Galaxy and the Great Cluster in Hercules, a shimmering ball of thousands of stars. Summer is the best time to observe the Milky Way, a luminous belt filled with millions of stars. Our home galaxy stretches from northeast to southeast in the evening. Look through a park telescope to see the Sagittarius Star Cloud or bring binoculars to glimpse misty star-rivers in the galaxy. Later the ranger uses a powerful laser to point out summer constellations like Scorpio and Leo and relate the sky mythology of the ancient Greeks.

Reservations aren’t needed for the free star parties. Just show up and stay as long as you want. The party is the highest astronomical program in the national park system, and it can get chilly in the evening. Dress warmly to stay comfortable in the bracing air. Bring a fold-out chair for sitting since seating is limited at Point Supreme. If the weather turns bad, the telescope viewing is canceled and an astronomy talk is given at the nearby visitor center.

There are Plenty of Other Programs, Too

Besides the famed star parties, Cedar Breaks offers other nighttime programs including the popular full moon hikes on consecutive evenings each month and the Sunset with a Ranger program.

The Master Astronomer Program, a 40-hour workshop in the fall, educates citizens, teachers, students, budding astronomers, and park naturalists about the night sky, how to use telescopes, protecting dark sky resources, and communicating with the public about astronomy. The program, sponsored by Cedar Breaks National Monument, is offered at both Cedar City and St. George.

Spend the Night

If you visit Cedar Breaks during the week, you’ll miss the star party but you can still get out in the evening to stargaze. You probably won’t be the only skywatching junkie though because the park is a growing destination for nighttime lovers.

The best star spot close to the campground is Point Supreme, but also visit open meadows and overlooks along highway 148 including Sunset View, Chessman Ridge, and North View that have unobstructed views of the sky. The 25-site Point Supreme Campground makes an ideal base camp for stargazers. It’s open from mid-June to mid-September, depending on weather, and has campsites available on a first-come-first-served basis as well as by reservation at recreation.gov.

A Few Tips

  • The best time to see lots of stars is during the new moon when the sky is darkest, although crescent moon nights are also good because there’s enough illumination to see the ground while hiking.
  • If you don’t know the stars and constellations, bring a star map or download a stargazing app on your phone (make sure it has night mode). Good astronomy apps include Star Walk 2, SkyView, Star Chart, and SkyWiki. If you’re a casual star buff, go with the free version.
  • Make sure your flashlight or headlamp has a red setting to preserve your night vision while you watch Ursa Major, Cassiopeia, and the rest of the constellations wheel across Cedar Break’s night sanctuary.

Cedar Breaks may be known for its spectacular setting during the day, but spend some time looking up at night and you’ll be treated to an incredible sight as well.

Cedar Breaks National Monument is located 29 miles east of Cedar City, Utah.

Written by Stewart Green for RootsRated Media in partnership with Cedar City (Iron County).

Featured image provided by David Heckman

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