Colorado’s Dark Sky Areas Make for Stunning Stargazing

Get out of the city and look up at the stars.

Maybe it was the heightened itch to get outside because of the pandemic, or perhaps people around the world simply have a renewed sense of awe for the galaxies above. Whatever the reason, stargazing is more popular than ever. Across the globe, folks are busting out astrophotography equipment and eagerly snagging camping spots with the least obstructed views of the sky in hopes of seeing much more than just The Big Dipper and Milky Way.

The International Dark Sky Association was formed in 1988, though in recent years, it’s seen the addition of many International Dark Sky Parks, Sanctuaries, and Communities. Colorado is home to 15 dark sky areas—a combination of Parks and Communities. So if you’re up for an adventure either to camp in Great Sand Dunes National Park or get a glimpse into the quiet life of Westcliffe, here’s a list of the best places to see the stars near Denver.

One of the closest Dark Sky Parks near Denver, Jackson Lake State Park has plenty of opportunities for daytime fun—like boating, fishing, and swimming—as well as camping. Meaning, you can set up the tent for a weekend of some of the best stargazing you can find under a two-hour drive from the city.
Drive time from Denver: 1 hour, 15 minutes

Given that it only has a population of 138 people, it makes sense that Crestone was designated a Dark Sky Community since there’s very little light pollution, if any at all. It’s also one of the first US municipalities to incorporate the “rights of nature” into local legislature, and has fiercely advocated in defense of dark skies since the mid-90s. Crestone is known to be a spiritual and artistic community, so if the stargazing goes well (it will), be sure to come back for a full moon drum circle.
Drive time from Denver: 3 hours, 30 minutes

In addition to its towering sand dunes, this national park and preserve has nighttime appeal, too. Its 150,000 acres are a stargazers haven, offering totally unobstructed views of the Milky Way in the evenings during summer and fall and in the early morning during spring. There are tons of camping and backpacking opportunities in the park, meaning you don’t have to miss any stars because you’re in transit.
Drive time from Denver: 3 hours, 30 minutes

One of the newer Dark Sky Community additions, Ridgway is another small Colorado town amid the San Juan Mountains. At only 1,200 residents, this is another spot that’s low on light pollution and therefore, high on the list of places to stargaze. Come for the Ridgway Rendezvous Arts & Crafts Festival and stay for camping beneath the abundance of stars.
Drive from Denver: 5 hours, 30 minutes

One of the most popular outdoor adventure spots in Colorado, Black Canyon of the Gunnison offers unparalleled canyon, mountain, sprawling landscape, and wildlife views in addition to its primo stargazing. It’s been on the Dark Sky Parks list since 2015, largely due to the combination of federal land and private agriculture property that helps preserve the skies above from urban and artificial light pollution. The park has also long worked with the Black Canyon Astronomy Club to host astronomy events each year.
Drive time from Denver: 4 hours, 40 minutes

Ridgway, Colorado | Joe Sohm/Visions of America/Education Images/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

Also one of the closer drives to Denver is this two-for-one town combo that’s earned a Dark Sky Community designation. The combined population is just under 1,200 people, which makes sense considering these two are the only incorporated towns in the Wet Mountain Valley. The focus here is cattle ranching, so there’s not a huge need for artificial light, and because of the towns’ location between the Wet Mountain and Sangre de Cristo mountain ranges, they’re well-shielded from significant skyglow sources like Colorado Springs and Pueblo.
Drive time from Denver: 2 hours, 30 minutes

This recreation area has some of the same appeal as Black Canyon of the Gunnison, primarily because they’re only about an hour from each other. Fishing, boating, camping, and hiking around Blue Mesa Reservoir are popular activities here, and the 41,972 acres of land offer tons of stargazing possibilities. It’s an easy drive from 285 to US-50, and the plentiful mountains and mesas provide landscapes ideal for night sky viewing. It’s also a mere 20 minutes from the Gunnison Valley Observatory, which offers astronomical experiences to visitors and residents.
Drive time from Denver: 4 hours

Many appealing dark sky areas reside along the Colorado-Utah border, but this one also attracts those interested in dinosaur fossils and ancient rock art. After a day of hiking trails and taking in the expansive vistas, visitors can settle in for a show of glittering stars, constellations, and galaxies thanks to the Monument’s remote location, high elevation, and low humidity.
Drive time from Denver: 4 hours, 50 minutes

A particularly beloved gem within the San Juans, Top of the Pines is often thought to stand in a league of its own when it comes to outdoor recreation and scenic views. In addition to its outdoor activity such as hiking and birdwatching, it is also the perfect place for local and visiting schools and organizations to receive outdoor education via special events. But its dark, starry skies also stand out among other dark sky areas as a “pristine dark location” that offers an especially magical stargazing experience, and local dark sky advocates fiercely defend its need for protection so residents, visitors, and wildlife can continue to enjoy and benefit from it.
Drive time from Denver: 5 hours, 30 minutes

West of Colorado Springs, this monument is noted for its well-preserved insect and plant fossils, petrified redwood stumps, and glimpse into prehistoric life. The designated International Dark Sky Park is easily accessible via I-25 but far enough from the cities along the corridor to offer exceptionally dark, star-filled skies. There’s a good chance visitors will see the Milky Way, other galaxies, star clusters, nebulae, planets, comets, and much more from here. Moreover, the Hornbek Homestead area (a designated area for enjoying night skies) is open to the public 24 hours a day, and visitors can also take advantage of the Night Sky Program offered at the Monument’s Visitor Center.
Drive time from Denver: 1 hour, 50 minutes

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Erica Buehler is a Denver-based freelance writer. Follow her @e_buehler on Instagram and @e_buehler_ on Twitter for more updates on Denver food and other Mile High shenanigans.