Looking Up: Dark Skies of Heber Valley
Shielded from big city light pollution, the Heber Valley contains a trio of state parks seeking International Dark Sky Park certification with nighttime programming to connect visitors with all things nocturnal. Astrotourists come from all around to catch a glimpse of the valley’s stunning night sky.
It was nearly 11 p.m. as we pulled into the driveway of our Airbnb in Heber. As my husband and I hopped out of our truck, we noticed a strange green tendril lingering in the sky. Puzzled, we walked away from the house lights and stared up at the sky. Staring back at us was the Northern Lights. We stood there in the late spring chill, mesmerized.
Heber Valley’s dark skies and minimal light pollution enabled us to enjoy this rare spectacle. While it’s not far from major population centers like Salt Lake City, Heber is nestled on the other side of the Wasatch Mountains and relatively shielded from light pollution. (Read: "Seeking Starry Skies Near Salt Lake City")
The valley’s three state parks — Deer Creek, Wasatch Mountain and Jordanelle — have all taken significant steps toward earning International Dark Sky Park certification. Many of Utah’s state parks already hold this distinction and many more are working to earn the status. (Read: "How to Stargaze in Utah")
This certification process is part of an even greater effort to preserve natural darkness in Utah and on the Colorado Plateau. Bettymaya Foott is the coordinator for the Colorado Plateau Dark Sky Cooperative, an organization working to preserve dark skies, which are a diminishing resource in the industrialized world.
Foott notes many people over the age of 50 tell her when they were children they could see the Milky Way from their porch in the middle of the city — something that is largely unthinkable today. “We’ve lost it so quickly,” Foott says.
Before Foott began working with the cooperative, she worked with Utah State Parks conducting late-night field work, using a Unihedron Sky Quality Meter to measure the darkness of the night sky at a dozen parks throughout the state, including the trio of Heber-area parks. Four times a year, she would spend her nights driving down winding dirt roads to get the best readings, which had to be precisely timed for maximum darkness. This meant conducting readings on clear nights during the new moon, beginning only after astronomical twilight ended, which usually meant a start somewhere between 10 p.m. and midnight. She found vast darkness in the Heber area, with Little Deer Creek, Huber Grove and the Oak Hollow Campground being some of the darkest spots.
"The cool thing you hear time and again is people see the Milky Way for the first time, and it’s a revelation to them."
– Justina Parsons-Bernstein, Heritage Interpreter and ADA Resources Coordinator for Utah State Parksresources coordinator for Utah State Parks
The night after we saw the Northern Lights in Heber, we camped in Wasatch Mountain State Park’s Oak Hollow loop and saw just what Foott was talking about, craning our necks to look up at the stars in the Utah night sky.
“You wouldn't think it would be so dark because it's so close to a metro area,” Foott says. “The Wasatch serve as a pretty good block from sky glow from metropolitan areas…It's a really great place for people to go. It's good for people to escape near the city without having to drive four hours to Southern Utah.”
Dark skies are important, not only for nightly celestial shows, but also to protect wildlife. Animals such as birds and turtle hatchlings rely on the stars to navigate and can become disoriented in areas with too much artificial light. Turtle hatchlings can head toward human developments instead of the sea, and disoriented birds can fly into buildings or drop from fatigue.
Wildlife lovers and astrotourists alike can appreciate the night skies and creatures that lurk in the darkness through a variety of programs offered by Utah’s state parks (Read: "State Park Stargazing: Interacting With the Galaxy in Real Time"). In winter, Wasatch Mountain State Park offers a full-moon snowshoe hike and opportunities to look for owls and other nighttime critters, while other parks offer nighttime scorpion safaris in warmer months. Many parks also host “sky parties” where people can learn about and marvel at the Utah night sky. (Read: "A Party of Astronomic Proportions")
Justina Parsons-Bernstein, heritage interpreter and ADA resources coordinator for Utah State Parks, works with parks to host these events. She is also overseeing the International Dark Sky Park certification process. (Read: "Reclaiming the Stars")
“The cool thing you hear time and again is people see the Milky Way for the first time, and it’s a revelation to them,” she says.
Parsons-Bernstein recalls one camper who told her he “looked up and the stars were so numerous and close they felt like a blanket over his face and he was overcome with a feeling about how we are a part of the universe, not separate from it.”
“These beautiful sentiments are from people who are really seeing the heavens clearly for the first time,” she says, in the Utah night sky.
Heber Valley Artisan Cheese
Heber Valley Artisan Cheese offers up some spectacular farm-fresh cheeses and milk from the adjacent artesian well-watered fields. It's one of the few independent dairies in Utah, and a must stop on your Heber Valley visit.
Heber Valley Railroad
On the Heber Valley Railroad, also known as "The Heber Creeper" enjoy a 100-year-old steam train journey across farmlands, follow a lake shore, and descend into a scenic canyon. Special BBQ, murder mystery, wizard trains, casino trains and several individual train events run during the season.
Homestead Crater is a geothermal spring hidden within a 55-foot tall, beehive-shaped limestone rock located on the Homestead property. Once inside, you can go swimming, scuba diving, snorkeling, enjoy a therapeutic soak, or even take a paddleboard yoga class. (Read: "6 Surprising Activities That Take Place at The Homestead Crater") For a complete list of attractions, accommodations and dining, visit Heber Valley's website.
Stars by the City
Fill your days with adventure and your nights with stargazing by following this six-day itinerary from Salt Lake City through the International Dark Sky Places in Northern Utah.
- Timpanogos Cave National Monument
- East Canyon State Park
- Jordanelle State Park
- Rockport State Park
- Antelope Island State Park
- North Fork Park
How to Stargaze in Utah
Tips on what to pack and when and where to go stargazing in Utah.
Tips for Astrophotography
Need tips on how to take pictures of stars? Utah is the perfect location to put tips from an award-winning photographer into action.
The World's First Dark Sky Park
On March 6, 2007, Natural Bridges National Monument became the first International Dark Sky Park certified by the International Dark-Sky Association. More than 100,000 people visit Natural Bridges each year to check out the stunning bridges and hike in cool canyons, but only a handful of them stay through the night to see the area’s most amazing and unique feature: dark skies and glistening, bright stars.
A Closer Look at North Fork Park
Welcome to North Fork Park, one of Utah’s multiple International Dark Sky Parks, just minutes from downtown Ogden. While it is best known for its stunning scenery where hikers and Nordic skiers can meander the trails swirling through the mountainous Ogden Valley, its biggest attraction lies in the voluminous sky directly above.
Ogden's Star is Rising: Downtown to Dark Skies
Ogden is a hub for world-class skiing, hiking, biking, camping and fun water sports that, in turn, has brought chefs, artists, craftsmen and entrepreneurs to feed the body as well as spirit.
A Party of Astronomic Proportions
Every Saturday from May through Labor Day weekend, weather dependent, crowds ranging from 100 to 500 people gather at Cedar Break’s main overlook, Point Supreme, to gaze up at the region’s amazing dark skies and explore the stars and the planets that make up the solar system.
Dark Skies in Capitol Reef National Park
Capitol Reef National Park in Utah is a designated International Dark Sky Park. Make plans to come see the most magnificent night sky ever!
Find a Winter Refresh in a Utah State Park
The best Utah state parks will entice you with ice fishing, white sand and snow-dusted scenery. Take a winter break to refresh with a visit to a few of these places.
Discover Dinosaur Astronomy
Dinosaur National Monument's celebrated dark skies can offer some of the most inspirational looks into our universe given the monument's unique context: see the stars on an unblemished canvas like our human — or dinosaur — predecessors did.
Where to Find the Darkest Skies in Central Utah
A tapestry of thousands of stars awaits visitors to Helper and Price where conditions are some of the best for exploring the night sky.
Seeking Starry Skies Near Salt Lake City
You don’t have to go far from the city to find dark skies filled with stars in Utah. Find out where you can see the Milky Way near the city or gaze into space from an observatory in Northern Utah.
State Park Stargazing: Interacting With the Galaxy in Real Time
Northern Utah's Camp Floyd State Park offers more than history to those who stick around after dark. With intense dark skies blanketing the atmosphere, stargazers of all ages gather to interact with the galaxy above.
Reclaiming the Stars
Utah’s public lands are beautiful and dramatic during the day, but they might well become famous for how awe-inspiring they are during the night.