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.
In the summer of 2017, the valley’s three state parks — Deer Creek, Wasatch Mountain, and Jordanelle — took significant steps toward earning International Dark Sky Park certification. Three of Utah's state parks already hold this distinction and nine other state parks are also working to earn the status.
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
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.
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.
“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.