Reclaiming the Stars: Utah’s Dark Sky Initiative

Utah State Parks bring back the stars for all to enjoy.

Written By Austen Diamond

Austen Diamond

“What a privilege it is to frolic with goblins under the beguiling light of a billion stars,” Justina Parsons-Bernstein wrote in her journal during a stargazing party at Goblin Valley State Park.

The recreation interpretation resource manager for Utah State Parks was basking in the light show with more than 100 astrotourists for a very special occasion. The park was celebrating its designation as a Utah Dark Sky Park. That’s to say that the park has taken — and will continue to take — measures to protect the night sky for present and future generations, earning a virtual seal of approval from DarkSky.

What Is Utah's Dark Sky Initiative?

Parsons-Bernstein, along with a slew of interns and state park managers, has guided many Utah state parks through the application and accreditation process. The state now has the highest concentration of DarkSky-certified locations, including communities, parks and protected areas (Read: Utah After Dark). It’s a testament that Utah State Parks are reclaiming the stars for its residents and visitors through the Utah State Parks Dark Sky Initiative. 

The stars are big business, as well. A recent survey found that during the next decade visits to the Colorado Plateau are expected to pump $2.5 billion into rural economies. Dark skies are a value-added experience that creates demand for recreation-based tourism. (Read: How to Stargaze in Utah)

Dark Sky Park Requirements

To become an DarkSky-certififed park, a park must “demonstrate robust community support for dark sky protection and document designation-specific program requirements.” The certification process may be arduous but the reward of designation is well worth it.

“Basically, what it boils down to is that we are wasting a lot of light by pointing it to the sky, and we need to change that,” Parsons-Bernstein says. A seemingly little change to downward-facing light fixtures and bulbs with the proper lumens and wattage – which also reduces light pollution – and brings back the stars for all to enjoy.

On one sunny afternoon, the rangers at Jordanelle State Park change out light fixtures at the employee residences. Jordanelle boasts many buildings, so the rangers will be tasked with installing new lighting throughout the summer. Some pollution is irreparable, but Parsons-Bernstein says, luckily, light pollution is a pretty easy fix. “Plus, these fixtures will save money and energy."

Five Principles for Responsible Outdoor Lighting

DarkSky and the Illuminating Engineering Society have identified five outdoor lighting guidelines to help minimize light pollution: 

1. Useful: All light should have a clear purpose.

2. Targeted: Light should be directed only to where needed, consider shields.

3. Low Light Levels: Light should be no brighter than necessary.

4. Controlled: Light should be used only when it is useful — think timers and motion sensors.

5. Color: Use warmer color lights where possible, limiting blue-violet as much as possible. 


Goblin Valley State Park has one of the clearest, darkest night skies in the world.

Photo: Austen Diamond

Astrotourism In Utah

Imagine you and your loved ones wrapped in blankets on a crisp, clear night. You are talking for hours beyond your normal bedtime, and why? Well, more than 5,000 stars can be seen, and they captivate you.

Indeed, 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.

Parsons-Bernstein remembers when, as a child, she could see the Milky Way from her backyard in Ogden, Utah. An ever-growing population and a minimal emphasis on the effects of light pollution in the decades since, and 74-percent of people around the world cannot see the Milky Way — especially those in urban centers.

“If people can’t see the stars, they will go and find them,” Parsons-Bernstein says. “These astrotourists are coming to Utah from all over the world, because they want to be out in the pristine darkness and see the Milky Way for themselves.” (Read: Seeking Starry Skies Near Salt Lake City)

At Utah’s abundant public lands, there’s a perfect recipe for dark sky viewing: high altitude, dry weather, low population and distance from urban growth.

“A lot of the world lives in perpetual twilight,” she says. “Our dark sky parks are becoming the last places where you will actually be able to see dark skies, and Utah is lucky that we are really able to see a lot. It’s the mecca of stargazing.”

Jordanelle State Park was certified as an International Dark Sky Park in January 2021.

Photo: Utah State Parks

Bulbs with the proper lumens and wattage can reduce reflection into the night sky.

Photo: Austen Diamond

Downward-facing light fixtures can help minimize light pollution.

Photo: Austen Diamond

Stargazing in Utah

Here's a fun fact: Eighty percent of Americans live in an area where they cannot see the Milky Way due to the light pollution of the cities. That is not an issue when stargazing in Utah. Utah has the highest concentration of DarkSky-certified locations, including communities, parks and protected areas.

Utah is home to an ever-increasing number of Dark Sky Places, each one offering something unique to visitors. Many state parks celebrate stargazing in Utah by providing various programs, special events, tours and guides. These three offer an especially remote experience that will almost certainly leave you starstruck.

Natural Bridges National Monument

Considering its isolated location, it's not surprising that Natural Bridges National Monument boasts some of the planet's most-admirable night skies. DarkSky deemed this National Monument the world's first Dark Sky Place. Park rangers not only give interpretive discussions on astronomy, but also actively work to keep the park’s light pollution levels as low as possible. 

Astrotourists travel from all over the globe, drawn by the opportunity to see the striking silhouettes of southern Utah's natural land bridges set against the vibrant backdrop of an unpolluted night sky, creating a truly unreplicable marvel.

Arches National Park

After the sun sets and the sandstone cools, the sky in Arches National Park transforms into a breathtaking display of stars. The park’s ongoing efforts to minimize light pollution makes it an ideal place to stargaze. The lack of light pollution allows for a clear view of the Milky Way, countless stars, planets and even distant galaxies. If you are lucky, you might even see a shooting star. Those who’ve experienced the night sky in Arches National Park will attest that it’s a truly magical experience.

Goblin Valley State Park

Right in line with Utah’s other Dark Sky Places, Goblin Valley State Park has one of the best night skies in the country for stargazing. The park's sandstone formations, which have been eroded into fantastical shapes and other geological features create an otherworldly atmosphere. Stargazing in Goblin Valley provides an experience akin to exploring the night sky on the surface of Mars.

More Certified Dark Sky Parks in Utah

6 Days

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.

Arts, Hiking, Kid-Friendly, Scenic Drives/Road Trips, Stargazing, Urban Experiences


See Itinerary

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