Dark Skies of Bryce Canyon
Long after the last drop of twilight fades to black, the next phase of the earth's rotation begins to shine. It is a part of the 24-hour cycle that many developed places have lost to the constant shine of the cityscape — most Americans live in an area where they cannot see the Milky Way due to lighting from cities. Utah has several certified Dark Sky Parks, with Bryce Canyon being Utah's fourth national park, and 13th location altogether, to receive dark sky certification from the International Dark-Sky Association. At Bryce, there's something awe-inspiring about the way the canyon's red rock hoodoos interact with the infinite depths of the Universe.
Far from the light pollution of civilization, Bryce Canyon offers exceptional stargazing. Amateur astronomers will find Bryce to be a prime destination to set up a telescope and observe celestial events, but if you are not equipped to do that, you still have two other options. You can join the free educational and entertaining stargazing programs at the visitor center organized by the park’s Astronomy Rangers. In fact, Bryce Canyon has one of the nation's oldest astronomy programs. Alternatively, you can purchase professional telescope tours from the Dark Rangers® at their observatory outside the western boundary of Bryce Canyon National Park.
Both entities follow a similar format: a 45-minute multimedia show, followed by a 90-minute telescope session, where you can observe some of the 7,500 stars that can be seen on a moonless night, along with the incredibly bright, silver Milky Way stretching across the sky. Planets like Venus and even Jupiter shine bright enough to cast your shadow on the earth! No vacation at Bryce Canyon National Park is complete without some stargazing.
When to See It
Year round, the Dark Rangers® host their telescope tours, which include public telescope tours capped at 21 people (winter) or 42 people (summer) and large or small private telescope tours that you can customize to your specific group interests. Reservations are required.
Tuesday, Thursdays, and Saturdays, during spring, summer, and fall, Bryce Canyon National Park offers about 100 astronomy programs per year, presented by its Astronomy Rangers and volunteers. Some recommend the best time to come is when the sky is darkest -- during the week of the new moon or the week prior to the new moon. Most offered astronomy programs are followed by stargazing with telescopes. Check the program schedule or Bryce Canyon Visitor Center for more information. Programs are subject to weather and may be cancelled in the event of adverse conditions. Reservations are required and be sure to arrive 15-30 minutes early for seating.
Every summer, Bryce Canyon also hosts an annual Astronomy Festival, more than 16 years running! Attendees will enjoy a variety of astronomy-themed activities and programs offered both day and night.
What You'll Remember
Think Cosmos — Carl Sagan or Neil deGrasse Tyson — and you'll have a rough sense of the magnitude of the experience of just seeing. With the naked eye on a clear night in Bryce Canyon, you may see 5,000 stars. With standard binoculars: maybe 200,000. Bryce Canyon's telescopes catapult the number of visible stars into the millions. That compared to the 50 or so in a big city.
And seeing is different from knowing. We don't know exactly how large the universe is. Only hyperbolic children — those dealing in quantities of billion trillion — may fully articulate its breadth. For the rest of us, knowing we're all made of the same starstuff instantly brings comfort: for as small as we are, we all come from the same elemental origin. The family tree is large. Let's meet a few old friends.
For a detailed list of stargazing locations in Utah, read: Where to See the Milky Way this Year.