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Chaco Culture National Historical Park Earns Designation As An International Dark Sky Park

The Chaco Observatory. NPS image.

Chaco Culture National Historical Park in New Mexico is home to both outstanding archeological resources and an increasingly rare treasure'”dark nights that allow for outstanding viewing of the night skies. The park has just become one of only a dozen Dark Sky Parks recognized around the world by the non-profit International Dark Sky Association (IDA).

'œOnce the night sky was something that was very much a part of the human experience at Chaco and around the globe,' says IDA Executive Director Bob Parks. 'œWe are delighted that Chaco is now preserving the nighttime environment alongside with their historic treasures."

"As a Gold-tier IDA Dark Sky Park, Chaco has shown its commitment to preserving its near-pristine night skies," says Parks. He notes that the park has adopted a set of strict lighting guidelines that include the use of dark-sky friendly lighting now and in the future, ensuring that it will do its part to keep the nighttime environment natural and unspoiled for generations to come.

Interest in the Night Sky Goes Back Centuries at This Site

Chaco Culture National Historic Park superintendent Larry Turk feels strongly about the designation. 'œStanding at one of the parkʼs 4,000 prehistoric archeological sites, one can easily imagine another human centuries earlier gazing awestruck into the same universe while surrounded by ecosystems that have adapted to the natural rhythms of the moon and stars,' said Turk.

It seems especially appropriate that Chaco Culture NHP is one of the prime dark sky locations in the country, since there is such a close tie between modern astronomy and the ancient inhabitants of this same area.

According to a park publication, "Since 1991, Chaco Culture NHP has offered astronomy in its public interpretive programs. Programs emphasize the practices of the Chacoan people a thousand years ago, as well as modern approaches to viewing the same night sky they viewed--in a remote environment with clear, dark skies, and free from urban light pollution."

Partnership With Area Astronomers Pays Off

In 1991 the park established an on-going partnership with the Albuquerque Astronomical Society (TAAS) and in January 1997, TAAS member John Sefick brought his astronomy equipment to Chaco. He was so impressed with the skies in the area that he donated a domed observatory and equipment to the park.

Work began on a permanent observatory at the visitor center in 1997, and the Chaco Observatory was dedicated in May 1998. It provides an excellent opportunity for educational and interpretive activities, and the park offers regular programs featuring the night sky. You can learn more about those activities at this link, and the park website includes a galley of some stunning photos taken from the observatory.  

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An example of the images from the Chaco Observatory. NPS photo.

A Chaco Canyon Star Party on October 5 will include a formal public dedication of their new IDA Dark Sky Park designation. The event will feature guest speakers, dark sky preservation messaging, and special interpretive programs, along with stargazing opportunities throughout the evenings. A commemorative poster will be given away to visitors during the event. 

IDA established the International Dark Sky Places conservation program in 2001 to recognize excellent stewardship of the night sky. Designations are based on stringent outdoor lighting standards and innovative community outreach.

Since the program began, four communities, twelve parks and five reserves have received International Dark Sky designations. Four of these sites are part of the National Park System: Natural Bridges National Monument in Utah, Big Bend National Park in Texas, Death Valley National Park in California, and Chaco Culture National Historical Park. You'll find the complete list of all the sites included in the program at this link.


Chaco Canyon is one of the most amazing places in the whole NPS. So far away from civilization and overcrowding, it's a blessing. I'm sorry, now, that I didn't do a stargazing trip when I visited.

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