Colorado’s Dark Sky Areas Make for Stunning Stargazing

Get out of the city and look up at the stars.

Visions of America/Universal Images Group/Getty Images
Visions of America/Universal Images Group/Getty Images
Visions of America/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

Maybe it was the heightened itch to get outside because of the pandemic, or perhaps people around the world simply have a renewed sense of awe for the galaxies above. Whatever the reason, stargazing is more popular than ever. Across the globe, folks are busting out astrophotography equipment and eagerly snagging camping spots with the least obstructed views of the sky in hopes of seeing much more than just The Big Dipper and Milky Way.

The International Dark Sky Association was formed in 1988, though in recent years, it’s seen the addition of many International Dark Sky Parks, Sanctuaries, and Communities. Colorado is home to 15 dark sky areas-a combination of Parks and Communities. So if you’re up for an adventure either to camp in Great Sand Dunes National Park or get a glimpse into the quiet life of Westcliffe, here’s a list of the best places to see the stars near Denver.

Jackson Lake State Park

One of the closest Dark Sky Parks near Denver, Jackson Lake State Park has plenty of opportunities for daytime fun-like boating, fishing, and swimming-as well as camping. Meaning, you can set up the tent for a weekend of some of the best stargazing you can find under a two-hour drive from the city.
Drive time from Denver: 1 hour, 15 minutes

Crestone, Colorado

Given that it only has a population of 138 people, it makes sense that Crestone was designated a Dark Sky Community since there’s very little light pollution, if any at all. It’s also one of the first US municipalities to incorporate the “rights of nature” into local legislature, and has fiercely advocated in defense of dark skies since the mid-90s. Crestone is known to be a spiritual and artistic community, so if the stargazing goes well (it will), be sure to come back for a full moon drum circle.
Drive time from Denver: 3 hours, 30 minutes

Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve

In addition to its towering sand dunes, this national park and preserve has nighttime appeal, too. Its 150,000 acres are a stargazers haven, offering totally unobstructed views of the Milky Way in the evenings during summer and fall and in the early morning during spring. There are tons of camping and backpacking opportunities in the park, meaning you don’t have to miss any stars because you’re in transit.
Drive time from Denver: 3 hours, 30 minutes

Ridgway, Colorado

One of the newer Dark Sky Community additions, Ridgway is another small Colorado town amid the San Juan Mountains. At only 1,200 residents, this is another spot that’s low on light pollution and therefore, high on the list of places to stargaze. Come for the Ridgway Rendezvous Arts & Crafts Festival and stay for camping beneath the abundance of stars.
Drive from Denver: 5 hours, 30 minutes

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

One of the most popular outdoor adventure spots in Colorado, Black Canyon of the Gunnison offers unparalleled canyon, mountain, sprawling landscape, and wildlife views in addition to its primo stargazing. It’s been on the Dark Sky Parks list since 2015, largely due to the combination of federal land and private agriculture property that helps preserve the skies above from urban and artificial light pollution. The park has also long worked with the Black Canyon Astronomy Club to host astronomy events each year.
Drive time from Denver: 4 hours, 40 minutes

Joe Sohm/Visions of America/Education Images/Universal Images Group/Getty Images
Joe Sohm/Visions of America/Education Images/Universal Images Group/Getty Images
Joe Sohm/Visions of America/Education Images/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

Westcliffe and Silver Cliff, Colorado

Also one of the closer drives to Denver is this two-for-one town combo that’s earned a Dark Sky Community designation. The combined population is just under 1,200 people, which makes sense considering these two are the only incorporated towns in the Wet Mountain Valley. The focus here is cattle ranching, so there’s not a huge need for artificial light, and because of the towns’ location between the Wet Mountain and Sangre de Cristo mountain ranges, they’re well-shielded from significant skyglow sources like Colorado Springs and Pueblo.
Drive time from Denver: 2 hours, 30 minutes

Curecanti National Recreation Area

This recreation area has some of the same appeal as Black Canyon of the Gunnison, primarily because they’re only about an hour from each other. Fishing, boating, camping, and hiking around Blue Mesa Reservoir are popular activities here, and the 41,972 acres of land offer tons of stargazing possibilities. It’s an easy drive from 285 to US-50, and the plentiful mountains and mesas provide landscapes ideal for night sky viewing. It’s also a mere 20 minutes from the Gunnison Valley Observatory, which offers astronomical experiences to visitors and residents.
Drive time from Denver: 4 hours

Dinosaur National Monument

Many appealing dark sky areas reside along the Colorado-Utah border, but this one also attracts those interested in dinosaur fossils and ancient rock art. After a day of hiking trails and taking in the expansive vistas, visitors can settle in for a show of glittering stars, constellations, and galaxies thanks to the Monument’s remote location, high elevation, and low humidity.
Drive time from Denver: 4 hours, 50 minutes

Top of the Pines

A particularly beloved gem within the San Juans, Top of the Pines is often thought to stand in a league of its own when it comes to outdoor recreation and scenic views. In addition to its outdoor activity such as hiking and birdwatching, it is also the perfect place for local and visiting schools and organizations to receive outdoor education via special events. But its dark, starry skies also stand out among other dark sky areas as a “pristine dark location” that offers an especially magical stargazing experience, and local dark sky advocates fiercely defend its need for protection so residents, visitors, and wildlife can continue to enjoy and benefit from it.
Drive time from Denver: 5 hours, 30 minutes

Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument

West of Colorado Springs, this monument is noted for its well-preserved insect and plant fossils, petrified redwood stumps, and glimpse into prehistoric life. The designated International Dark Sky Park is easily accessible via I-25 but far enough from the cities along the corridor to offer exceptionally dark, star-filled skies. There’s a good chance visitors will see the Milky Way, other galaxies, star clusters, nebulae, planets, comets, and much more from here. Moreover, the Hornbek Homestead area (a designated area for enjoying night skies) is open to the public 24 hours a day, and visitors can also take advantage of the Night Sky Program offered at the Monument’s Visitor Center.
Drive time from Denver: 1 hour, 50 minutesWant more Thrillist? Follow us on InstagramTikTokTwitterFacebookPinterest, and YouTube.

Erica Buehler is a Denver-based freelance writer. Follow her @e_buehler on Instagram and @e_buehler_ on Twitter for more updates on Denver food and other Mile High shenanigans.


Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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