‘The beauty of our night’: Zion National Park designated as International Dark Sky Park

ZION NATIONAL PARK — Zion National Park already has a reputation for the views it generates when the sun is shining on its colorful layers of sedimentary rock. Now, after a move by the International Dark Sky Association on Thursday, the park is aiming to build its reputation for the skyscapes it generates after the sun goes down.

The night sky provides the backdrop for the Temples and Towers of the Virgin in Utah’s Zion National Park. Undated | Photo courtesy of Avery Sloss/Zion National Park, St. George News

The association – which designates spots worldwide that are ideal for astronomers and others to view the stars, planets and other objects of the night sky – says in order for a place to be designated as a International Dark Sky Park, it needs to possess “an exceptional or distinguished quality of starry nights and a nocturnal environment that is specifically protected for its scientific, natural, educational, cultural heritage, and/or public enjoyment.”

Amanda Rowland, spokesperson for Zion National Park, told St. George News that it took a certification process that included a collaborative effort with the towns of Springdale and Rockville, the Kane County Commission and the Zion Forever Project among others. 

Obviously, we want to welcome folks to their national parks, but we also want them to celebrate their dark skies, their night skies in their own backyard,” Rowland said.

As part of the new designation, Rowland said an area next to the Human History Museum a quarter-mile past the Springdale toll gate will receive signage as a place for people to bring their astronomy equipment or just lay out a chair or a blanket to enjoy the sky after dark and watch the Milky Way stretch out before their eyes. 

“Also starting next week, all of our ranger-led programming will be around dark skies themes,” Rowland added, including Junior Ranger Night Explorer booklets for the younger stargazers.

The sun makes its morning presence known above the peaks of Utah’s Zion National Park in the last night before the nature destination took its place as an International Dark Sky Park, June 3, 2021 | Photo by Chris Reed, St. George News

Zion was the last of Utah’s five national parks to receive the designation and the third dark sky park in Southern Utah after Cedar Breaks National Monument, which received its designation in 2017, and Bryce Canyon National Park in 2019.  It is the 102nd dark sky park overall and the 72nd in the U.S., with Utah overwhelmingly having the most dark sky parks of any state. 

Natural Bridges National Monument in Southeast Utah was named as the first-ever International Dark Sky Park in 2006. Other dark sky parks in the state besides the five national parks include Hovenweep National Monument in Blanding, Dead Horse Point State Park in San Juan County, Antelope Island State Park in Salt Lake City and Steinaker State Park in Vernal.

A part of the certification process was a direct endorsement from Springdale Mayor Stanley Smith who wrote a letter to the International Dark Sky Association that read, in part, “Springdale has long had an abiding mutual interest in helping to protect natural resources of this incredible public land,” Smith said in his letter. “We value the beauty of our night sky and understand the need to protect it in a collaborate effort.”

Rowland added that the certification was more than just letters of support. It necessitated certifying the lighting infrastructure of Zion to be suitable for a darker night sky whereby the lighting is mostly directed toward a limited area on the ground.

“As far as certification, there is a process. So there’s those letters of support but also what we’ve done from an infrastructure level,” Rowland said. “Also to minimize that lighting, as of 10 o’clock, there is going to be a kind of ‘lights out’ expectation. That even goes into play as it relates to folks living in park housing.”

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

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