This week brings the peak of the Perseid meteor shower. It’s one of the biggest of the year for North America, and this summer’s edition could bring twice as many meteors as usual.
And, even luckier, Denver has much quicker access to dark skies than the coasts. Here’s where and how to find the best places to watch near Denver.
When to see the meteors:
The best times to see the showers may be late Thursday night, but the nights before and after should be decent too.
The show will start around 10 p.m. and get better as the night wears on. The meteors will be competing with a lot of moonlight at the end of the week, but the moon will be setting by 1 a.m. on both Thursday and Friday.
Now, the big decision: Where will you go?
The case for the plains.
“The biggest challenge, no matter where you go, is trying to get away from the light dome over Denver,” says Ron Hranac, president of the Denver Astronomical Society.
It’s quicker and easier to drive over the plains than the mountains — so heading east can actually get you to some of our darkest skies very quickly. Also, you’ll have wider views – better for spotting meteors, Hranac says.
My recommendation is Pawnee National Grassland. It’s about two hours northeast of Denver, and at night it is dark as… night. There are a few campgrounds, and some reservations were available as of Monday.
You can also camp along some of the roads, but beware that this is a mix of public and private land. (The two Pawnee maps on this page should help.) The northeastern corner, on CO-71 near the Nebraska border, is the darkest stretch of the grassland.
Most people figure higher altitude means clearer skies, but heights above 10,000 feet can blur your vision due to low oxygen. Also, a lot of the most accessible places along Interstate 70 suffer from resort-town light pollution.
So, you’re looking for a sweet spot: You’ll want a fairly open area, not too high and not too hard to get too. (Unless you’re a masochist.)
- Light pollution is pretty intense almost everywhere within 30 minutes of downtown Denver. Still, stars are stars. You could try Lookout Mountain Road, which is just west of Golden and runs through Windy Saddle Park.
- The southwest corner of Chatfield State Park is also fairly dark, Hranac says, but you’ll need to be camping there to have park access after 10 p.m.
- Loveland Pass is really popular, although it’s probably unnecessarily windy and high up for our purposes. It’s right off I-70, so it still gets a fair amount of light bleeding over from Keystone and Silverthorne. You’ll find a parking lot near the top of the pass, just off Loveland Pass Road / U.S. 6. Guanella Pass has a similar offering not far away.
- Golden Gate Canyon would normally be a good choice, but it’s closed after 10 p.m. to non-campers, and the most accessible sites are booked out very far ahead of time. If you’re savvy, though, you could hike to one of its backcountry sites.
Now we’re talking.
- I really like the town of Leadville. You could head up, grab a campsite near town (Elbert Creek is first-come first-serve), and then grab dinner. From there, you might continue to the Twin Lakes area or even Independence Pass for some super dark skies.
- You could also take U.S. 285 south to the open, elevated valley of South Park, in Park County. I happen to know there’s one campsite available (as of Monday) at Buffalo Springs Campground, which is in one of Colorado’s darker zones.
Or just choose your own adventure.
Start by referring to this map of global light pollution. Find dark spots that look accessible and zoom in. Check that your choice is on public land (usually you can tell by the green shading on Google Maps) and off you go.
Frankly, one of the best parts about stargazing is driving aimlessly through the night, waiting for the stars to burst into view. Maybe that’s just me.
The thing to keep in mind is this: No matter what, you’re still looking at colossal phenomena, burning near forever in the distance, painted over for the briefest moments by the flash of tiny space rocks.