The high desert vistas of the Four Corners combined with the thin air and one’s ability to see for miles make the region an ideal location for stargazing.
“In the Four Corners we have a rare combination of factors that all enhance good stargazing,” says David Mayeux, planetarium director at San Juan College. “Because of our elevation, the air is thinner, so you don’t get as much distortion from the air. We are in the high desert. We are arid, so the air we have has less moisture or humidity than in other locations. That makes the air quality clearer as well.”
David not only runs the only planetarium in the region, but he also offers monthly full-dome planetarium shows followed by star parties on the San Juan College campus in Farmington. These are free and open to the public.
Stargazing in the Four Corners
When stargazing in the Four Corners, it is best to find a location that allows for long-distance viewing, meaning the mountain tops instead of valleys. While Farmington and its northern neighbors, such as Durango, Silverton, and Telluride sit in valleys, the stars remain bright, because the population base is low. “Therefore, we don’t have as much light pollution,” David says.
“The most essential thing is to stargaze as far away from extraneous light as you can get. Outside of a city or town’s light dome, is the best for viewing,” David says, adding anywhere with a low horizon line works best. “Stargazing in the mountains is great, but you might have a high horizon line, which will block what you are trying to see, so one should have that in mind.”
When stargazing, visible constellations vary depending on the season, but the Milky Way can be seen at most times of the year. “The only time the Milky Way can’t be seen is in the evening right after sunset in June, and in the morning before sunrise in January,” David says.
Best Stargazing Locations
There are several areas along the mesas surrounding Farmington and the high peaks in the mountains can provide ultimate stargazing locations. The mountain passes above Durango, such as Coal Bank and Molas Passes provide some of the best places for roadside stargazing.
Mesa Verde National Park is located about 70 miles from Farmington and about 40 miles from Durango. The Ancestral Puebloans built their homes in the sides of mountains, thus giving them the name “cliff dwellings.” Because this archaeological site is above the horizon and far from the cities, it is one of the best areas for stargazing in the Four Corners.
In 2021, Mesa Verde became the 100th Dark Sky Park in the U.S. This designation was awarded after the park went through a multiyear application process to reduce outdoor lighting and use only downcast lighting systems. The park also went through several light pollution surveys to receive the designation. Mesa Verde offers dark-sky events regularly throughout the year.
Not far from Mesa Verde National Park is Hovenweep National Monument, which received its International Dark Sky Park designation in 2014. Located 100 miles from Farmington and 88 miles from Durango, in Montezuma Creek, Utah, Hovenweep includes six prehistoric villages dating from AD 1200 and 1300. It hosts an annual astronomy festival in the fall.
Another popular spot for stargazing is Chaco Culture National Historic Park, which boasts a full-scale night sky program. Chaco Canyon also could be considered a perfect site for stargazing, because it sits atop a mesa and became a Dark Sky Park in 2013. Chaco Canyon has its own observatory and retrofitted all park lighting to reduce light pollution. Chaco Canyon is 72 miles from Farmington and 105 miles from Durango.
Canyon de Chelly is located in Northern Arizona, on the Navajo Reservation. This is a great location for high vistas and clear skies. Stargazing in this area is optimal on nights when there is little to no moonlight, and special permits might be needed for any type of star party. Singular viewing of the stars would be allowed when the park is not closed, or for those who have overnight camping permits.
The next best place for stargazing in the Four Corners is Chimney Rock National Monument. Located just a few miles outside of Pagosa Springs, it is 60 miles from Farmington and 47 miles from Durango. Chimney Rock offers a full set of activities for those interested in astronomy including night sky programming, solstice and equinox events, and full-moon hikes.
Of course, stargazing is best done with as little moon as possible, according to David, who says. “Even if you want to view the moon, a smaller moon phase is better. The moon is the biggest light polluter in the night sky.”
David offers some good tips for stargazing, saying when the sky is dark and conditions are right, you don’t even need a telescope or binoculars. “Your eye has a wide field of view compared to optical aid, so any object that you want to find in the night sky starts with knowing the region of the sky that it is in,” he says, adding that starts by finding things with your naked eye.
“Naked eye stargazing is essential in learning how to use optical aid which includes binoculars and telescopes,” David says. “When people ask me how to get started in star gazing, I will tell them to learn the sky and the constellations within it at the naked eye level.”
Star maps and even star apps on your phone can help beginners become oriented to what’s there to be discovered in the dramatic night skies of the Four Corners area.