New Mexico’s skies are exquisite. The abundance of earth tones is offset by a sky prone to colorful antics. The sky often looks more like a movie set, rendered by an artist that might be under the influence of something. Whether at sunrise, sunset or while star gazing, the sky consistently provides the impetus to look up, to look around, to marvel at the clouds, the mountains, the stars, to contemplate one’s place in a very large universe. The sky provides a theatrical performance using the sun, the clouds and the moon as players. The show varies by season and time of day, but the skies of New Mexico consistently command attention and a reverent “wow.”
Stargazing in New Mexico is extraordinary. Hundreds of stars, and the milky way, are readily visible from the cities, but when you drive a short distance away from the lights…the view is resplendent. Seriously. It is “Whoa”…gotta pull over, unbelievable, jaw dropping, off world, surreal magnificence. It can be inspiring, intimidating, overwhelming and more, depending on your state of mind and philosophical inclinations. The phenomena of dark sky, coveted by astronomers, is the norm in New Mexico. The soaring mountains allow exceptional views of Venus and Mercury, along with many constellations popularized in native art and lore (like Orion, Gemini, and Taurus).
There is rarely cloud interference, because it rarely rains, which means low humidity, eliminating condensation that would impair visibility. It’s the same reason ten percent of the state is visible from the top of Sandia Peak without binoculars.
“Viewing stars against a jet black sky is like diamonds on velvet, and star clusters with points of light too numerous to count fill the eyepiece like fireworks.” ~ Geoff Goins, Park Ranger, founder of Night Sky Adventures
Haven for Stargazers
New Mexico skies are so spectacular that an astronomy community has emerged near Silver City. The New Mexico Skies Astronomy Enclave is 20 miles north of Deming, or 30 miles south of Silver City on highway 180, near the City of Rocks State stargazingPark. The community has implemented covenants in the homeowner association bylaws restricting light to protect the dark sky phenomena that makes their location special. The New Mexico Skies observatory is next door, making this emerging community a haven for astronomy buffs. There are also rentals available in the area for amateur astronomers looking to enjoy a getaway that involves a celestial light show every night.
Stars-N-Parks hosts family friendly star parties in several southern New Mexico state parks:
- City of Rocks State Park, Faywood
- Leasburg Dam State Park, Radium Springs
- Pancho Villa State Park, Columbus
- Caballo State Park, Caballo
- Oliver Lee State Park, Alamogordo
- Rockhound State Park, Deming
These family star parties offer camping in the state parks, “tours” of the night sky and sometimes visits to an observatory. TIP: You can get a discount if you volunteer to help with the events.
There are numerous options for learning more about the night sky throughout New Mexico, with several options included below.
Pictured above, the VLA is one of the world’s premier astronomical radio observatories. The installation consists of 27 radio antennas in a Y-shaped configuration fifty miles west of Socorro on the Plains of San Agustin. The Magdalena Chamber of Commerce hosts an annual Enchanted Skies Star Party about 20 miles from the array.
Chaco Culture National Historic Park (between Cuba & Farmington)
They host a night sky program with presentations on archaeoastronomy and the role the heavens played in the life of the Chacoan people. Chaco is an IDA-designated dark-sky park.
Astronomy Adventures (Cerrillos Hills State Park)
Provides star tours on the Turquoise Trail with Peter, a park ranger by day, astronomer by night.
Night Sky Adventures (was Red River, now in Bandelier)
Another park ranger by day, astronomer by night. This fellow also taught astronomy at the University of New Mexico Taos branch, though the repetition in theme makes me wonder if park rangers have spent more time looking at the heavens than most.
IDA-designated dark-sky park in northeastern New Mexico, near Clayton and Raton.
Located near Abiquiu, hosts monthly “dark night” star parties. From Española, travel north on the road to Abiquiú (84/285) for approximately 20 miles. Turn right a few miles before Abiquiú at the sign for El Rito and Northern New Mexico Community College. This is State Road 554, and you go approximately 12 miles on this road until you reach El Rito. The college is on the left side of the road (look for the water tower). You should see the dome-shaped Observatory in a field on the left just before the campus. Take the first college driveway on the left. Drive to a T, turn left and go past some buildings and into the field where the Observatory is located.
Near Red River. This isn’t the darkest site, but it can be accessed via a paved road and there’s an outhouse available, though they advise bringing your own toilet paper.
Contact them directly for information on upcoming star parties or astronomy related events.
El Malpais National Monument, near Grants
Offers dark skies amidst the basalt lava flows of Bandera. Contact regarding upcoming events.
Offers a unique star gazing opportunity. Whereas there is light emanating from Alamogordo and the dunes reflect moonlight more radiantly than most places, the waves of gypsum dunes under the night sky merely add to the ambiance.
Became a U.S. International Dark Sky sanctuary in January, 2016. Call directly to get information on upcoming astronomy events.
A 1.42 hectare (3.5 acre) site in the Gila National Forest of western New Mexico, U.S. Situated between the Gila Wilderness and the Blue Range Primitive Area. The nearest significant source of artificial light is more than 30 miles away in Arizona.
Offers periodic night sky programs, providing an opportunity to marvel at the heavens in the shadow of the ancients.
Provides spectacular views of the night sky. It is among the top 20 darkest night skies measured in more than 90 national parks.
Though the Bisti isn’t specifically referenced as a dark sky site, the night sky coupled with surreal landscape are transcendental.
Whether you get expert astronomy insight or just lie in the back of a pickup, take the time to look up and savor the New Mexico sky.