Deliberately Kept in the Dark

'Tis the season for gazing at the stars, and Salinas Pueblo Missions offers the closest official stop for a dark sky park

From the star and moon symbols in petroglyph panels at Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument northeast of Socorro, it's clear that people have been staring up at the sky from the 360-degree views visible from its pueblos for centuries. But the park has committed to preserving that experience for the future and to sharing that view each year, in a season that starts in April for some out-of-state visitors, with city goers who might not otherwise get to see the Milky Way.

Stand in Gran Quivera, once a city of multiple pueblos of tens or hundreds of rooms, and views stretch in nearly every direction, some reaching 100 miles to distant mountains. By day, the site where Spanish Colonial mission churches were built atop the pueblos is a testament to New Mexico's culturally layered and complicated history, a place where Spaniards and Natives coexisted until drought forced them all out. But at night, eyes turn upward toward an experience that, because of a remote location and little light pollution, is similar to what Native residents had there centuries ago.

"The skies that we're looking at today, in one way or another, closely resemble those that our ancestors used to stare into. And the same constellations, the same images, and the magic that they experience, I think, is shared by folks from our generation," says Scott Feierabend, executive director of the International Dark Sky Association, which added Salinas Pueblo Missions to its list of dark sky parks in 2016. It's now the closest dark sky park to Santa Fe.

Park superintendent Tom Betts had been with the National Park Service for 35 years, six of which were at Bandelier National Monument. In 2016, he took the job at Salinas Pueblo Missions and visited the site for the first time.

"When I got here, my jaw just dropped," he says. "The missions on top of the pueblos are just an incredible viewing site. … It took me at least a week to get my jaw up off the floor because it's so beautiful and so inspiring here."

Betts arrived just in time for the official dark sky park designation and an event that saw about 50 attendees taking star tours guided by laser pointers and peering through telescopes. Since then, the park has hosted roughly half a dozen nighttime viewing events each year, often staffed and equipped with telescopes by volunteers from the Albuquerque Astronomical Society. Telescopes park in the plaza areas, close to the missions and convento, but in an open-air setting to allow for unencumbered viewing.

Members of the Lake County Astronomical Society near Chicago also make an annual trip to the site. They came first to see Halley's Comet, and have been returning for the 32 years since.

"You just kind of take these things for granted because it's in your backyard," says Norma Pineda, a ranger at Salinas Pueblo Missions. "These men from Chicago are coming every year just to look through their telescopes because they don't have that in Illinois."

She points to night lights imagery maps from NASA that show the eastern side of the US lit up, but the West still relatively dark. How long it'll stay that way is something of a question.

"As the years go and places get populated, we're going to lose that if we don't educate the public," she says. In addition to hosting events, the requirements for a dark sky park include shielding lighting to prevent diluting the view, and the park has put some lights on motion sensors.

"Our ability to reconnect with the stars and skies above us and realize just how incredibly insignificant we are in the grand scheme of things is something that's really important, and for some people really spiritual," Feierabend says. "Truly dark skies are just a real important resource that's shrinking every day."

It's fun and it's beautiful, but a growing body of research also shows that dark skies have critical health effects for people and wildlife. Lighting can affect nocturnal pollinators, as well as bird migration and health, with recent research finding that house sparrows infected with West Nile virus who were exposed to dim light at night remained infectious for a longer period of time. For people, spending time in the dark can help re-sync circadian rhythms and improve physical and mental health.

The state's dark skies were identified among its most endangered cultural resources in 1999, and the Night Sky Protection Act has mandated that outdoor fixtures installed after 2000 protect those views. Both Santa Fe County and the city have ordinances to reduce light pollution.

If more people have a chance to get in touch with that experience, Feierabend says, coming years might see less light pollution, not more. "I think we have the capacity to begin reclaiming dark skies," he says, "once people understand the beauty and magnitude of having a dark sky."

Star viewing events at Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument are planned for Saturday, June 9 and Saturday, July 14, and will keep the park open until 10 pm. For more information visit or call 847-2585.

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