I arrived at the lookout near midnight. Above were splendid views of Sirius and Procyon, two of the brightest stars in the velvet-black night sky. The Pleiades were almost directly overhead and Uranus was floating somewhere near the horizon.
To the west were a stunning array of nine peaks, all over 10,000 feet. In other directions were equally picturesque views of Smoky, Boulder, White Cloud and Sawtooth mountains. It was windless, exceptionally clear and totally silent.
I was near the center of the Central Idaho Dark Sky Reserve, the first — and so far the only — International Dark Sky Reserve in the United States and, at 1,416 square miles, the third largest such reserve in the world. (Only wilderness areas in Quebec, Canada, and on New Zealand’s South Island are larger.)
Since its establishment in late 2017, tourists have flocked to campgrounds, trails and lodges where they can get star views. Idaho’s environs are the perfect spot for a socially distant vacation where people can lie under a blanket of stars in the clearest skies in the continental United States.
The state was inundated with visitors during summer 2020 and all indications, according to Idaho Tourism manager Diane Norton, point to a record-shattering summer this year. Idaho’s statewide lodging tax, an indicator of visitation, is significantly exceeding 2019 numbers. Visits were up by 23% this past February and March, and up by 37% in April.
For those who want to see the stars, there’s only one glitch: light pollution from Boise, 65 miles to the west. (See a map of the area here.)
That fast-growing city is “the greatest threat to the reserve,” says Steve Botti, the mayor of Stanley, a small town at 6,300 feet altitude about 30 miles north of where I was standing on my celestial Idaho excursion. Stanley sees a fourfold increase in its population during the popular summer months. Several nearby lodges cater to astrotourism, such as Redfish Lake Lodge, which has pontoon boats for patrons who want to get out from under the trees to stargaze.
The International Dark Sky Association, a Tucson, Arizona, nonprofit, has given the Idaho reserve a gold-tier designation, meaning that the inhabited areas at the periphery of the wilderness have appropriate laws in place to cut down light emissions.
Two of those inhabited areas are the twin cities of Ketchum and Sun Valley, perhaps better known for their famous ski resort, where daily lift tickets sell for $165. Far from the stars, its downtown plaza is next to a store rated as one of the world’s loveliest Starbucks locations.
Together, these cities weathered an exceptionally bleak season of COVID-19 last year, when local rates of infection were some of the highest per capita in the world. Then the number of cases plummeted, and Idaho was one of the earliest states to reach the final phase of its reopening plan.
To lure back visitors while stressing caution, Sun Valley tourism came out last summer with a new “Mindfulness in the Mountains” mission, and by July 4 weekend, numbers at local campgrounds and lodgings were up to pre-coronavirus levels.
“There were tons of campers up there,” said Jason Bosley, former director of the Stanley-Sawtooth Chamber of Commerce. “It was like a gold rush. Being a mountain town, this is where people were going to get away. With the increased number of people working remotely, you saw hotels busy even in the middle of the week.”
Laurie McConnell, who does marketing for Idaho Tourism, said the state is still reminding tourists to be “mindful” in the wild.
“People need to behave differently in the outdoors, such as pack in, pack out,” she said. “There are no garbage cans in the wilderness.”
The locals say there’s nothing elsewhere in the country that compares to what they have.
“I love the dark sky. Love it,” says Nina Jonas, a local restaurant owner who was mayor of Ketchum from 2014 to 2018. “We are higher in altitude and lower in humidity. Those come together to make a brilliant sky.”
Idaho’s mix of mountains and farming areas is famously unregulated, she says, but the locals have been passionate about making the place sky-friendly for two decades.
Born in Greenland, Jonas moved to the United States when she was 2 years old and grew up in Ketchum camping underneath the stars.
She’d fall asleep gazing at the Big Dipper and Orion, and then, “You woke up in the middle of the night and the tapestry had moved. It’s nice to know there’s a space where the imagination can run wild.”
The best star viewing is off Idaho state Route 75 to the north of Ketchum. As the paved highway winds through the Wood River Valley, there are multiple pull-off points to allow drivers to view the stars. The Sawtooth National Recreation Area visitor center, which is 7 miles up Route 75, has its bathrooms open 24 hours to accommodate stargazers. Those without telescopes need only to enlist the Sky Guide app on their phones to identify which stars are which.
Continuing up the valley, there are loads of hiking trails (used for winter sports in the snowy season), along with the occasional hot spring. And 23 miles north of Ketchum/Sun Valley is Galena Lodge, a funky log cabin with a restaurant, ski rentals and a gift shop. Lodging is in the form of backcountry yurts and camping spaces. The 10,000-foot Boulder Mountains rise up nearby.
Mike Ibershof, an employee who was minding the gift shop when I visited, said that weekend nights, especially when there are weddings, draw the most visitors.
“People just stare up at them,” he says of the stargazers. “It’s a whole new thing.”
From there, the road climbed 7 miles up a 6% grade to the Galena summit at 8,700 feet. Because of roadside reflectors seemingly every few feet, the drive, even in the dark, was not difficult.
Gracing the top is the Bethine and Frank Church Lookout, the best viewing spot in the entire reserve. Two fixed sets of binoculars are there to take in the sights along the Stanley Basin, a long, wide valley to the north, as well as the constellations above.
Although fast-growing Boise poses a threat to the reserve’s western edge, the dark sky picture is more hopeful to the east. That is where Craters of the Moon National Monument attained silver-tier status as an International Dark Sky Park (which has less stringent darkness requirements than a reserve) in 2017. To the southeast of Boise, Bruneau Dunes State Park is working on attaining Dark Sky Park status.
Botti moved up to Stanley from Boise years ago and the difference, he said, “was dramatic. In Stanley, this is as good as it gets.”
He was the main instigator of an idea for a reserve back in 2015. Jonas, representing Ketchum, quickly signed on, as did the Idaho Conservation League. The U.S. Forest Service, which controls much of the land, had to be brought in, as did the Bureau of Land Management, the Sawtooth National Recreation Area and the town of Stanley itself.
And there is a chance the reserve could be expanded. The largest roadless area in the Lower 48, the 2.4-million-acre Frank Church — River of No Return Wilderness lies to the north.
“The majority of people are in favor of it,” said Betsy Mizell of the Idaho Conservation League, “but you need the staff and the money to enforce the ordinances. There are options for lighting, but people need to be educated about them.”
Until compliance is automatic, “We need someone who can champion this,” she said. “Idaho is not progressive like Seattle. It’s a different political world here.”
Still, Western Washington residents are keenly interested in the area. Website traffic for the Stanley Chamber of Commerce shows Seattle as the third largest city of origin behind Boise and Salt Lake City. Plus, Boise is a top destination for Seattleites who migrate east for work, according to a September 2018 LinkedIn Workforce report.
Mindful of this, Ketchum, and the nearby cities of Sun Valley like Hailey and Stanley, have a bevy of visitor services along with their world-class stargazing. More astronomers may get involved. Boise State University is trying to raise the $28,000 it needs for a mobile planetarium for use around the state.
Brian Jackson, an associate professor and astronomer at Boise State, said it wouldn’t take much to lure retired astronomers to a summer residency in places like Stanley, where they can educate visitors to the treasure in Idaho’s backyard.
“It is a unique resource,” he said. “The skies there are spectacular.”
But it took planning to get that way. Ketchum, at 5,853 feet altitude, was the ideal spot for stargazing, but not if there were too many lights. In 1999, it was the first city in Idaho to have a dark sky ordinance, which required urban lighting fixtures that diverted light down rather than up and limited the time frames for holiday lights.
It tightened up its ordinance in 2015. Those who violate it can be fined up to $300 for a “light trespass,” a misdemeanor. Today, outdoor lights must be “warmer” colors on the lower part of the color spectrum (red/orange), instead of the far brighter “blue” lights.
Why the fuss? Although electricity and light have transformed human culture, the resulting nighttime blaze of cities from coast to coast means that vast swatches of the American population never see the Milky Way. (According to findings from NASA’s Suomi NPP satellite, this is 80% of the populace). In many parts of the country, night light glare from cities is often visible 40-60 miles away. In the case of a massive light emitter like Las Vegas, it’s 90 miles.
One of the chief villains: LED lights, whose wavelengths of blue light, especially in streetlamps and car headlights, light up the night skies and disturb nocturnal animals. Color temperature is measured in Kelvins and blue-white LEDs are at 7,500K. The American Medical Association recommends limiting LEDs to half that, or 3,000K, because of how excess light disturbs circadian rhythms and causes sleep deprivation. Ketchum city code tops light output to 2,700K.
All this may sound like excess regulation until nightfall, when the stars burst out, covering this part of the planet. It’s then, when the Milky Way splashes itself across the sky, that it becomes clear that sometimes darkness is a good thing.