Star Light, Star Bright

Moonlight snowshoe tours open the skies to visitors

Beautiful night shot of full moon with trees in front

Miles from the distortion of any big-city lights, the night sky above Dillon and Silverthorne glows.

In fact, Silverthorne’s Summit Sky Ranch is a rare designated Dark Sky Community, which means that when they built the housing development in 2016, lighting was limited to ensure the stars above outshine any street- or housing lights. A mountain ridge also blocks the ambient light from Silverthorne and Frisco. There are just two other Dark Sky-designated developments in the state of Colorado, both south of Pueblo.

Homeowners of Summit Sky Ranch aren’t the only ones benefiting from the lack of light distortion in the area. Silverthorne and Dillon residents and visitors can appreciate the starry night sky on foot in the winter, when the crisp air and snowy trails add a taste of adventure.

The town of Silverthorne sponsors moonlight snowshoe tours throughout the winter, and no experience—or any major level of fitness—is required. Simply show up at the Silverthorne Recreation Center on scheduled tour evenings (check Silverthorne.org for dates and times) wearing layers and boots or athletic shoes with snowshoes in hand, which you can rent at outdoor shops in the area. You’ll be led on a gentle hike on the Angler Mountain Trail, ending at North Pond Park for warm beverages and snacks.

“We offer a lot of sensory activities on the trail at night,” says Carin Faust, Silverthorne Recreation Center snowshoe tour leader. “We chat about humans and their senses, touching on smell, sound, sight and how our eyes play tricks on us in the evening.”

She adds that the night hike under a full moon is a great experience, but to really see stars, the hike during the new moon is the way to go. “The new moon reflects the least amount of light back to us, so you see more stars.”

Other area nighttime snowshoe events in the area include guided tours by High Country Activities and the Gold Run Nordic Center.

– Lisa Jhung

astronomer mark laurin with a big telescopeSilverthorne’s Stargazer: Mark Laurin

A cheap telescope changed Mark Laurin’s life. The astronomy enthusiast moved to Silverthorne for the clear night skies, and he’s now a volunteer for Summit Sky Ranch, one of Colorado’s first planned Dark Sky Communities. By Christina Erb

How did you get interested in astronomy?

I was a young kid right around the time the Mercury and Gemini missions were taking place. I would park myself in front of the television and watch all these liftoffs. My father took me to an astronomy shop on the seedy side of town and bought me a telescope. It was a simple gift. It wasn’t very good at viewing the night sky, but it changed my life. I learned astronomy the hard way. I read books, attended conferences, and learned not to be afraid of mathematics.

Why do you love astronomy?

It comes down to this: We’re all made of hydrogen and helium, the basic building blocks of the universe. The night sky is not separate and distinct. We are part of the cosmos. That’s powerful. The universe is unlimited; try to wrap your arms around that. 

How long have you been visiting the Dillon-Silverthorne area?

I’ve been coming up here since the 80s. You can see the richness of the night sky here, and you don’t even need a telescope to do it.

Dark-sky communities are said to benefit local animal populations. How do animals act differently there?

A lot of activities take place at night: foraging, eating, mating. Light disrupts the natural rhythm of animals and insects that thrive at night. Preserving the natural environment brings animals out for people to see.

Where’s the best place to stargaze in the Dillon-Silverthorne area?

Loveland Pass. At 11,991 feet, you’re above the light pollution. It’s what makes Summit Sky Ranch so potent. It’s around 9,200 feet, and a mountain ridge blocks the ambient light from Silverthorne and Frisco. 

Do you have any tips for fellow stargazers when they visit Dillon and Silverthorne?

Get a blanket, binoculars, and lay down with a planisphere—a map of the night sky. Adjust it to today’s month, day and time, and it’ll show you the constellations above you. Right now, you can see the Winter Hexagon.

What’s the Winter Hexagon?

It’s an asterism, meaning it looks like its label, a hexagon. The Big Dipper looks like a dipper. It’s the same thing. The Winter Hexagon is the biggest asterism in the winter night sky. It constitutes six constellations and has eight sides.

What’s next for you?

I want to create the Summit County Center for Astronomical Excellence, a mobile outreach program for local residents. It’s tremendously rewarding to me to see awe in someone else’s life. The vision is to do activities through Summit SkyRanch in Silverthorne and use their observatory’s 20-inch refractor telescope.