If you think you’ve seen everything that shines in New Mexico, just look up at the night sky from Cosmic Campground and you’ll find even more to admire. Las Cruces astrophotographer Bob Kimball, a retired college dean from Michigan, describes it as a place where coyotes serenade visitors during the beautiful, quiet nights. When he visits, he is often accompanied by his 4-inch refracting telescope as well as other astrophotographers from Las Cruces.
Cosmic Campground International Dark Sky Sanctuary (CCIDSS), located about 13 miles north of Glenwood, offers unparalleled night sky views, with little to no obstruction from human-generated light to dim the stars. According to the Friends of Cosmic Campground website, the project was conceived in 2003 and, in cooperation with the U.S. Forest Service, opened in 2013. By 2016, it was designated as an International Dark Sky Sanctuary by the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA), a U.S.-based nonprofit organization founded in 1988 by astronomer David Crawford.
Out of the five IDA night-sky designations, sanctuaries are the darkest and most remote. CCIDSS was the first International Dark Sky Sanctuary in North America, and by extension, the first in the United States and on Forest Service lands. Currently, there are only 14 Dark Sky Sanctuaries in the world.
“It’s the second site designated in the Northern Hemisphere. The first was in Chile. It’s pretty significant,” Glenwood District Ranger Erick Stemmerman said. “If you look at the sanctuaries, many are remote or are observatories. [Cosmic Campground] is right off of a highway. It’s remote, but accessible, which makes it particularly unique since it’s difficult to get to some of the others.”
The designations are granted as part of the International Dark Sky Places Program, a conservation project founded in 2001 that recognizes excellent stewardship of the night sky. Applications are reviewed quarterly by the organization and the process to apply requires proof of community support and thorough documentation of all program requirements. If designated, regular updates must be provided to maintain the site’s status as a Dark Sky Place. There are more than 130 Dark Sky Places across the world in the five categories.
Las Crucen Rich Richins has visited and camped multiple times at Cosmic Campground to photograph and observe the night sky. He’s a member of the Astronomical Society of Las Cruces and owns a few telescopes, cameras, and other equipment to view and photograph celestial objects. He recounted a group camping trip there when digital single-lens reflex (SLR) cameras first came out, and hobbyists were helping each other learn and explore.
“There are no lights. Nothing. I was awe-inspired at how dark it was. Five thousand years ago, it would have looked just like that,” Rich said. “I’ll still say, that is one of the darkest sky sites I’ve ever been to and I’m critical about dark sky sites. There are very few places like that that have public access.”
The campground began as a collaboration between a group now known as Friends of Cosmic Campground, led by Patricia Grauer, and the Forest Service.
“They are the reason it is there,” Erick said. “They were the proponents of that. The partnership was that they had the vision and we supported it.”
Dr. Al Grauer, Patricia’s husband, said most people in the United States and Europe cannot experience the natural night sky.
“My wife was determined to help create a place where children of all ages have a chance to view the natural night sky,” he said. “She is responsible for the two primary keys to the success of the Cosmic Campground, the name and the International Dark Sky Association certification as an International Dark Sky Sanctuary.”
With the Dark Sky Sanctuary designation secured, the Forest Service is making the site more structured, with additional signage and educational materials for visitors about the campground, its designation, and night sky pollution.
“We’re trying to educate people more on it,” Erick said. “A lot of people think of a Dark Sky Park, but that special quality of being a sanctuary is unique and it’s special. And being one of the first is also special.”
Forest Service Recreation Management Specialist Ellyse Deldin and Erick say the site is popular and usually full on weekends. Ellyse noted, though, that there is dispersed camping nearby for overflow and asks that visitors adhere to “leave no trace” principles to preserve the area.
“It is busy all the time, but it is particularly busy during any celestial or astronomical event — meteor showers, eclipses, particular alignments of planets. That’s when you’ll see a lot more people there, and it’s a great opportunity to join in,” Erick says. “It’s an international attraction. It’s one of the darkest places in the world, and many have never seen the Milky Way. So, it’s a great place to go do that.”
He said there are star parties at the campground to which professionals bring large telescopes to let people view the night sky and perhaps introduce them to a new and exciting hobby. Erick noted that the campground is a good central location close to other opportunities for recreation in the Gila National Forest, such as the Catwalk Recreation Area and the Blue Range Wilderness areas.
“The wonderful thing about Cosmic Campground is that it makes camping under a night sky accessible to all people,” Ellyse says. “We do see many astrophotographers and astronomy fans, but also people who have never seen a night sky that well before. For those who do have a telescope, they can have a designated space away from campfires and potential lights. It’s a very cool opportunity for all.”
To maintain its designation as an IDA Dark Sky Sanctuary, the Forest Service and Friends of the Cosmic Campground work together to maintain the darkness and the land. No lights have been installed, and a sky brightness measurement program is in place to constantly measure the sky’s brightness. IDA also provides signage and publications, and emphasizes the dark sky component of the site. Erick says the Forest Service is making a concerted effort to increase dark sky opportunities and that observation data and educational components help people value it more.
CCIDSS is currently open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and visitors are urged to follow Centers for Disease Control and state COVID-19 guidelines. To get to CCIDSS from Las Cruces, take Interstate 10 West to Deming (52 miles), then take US-180 north for about 125 miles to Glenwood.
The campground has one vault toilet, an information kiosk, six designated RV/tent sites, a handful of tent-only sites, and four concrete telescope pads. Visitors are asked to use a red filter over flashlight lenses (fabric, paper, or cellophane), and to arrive before dark so headlights won’t distort visitors’ night vision. It is designed for cars to park with headlights pointing away from the viewing areas. Ellyse said looking at white light from a flashlight, cell phone, or car headlights will cause a person to have to wait 20 to 30 minutes before being able to fully adjust to night vision and enjoy the campground’s 360-degree view of the natural night sky.
The campground’s quiet time is between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. Campfires are allowed in designated areas only, except when fire restrictions are in place, and campfire pits are located away from the designated observation sites. No parking or campfires are allowed on the telescope pads. Reservations are not necessary, and there is no fee to visit or camp. For information, visit this site. For information about the International Dark-Sky Association, visit darksky.org.
Enhance your visit as a citizen scientist
There are cell phone apps that offer ways to participate as a citizen scientist and help understand the impact of light pollution, measure night sky brightness, find constellations and other objects, and more. The Dark Sky Meter and Loss of the Night are apps you can use to measure night sky brightness and record levels of light pollution.
The Cities at Night project relies on citizen scientists to map and identify photos of cities taken from the International Space Station to help assess light pollution across the globe.
Other apps allow you to get information and identify night sky objects. Google Sky allows you to see the night sky from the view of the Hubble Telescope. Sky Safari, Skyview, Night Sky, Star Chart, and Star Tracker let you find and identify stars, planets, and other celestial objects. The NASA and International Space Station apps offer a plethora of information and statistics about space.
Written by Tracy Patrick Roy | Photos courtesy U.S. Forest Service | Astrophotography by David Thornburg/Courtesy U.S. Forest Service
Originally published in Neighbors magazine