Extra Utah: A Journey To The Darkest Spot In The State
This summer, KUER producer Benjamin Bombard is traveling around Utah looking for places that are…extra. Extreme. His first mission: to find the darkest place — above ground — in the state. He just might have found it among the redrock spires of Kodachrome State Park.
To find the darkest skies in Utah you have to get off the beaten path. But first you have to follow the beaten path to the town of Cannonville, east of Bryce Canyon. Head south out of town and follow the road a little ways until you find yourself at Kodachrome Basin State Park.
I went to Kodachrome because University of Utah astronomer Anil Seth told me that’s where I’d find the darkest skies in the state. When I arrived late one afternoon, I was greeted at the entrance by Seth Marler, a seasonal park ranger. He told me that on some nights, it’s so dark you can’t see your hand in front of your face.
Before nightfall, I walked through the park along the Panorama Trail and gazed up at stunning red rock formations framed by wispy clouds and perfectly cerulean skies.
The red rock walls at Kodachrome are monumental. And because of the quiet, which was broken only by the wind and the occasional call of a small bird, it felt like I was walking through a church. I hardly spoke a word as I hiked out into the backcountry.
The park is home to more than 60 rock spires, including Ballerina Spire. It towers over the surrounding landscape and points into the sky like a finger giving direction.
The trail bends and yaws through the contorted landscape of the desert, and it follows the curvature of the sandstone cliffs, which are drawn up like curtains against the horizon.
I wanted to be out in the backcountry until the sun set and the moon set and then the only visible light would have traveled light years to reach me. As the sun was going down, it played a spectacular show on the few clouds drifting about in the western sky.
Three miles from the trailhead, I found a place at the mouth of a red rock canyon and sat down to wait for night. It was just beginning to get dark, and stars were coming out, when a bank of clouds blew in from the east and blotted out half the sky.
The moon hung like a ghost behind the clouds. Night came. At 10 o’clock, I held my hand in front of my face. I could still see it. An hour later, I got the same result.
At some point, I dozed off. I was later awakened by a harsh and terrible scream. When I looked around, expecting to find a monster, I saw nothing but desert and sky. It must have been a nightmare. The moon had set, revealing more stars than I had ever seen in a single night. The red rock walls, so colorful during the day, were reduced to inky silhouettes against the dark backdrop of night.
I was gazing up at the celestial light show when I heard the scream. This time, I wasn’t dreaming. Whatever it was was close. Still halfway between sleep and wakefulness, I imagined a grey-skinned, white-eyed demon with knives for teeth huddled in the black shadow of a nearby juniper. I haven’t been so scared since I was a kid, but somehow, I managed to yell out, “HEY! HEY! HEY!” The scream came again, and again I screamed back. I heard it once more, but now it was moving off, and I was coming to my senses. It wasn’t the hideous terror I had imagined — just a bobcat — making itself known.
It was 1:30 a.m. I could still see my hand in front of my face, but just barely. The Milky Way was spun like cosmic cobwebs across the rib of the starry sky. The hike back to camp went slowly. It’s hard to follow a path when you’re looking up at the stars. They were everywhere: low on the horizon and freckled in every corner of the sky.
When I spoke with Anil Seth, the astronomer, he told me that on really dark nights it can be hard to orient yourself and find constellations in the cluttered map of stars. So, instead of looking for patterns I already knew, I searched for new possibilities.
As I neared camp, it suddenly struck me how tired I was. It was almost 4 a.m. My hand in front of my face was now invisible, and between the dark expanse of desert all around me, and the limitless darkness of space above me, only the solid earth under my feet kept me from spinning out into the deep.