Travel

ADVENTURE 001: WESTCLIFFE, CO

The nondescript Smokey Jack Observatory on the outskirts of Westcliffe, CO

When it came time to take some pictures of our first run of hats this fall, the decision of where to go was an easy one: Westcliffe, Colorado. A hidden gem of a mountain and ranching town nestled on the eastern slope of the Sangre de Cristo Range.

Take the time to look beneath the hood, and you'll realize that unlike many rural towns in Colorado, Westcliffe's best days are ahead of it. While it's always been a key launch point for hiking many of the 14ers that tower above its historic buildings, there's more than meets the eye, at least during daylight hours.

Which brings us back to how we first learned about the town. Earlier this summer during the Perseid Meteor Shower, Westcliffe made some national headlines when a New York Times writer visited and wrote about the town's little known membership as one of the few Dark Sky Communities in the world.

What kind of cult is that you ask? It's not. The International Dark Sky Association is an organization whose goal is preserving a little talked about resource: the visibility of our night sky. The organization works with towns and communities to help guide them on ways to reduce light pollution.

Towns that really commit to the cause by replacing city lights with dimmer, downward facing lights while also investing in astronomical education offerings for its inhabitants can earn an official Night Sky Community Certification from the organization. Westcliffe is one of nine designated cities in the world and the highest in elevation, making it a killer place to view stars, and that's exactly what we did during our visit.

In 2015, Westcliffe built the Smokey Jack Observatory, a nondescript looking shack that actually holds a 14-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope with computer guided pointing and tracking. That's a super nice telescope. Good enough to see Saturn's rings and the Andromeda galaxy 2.5 million light years away.

What's even more fantastic is that you can email them, and they'll show up pretty much whenever you want and take you on a complimentary, two-hour tour of the sky, while you and your friends ooh and ahh. Pretty amazing offering for a small mountain town.

So, we capped off our weekend of wandering around Westcliffe and it's neighboring trails with some star gazing, and while we put the cameras away to simply enjoy the moment, we took some photos just before dusk to give you a glimpse into the surrounding area.

So, next time you're blasting through Westcliffe, likely to bag your next 14er, consider an extra night in town to take in some stars. You won't regret it.