Smokey Jack Observatory Brings Boom in Tourism to Custer County

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Westcliffe & Silver Cliff, CO – July 23, 2018 – Three years after the construction and dedication of the Smokey Jack Observatory (SJO), locals and tourists from all over the world are flocking to visit the Wet Mountain Valley to see our pristine night skies through the lens of a state-of-the-art, 14-inch telescope.

Interest in the Valley as a tourist destination for our dark skies began growing after a series of high profile international and national news stories, including the Japanese national broadcaster NHK, NBC’s Today Show, the New York Times and CNN’s Great Big Story, among many others. The stories featured the Dark Sky International Association’s Community Certification of the towns Westcliffe and Silver Cliff, the first in Colorado, along with the newly dedicated SJO.

In addition to media reports, the State of Colorado Tourism Office recently listed Westcliffe and Silver Cliff as one of “14 Places to Stargaze in Colorado.” Also, the U.S. Travel Association (USTA), which drives $4.7 billion in future travel to the United States from around the globe, hosted its annual event in Denver of this year. At the event, the majestic night sky of Custer County and the SJO were featured to worldwide travel professionals as a “major asset” in USTA’s marketing of places to experience along Colorado’s Scenic and historic byways.

Throughout the year, the SJO provides free public and private Star Parties, hosted by trained Star Guides from Dark Skies of the Wet Mountain Valley. What began as a fun way to allow the local community to visit the SJO and potentially attract out of town visitors has turned into a dramatic boom in tourism and community interest.

Clint Smith, the lead Dark Skies Star Guide, states that the SJO was almost “completely booked” for June and July, while bookings are fast reaching capacity for August and September, as well. He also notes that “at least half of the visitors to the SJO” visit Custer County specifically to view our dark skies, inevitably contributing to the economic growth of the Valley.

One recent SJO visitor from Alabama heard about Star Parties and our dark skies while traveling through Italy on a train after stating up a conversation with local Dark Skies members who were also visiting Italy. Two months later, she was traveling to Colorado and decided to make an out of the way stop just to book a Star Party at the SJO.

The excitement for the SJO is not just limited to out of town visitors. Locals alike are experiencing the breathtaking views of the stars through the SJO’s telescope. After a recent public Star Party, Custer County resident Richard Posadas stated that he “saw the mountains on the moon and stars last night for the first time like never before” and was “shocked” at how clearly he could see the moons of Jupiter.

Last week, a private Star Party hosted a visually impaired woman and her seeing eye dog from Charleston, SC. She was able to see Jupiter for the first time via the telescope and was able to see many other astronomical objects on the SJO’s video monitor using World Wide Telescope.

Another recent private Star Party hosted a couple from Boston, MA who started making travel plans to visit the SJO three years ago after seeing NBC’s Today Show profile on our Dark Skies certification. These visitors stayed in the Valley for a week camping, eating at local restaurants, and shopping at local merchants.

Other visitors are making special side trips to Custer County while visiting Denver for business. One example, is a family from Nashville who drove down with their two kids and were so excited with the experience they stayed at the SJO after midnight and left proclaiming how they could not wait to tell everyone back home about the fantastic experience they had.

This boom in tourism has also benefited the local B&B operators in the County and contributed to our lodging tax.  Charley Ellison, the owner of Dark Skies Vacations, manages multiple Airbnb properties in the County and reports a strong uptick in bookings this summer, with close to 100% occupancy, due to our Dark Sky Certification. He states that two-thirds of his guests tell him that visiting the SJO and seeing our night sky are primary reasons for visiting the Valley. These out-of-town visitors commonly state how happy they are to learn about our community and how excited they are for a return. Local merchants are also seeing the benefit of the SJO and tourism with the sales of Dark Skies branded apparel and the growing work of local artisans making dark skies related arts and crafts.

With only 1% of all Americans able to see the Milky Way due to light pollution, according to the Light Pollution Science and Technology Institute, residents of Custer County have been gifted a truly special place in today’s increasingly light polluted world. By simply honoring and preserving this gift from above, we have the opportunity to connect with the beautiful night sky of our ancestors while giving our community a source of great pride. 

If you are interested in being a part of this exciting work and would like to volunteer with Dark Skies of the Wet Mountain Valley, we are in need of additional Star Guides due to the increased demand for Star Parties. Star Guides simply need to be passionate about the night sky and will go through a training process, no formal astronomy knowledge is required. Potential volunteers can contact Dark Skies of the Wet Mountain Valley via our website or via

Remaining 2018 Star Party Dates at the Smokey Jack Observatory, located at 100 S Adams Blvd, Westcliffe, CO 81252:

August 13, Monday, 9:00 p.m. to the early morning hours of the 14th, MDT:              
     Perseid Meteor Shower
September 14, Friday, 8:00 p.m. MDT: The Milky Way
October 19, Friday, 7:30 p.m. MDT: International Observe the Moon Night

To Reserve Smokey Jack Observatory:
Visit  and click “Book a Private Star Party Now”. The most up to date availability for the SJO is on the website.

Dark Skies of the Wet Mountain Valley is a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving the exceptional quality of the natural dark skies of the Wet Mountain Valley in Custer County, Colorado, by assisting the community with individual preservation efforts and by educational programs supporting observation, appreciation and preservation of the natural dark skies.