Rainbow Bridge National Monument at night. Wow.
Photo: Brent & Dawn Davis (National Park Service)

The U.S. National Park Service can add “top-notch, internationally-accredited views of the Milky Way” to its long list of attractions. On April 16, Utah’s Rainbow Bridge National Monument became the world’s fourth International Dark Sky Sanctuary, an exclusive club consisting of some of the most remote, light pollution-free places in the world.

Even better? It was recognized in part because of its cultural significance to Native American tribes, including the Hopi, Navajo, and Zuni.

“We’re thrilled to be the first National Park Service unit to receive this specific designation, as this will only fuel our night sky preservation efforts,” Rainbow Bridge National Monument superintendent William Shott said in a statement.

Named for an enormous natural rock arch in southern Utah, the 160-acre Rainbow Bridge National Monument joins a growing cadre of sites that have received formal recognition from the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) for their stunningly star-studded skies. In December, a 1,400 square-mile swath of Idaho was named America’s first International Dark Sky Reserve (and just the 12th globally) following decades of work by local residents to reduce ambient lighting. Many more places been designated International Dark Sky Parks, meaning they adhere to strict outdoor lighting standards, including using fully-shielded fixtures and dimmer bulbs with warmer color temperatures, and they offer dark sky programs for visitors.

Even amidst all these good stargazing options, though, Dark Sky Sanctuaries—a designation the IDA reserves for incredibly remote, extremely dark places—are special.

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“The typical geographic isolation of Dark Sky Sanctuaries significantly limits opportunities for public outreach, so a sanctuary designation is specifically designed to increase awareness of these fragile sites and promote their long-term conservation,” the IDA writes.

According to Bettymaya Foott, coordinator with the Colorado Plateau Dark Sky Cooperative (CPDSC), sanctuaries like Rainbow Bridge are often singled out for being culturally-sensitive places, as well.

“What’s really cool about Rainbow Bridge being a Dark Sky Sanctuary [is] it is a traditional cultural property in the NPS,” Foott told Earther. “And...the cultural ties actually come from the night sky,” which is spiritually significant to the Native peoples who have called the land around the monument home for centuries.

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For most of human history, most people could look up at night and, at least occasionally, see the arc of the Milky Way. Today, an estimated 80 percent of the world’s population and 99 percent of Americans live with some amount of light pollution, and many of us can barely see the stars at all anymore (just check out this footage showing what the sky over Time Square would look like if not for all the dang lights).

That’s part of the reason that, for remote communities out West, protecting the sky has become a priority. Foott pointed to a recent study out of Missouri State University estimating that, over a 10 year period, the night skies of the Colorado Plateau add $2.5 billion to local economies. There’s literally money in the stars.

“I would say that there is huge momentum behind this issue right now,” Foott said, noting that in Utah, each of the five national parks and quite a few state parks have either been designated dark sky places, or are in the process of designation.

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She added that CPDSC, which does community education and outreach and assists dark places in receiving formal accreditation, promotes astro-tourism as a form of “rural economic revitalization.” At the same time, though, the organization is mindful that more people in a dark area means more development, which inevitably means more light pollution. Recently, CPDSC has been helping folks in gateway communities on the edge of the wilderness to enact lighting ordinances that keep skyglow at bay.

I’ve got little doubt the night sky anywhere in rural Utah would be breathtaking to me and most of my fellow 99-percenters. But if you want a truly out-of-this-world experience, add Rainbow Bridge to your bucket list. Be prepared to work for it, though: the monument is only accessible via boat from Lake Powell or by way of Navajo Nation lands with the tribe’s permission, and camping within its borders is off-limits.