Home > Dark Places, Stargazing > Clayton Lake Dark Sky Park

Clayton Lake Dark Sky Park

Dark Sky Places Traveling Fellowship Part 4

Thanks to the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust, I have received a traveling fellowship to visit all of the International Dark Sky Places in North America between 22 August and 03 October 2011. This series of blog posts will detail my visit to each of these  very dark places.

Clayton Lake Dark Sky Park

Clayton Lake Dark Sky Park is the fourth International Dark Sky Place on my tour, and so far the most remote. Nestled in NE New Mexico, about 15 miles from the town of Clayton, this small park has long attracted astronomers to its dark skies.

Clayton Lake

Local high school principal Terrell Jones told me: “I’ve been bringing school kids out here for over twenty years to see the dark skies; it was a way of getting more kids interested in taking science, and of keeping the physics class running. We asked their parents to come with them, and lots of the parents – most of them ranchers who you’d have thought wouldn’t have been interested – started to want to know more.”

One such parent was Art Grine, Clayton’s barber. So taken was he with the wonders of the cosmos that he and his wife enrolled in Terrell Jones’ astronomy night class course, and he’s now president of the newly-formed Clayton Astronomy Club, which looks after the small observatory at Star Point,within the dark sky park. Art’s passions for astronomy – although he’s only been doing it for a few years – is evident, and his infectious enthusiasm is one of the main driving forces behind the success of the dark sky park.

Tourism seems to be a big part of the reasoning behind the dark sky park; much like Mont Megantic Dark Sky Reserve the streets of Clayton are festooned with flags promoting astronomy, the local “what’s on” guide features dark skies prominently, and the local hotels actively promote it. After the observatory was installed and the astronomy club set up, they ran monthly astronomy star parties at the site, and applied for and were awarded Dark Sky Park status (Gold Tier) in 2010.

Clayton, New Mexico

Since then they’ve continued to thrive on the dark sky status. Visitors to the park get sent to Art the Astrobarber who unfailingly arranges a time for them to see through the telescope, of which he is rightly proud.

Star Point Observatory, Clayton Lake

And the skies here are really dark, some of the darkest I’ve seen, with SQM readings of 21.6, and very little sky glow evident in the all sky images I took.

One satisfying story of light pollution mitigation comes from the local prison, the North East New Mexico Detention Facility, which opened in 2008, after the Clayton Lake observatory was built. The lights of the new prison were too bright and badly installed, and a new light dome appeared on the horizon of Clayton Lake. Terrel Jones and Art Grine visited the prison governor to ask whether he might instal shields on the lights, and brought with them an example shielding fixture. So persuasive were they that the governor had the inmates manufacture shields for all the offending lights, and so the light-dome was removed.

  1. Peter Lipscomb
    September 24, 2011 at 00:24

    Hi Steve,

    Wonderful to read about your visit to the remote Clayton Lake State Park. I think it important to mention two other organizations that were partners in establishing Clayton Lake as New Mexico’s first Dark Sky Park.

    New Mexico State Parks’ award-winning Reach for the Stars program was intitiated in 2004 and funded by the New Mexico State Legislature. Eighteen months later, the state opened the first of its state parks observatories at City of Rocks State Park. The Star Point Observatory at Clayton Lake State Park opened in June 2006. In addition to the facilities, the program also worked to train volunteers and staff and also to support formation of outdoor lighting ordinances in towns across the state.

    The other organization was the non-profit New Mexico Heritage Preservation Alliance. While serving as director of the alliance’s night sky program, I collaborated with state parks officials like parks director Dave Simon and folks like Art and Terrell to further efforts to protect and preserve the aesthetic, cultural and scientific value of the night sky not just for those alive today, but for generations to come.

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