May 23, 2024

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Glamping Beneath the Stars in Utah

6 min read

As I exited Harry Reid International Airport on a bright March afternoon, my hand flew up to protect my eyes, which had grown accustomed to the dull light of a long, gray Tennessee winter. I’d headed west for the sun, but even more so for the night sky, so I was hoping for clear weather ahead. I climbed aboard a shuttle bus that would take me two hours east to Utah, where I planned to spend a starry night at Under Canvas Lake Powell-Grand Staircase.

The glamping resort, one of 12 Under Canvas sites, is anchored on a canyon rim plateau in southern Utah and is the first resort in the world to be certified by the nonprofit authority on light pollution, DarkSky International. My aim was to beat the heat and the crowds — but what I really wanted was to be an early adopter of certified starry resorts.

The DarkSky Approved Lodging program is another step forward in the nonprofit’s history of advocacy for the reduction of light pollution. Broadly, the requirements for certification include being situated in an “exceptionally” dark location; having approved means of reducing the impact of light at night; and providing educational materials about night sky conservation to guests.

Under Canvas, said James Brigagliano, the program’s manager for DarkSky, was a good fit for the project because the company’s sites are in dark locations, and they already follow eco-friendly practices. Since the Lake Powell site was certified in August, other Under Canvas locations in the National Park Service’s Grand Circle Western parks area have also been approved.

In St. George, Utah, I rented a car and headed southeast, the Pine Valley Mountains hovering to the north. The second half of the two-hour drive was on Route 89, which runs from Mexico to Canada. My roughly 60-mile section was marked by sienna-hued mesas and buttes, and cornflower-blue skies.

By 3:30 p.m., I was bouncing along a red dirt road until Under Canvas’s cream-colored tents came into view. There are 50 in all, scattered across 220 acres, all of them with views of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, a massive geological formation that occupies about 1.87 million acres of public lands, from desert to coniferous forest.

As I got out of my car, I looked up at the sky warily. Clouds were gathering.

In the dirt lot, there were vehicles from Western states and a few from the Northeast. Like me, these travelers had come early — one day after the resort opened for the season — to take advantage of the cool weather and outdoor activities like horseback riding, hiking, rappelling in nearby Elephant Canyon and private tours of the Grand Staircase. There is also boating and fishing on Lake Powell, though the water level there has been much impacted by drought.

Many, like myself, came mainly for the night sky in Utah, which has large swaths of land with minimal artificial light and a dry climate that translates into less water vapor, which can blur the stars.

But would the weather cooperate?

Under Canvas is certainly not the first hospitality company to tout its access to the night sky. Over the last 20 years or so, hotels in bucolic settings, along with permanent glamping sites, have been working stargazing into their guest offerings. There’s the observatory at Primland Resort in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, and the astronomy dinner at Soneva Jani in the Maldives. Elqui Domos in northern Chile has geodesic domes and cabins that open to the sky.

With stargazing in mind, Under Canvas began working with DarkSky in 2021 to arrive at a lighting design plan.

“Getting the certification from DarkSky was altruistic in terms of intention,” said May Lilley, the chief marketing officer at Under Canvas. “It’s a part of our mission to make sure our guests leave with a little bit of a different philosophy, whether that means they just turn the lights off when they leave a room.”

DarkSky’s hope, said Mr. Brigagliano, is that the new certification program will become the de facto standard for all lodging in locations dark enough to pass the organization’s protocol.

Attention to the night sky could not happen sooner. A study published in Science magazine in 2023 revealed that the sky glow from cities and towns increased 10 percent each year from 2011 to 2022, underscoring the startling results from a 2016 study that showed that 99 percent of those living in highly populated areas around the world can no longer see most stars, if any.

The category for lodging complements DarkSky’s existing certification program for International Dark Sky Places, of which there are more than 200, including Zion and Yellowstone national parks; the Arkaroola Wilderness Sanctuary in Australia; the Namibrand Nature Reserve in southern Namibia; and even urban places, like Parc du Mont-Bellevue in the city of Sherbrooke, Quebec.

Response to news of the program was fairly immediate, said Mr. Brigagliano. “So far, nearly 100 resorts, retreat centers, ranches and other lodging properties from the United States, Canada, Britain, Thailand, Australia, India, Germany, Saudi Arabia and the Cook Islands have contacted us regarding the program. We are getting interest from a variety of businesses, from nonprofits to luxury, high-end properties.”

Inside the common area — a large tent that acts as a front desk, restaurant, snack bar and hang out — a couple from San Francisco with a dachshund had just finished registering. The woman who registered me took me by A.T.V. to my safari-style tent.

All the tents are within a soft yell of each other and all have decks, en-suite bathrooms with showers, and four vertical walls that provide more room than traditional pyramid-shaped tents. Inside mine was a king-size bed, two leather chairs and a wood-burning stove. My choice, the Stargazer (I paid $432, including taxes and fees), also has a sky-viewing window that arcs above the bed.

I stepped out on the deck. The valley was dark below dense clouds. Back inside, I could hear the patter of rain on canvas. I ditched my plan to walk to the on-site slot canyon — slot canyons can flood — and slid under the viewing window, which was dotted with raindrops. The prospects of a starry night seemed remote.

I zipped up my parka, wishing I had brought better shoes for hiking in the rain, and walked down to the main common area. The roasted trout ($25) looked tempting, but the cafeteria was uncomfortably cold. I pulled out a protein bar from my backpack and took a seat under one of the sheltered gathering areas, noticing how the rain transforms Utah’s striated Navajo sandstone into deeper hues of coral and ecru. The wide valley between myself and Grand Staircase might have been two miles or 20, the scale was so unfathomable. A couple from Idaho in oilskin jackets and hiking boots, who looked as though they could ice-pick up Mount Everest, joined me. Unlike me, they were better prepared for inclement weather, which hadn’t stopped them from hiking nearby canyons.

By 8 p.m. the rain had become a misty drizzle. Hoping for the best, I set my alarm for 3:30 a.m., around the time the outer regions of the Milky Way appear in the Northern Hemisphere (given the right conditions).

When the alarm went off, I opened my eyes to stars shining through the still-damp window. I got dressed, grabbed a battery-powered lantern and stepped out into the night. Above me, in all directions, the sky was at last unblocked; I could not have been more surprised.

I made my way down the dirt path, which was lit by small solar ground lights, to get closer to the canyon rim. Smoke from the stoves in several tents drifted up and disappeared. A jack rabbit crossed my path. I sat down on a patch of dry scrub. This was the Colorado Plateau, one of the darkest sections of the United States, and even with a remaining cloud or two, thousands of stars shone through the darkness. Was that the veil of an aloof Milky Way above me? With a clear view to the west, I was almost certain I could see Venus. Using my stargazer app, SkyView, I managed to find the constellations Orion and Leo.

I lay back and stayed there until the stars faded in the predawn sky and the morning light began its spectacular migration across the wide valley.


Follow New York Times Travel on Instagram and sign up for our weekly Travel Dispatch newsletter to get expert tips on traveling smarter and inspiration for your next vacation. Dreaming up a future getaway or just armchair traveling? Check out our 52 Places to Go in 2024.



Colleen Creamer

2024-05-01 09:00:11

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