If you’re looking to see stars, then forget Santa Fe’s Plaza and get out to Clayton Lake State Park where they throw parties for them all the time.
Boasting some of the best star-gazing conditions in the country the park is only one of four worldwide that is officially recognized for its incredibly dark skies.
“The conditions there are top notch,” says Scott Kardel, Director of Public Affairs for the International Dark Sky Association. “That puts them in a very exclusive club”
The Association bestowed its top honor upon the park in June 2010 for its efforts to preserve the dark skies, reduce surrounding light pollution and provide educational programs.
And that recognition couldn’t have come without the support and assistance of the local community, says Peter Lipscomb, former Director of the New Mexico Heritage Alliance’s Dark Sky Program and now a Regional Interpretive Ranger for NM State Parks.
“It’s a real feather in their cap,” Lipscomb says of the 3,000 residents of Clayton and those of surrounding Union County who passed light pollution ordinances to help preserve the area’s dark skies.”That shows you just how supportive they are of that observatory.”
The state park is located about 12 miles outside of the neat, little town of Clayton where cattle ranching on the surrounding plains remains king and the cowboys are for real.
Charles Jordan, 51, has been manager of the park out on the plains for the last 19 years and he says the observatory is a great asset made all that much greater because of the volunteers from the local astronomy club.
“They’re a great group of people and we just couldn’t do it without them,” Jordan says.
Clayton State park Manager, Charles Jordan, shows off the park observatory’s 12-inch Meade computer operated telescope.
The club hosts regularly scheduled star parties each month on the first Friday of the new moon cycle while also providing impromptu parties for visitors when the park has plenty of overnight visitors.
Hundreds of local school children of all grades have also visited the observatory under a “No Child Left Inside” initiative between the park and local school district.
And numerous scouting groups, astronomy clubs and campers have all enjoyed the benefits of the observatory, says Art Grine, 49, president of the Clayton Astronomy Club and the town barber.
“We’ve got people coming from all over the country to do astronomy here now,” he says. “And we’ve all come to appreciate just how special our night skies really are.”
Grine notes how great it is to see a young kid gush upon seeing the rings of Saturn through a telescope for the first time.
“It’s totally awesome to see,” he says.
It was the same for him when he first went out to the park on a field trip with his son and his junior high school class many years ago and saw Saturn through a telescope for the first time.
And now he’s the astronomy club’s president.
The park’s $75,000 Star Point Observatory opened in June 2006 and features a 12×16-foot building with a retractable roof that houses a 12-inch, computer operated telescope and remote television monitor which allows for group viewing.
The telescope and monitor is powered by a solar charged battery system.
The club also has several additional 8-inch telescopes that its volunteers set up on concrete pads outside the building which allows other guests to observe selected targets in the night sky too.
The observatory is NM State Park’s second to be constructed with the first having gone up several years earlier at City of the Rocks State Park in the southwestern corner of the state, according to Dave Gatterman, Bureau Chief of Design and Development for the state agency.
The agency would like to construct two more when finances become available, one in the northwest corner of the state at Heron Lake State Park and another at a yet to be determined location in the southeast quadrant of the state, Gatterman says.
Clayton Lake State Park and the local astronomy club will also entertain private groups. Anyone interested in making use of the observatory, camp sites or group shelters at the park can contact them by phone at 575-374-8808 or by email at email@example.com.
In addition to the observatory, the park is well known among anglers for producing record sized walleye as well as good sized bass, trout and bluefish.
The lake currently holds the state record for a walleye caught in 1989 by G.L. Peppers that weighed in at 16-lbs and 9-oz and measured over 32-inches in length.
The park also enjoys a good reputation among bird and wildlife watchers and those interested in paleontology as a large set of dinosaur tracks were found and are now preserved in the earth that forms the dam’s spillway.
The park also features a new visitors’ center constructed of straw bale and recycled steel beams and while utilizing the latest in green energy techniques.
The visitor center also features an interpretive display inside which highlights the park and surrounding area’s history and other interesting information.
The park boasts over 30 campsites equipped with shelters, picnic table and fire rings.
There are seven sites with electric and water hookups and two large group shelters.
Showers are available inside the main restroom while numerous vault toilets are located throughout the park.
The park’s boat ramp is currently closed due to low water levels because of the ongoing drought but fishing from the bank is easy and good.
A ranger lives on site to help maintain the park’s family friendly atmosphere and camping this time of year is especially enjoyable with warm days, cool nights and only light breezes.
The park will also host its 12th annual Trout Derby the weekend of June 9 and 10th featuring a grand prize of a fully equipped fishing boat in addition to cash prizes for top catches.
Door prizes will be given away all weekend long too and there will be a hot dog eating contest, childrens’ sand dig and a horseshoe pitching contest.
The annual event attracts about 5,000 visitors and is fast becoming one of New Mexico’s best homegrown attractions.
For more information about the fishing derby contact the park or the Clayton Chamber of Commerce at 575-374-9253 or on their website at http://www.claytonnewmexico.org
If You Go: Take I-25 through Las Vegas and turnoff at Wagon Mound onto NM 120. Follow through Roy and continue on this remote and lonely stretch of two lane blacktop to the intersection of US 56. Head east on US 56 to Clayton. Take NM 370 north out of town to the turnoff to Clayton Lake State Park. About 250 miles one way.