FIVE YEARS AGO, during a Perseid meteor shower in August, my husband and I spent our first night at Cosmic Campground in the Gila National Forest. We’d planned the visit ever since DarkSky (formerly the International Dark-Sky Association) designated the primitive camping area 60 miles north of Silver City as the first Dark Sky Sanctuary in the United States.

Following the suggested etiquette, we brought red headlamps and arrived early enough to set up camp before sundown. When the sky darkened, we cozied up with blankets and settled into our camp chairs. Every way we turned, the sky glittered as we rotated our chairs to take advantage of the low horizon and the 360-degree views encircling us. Occasionally, we tilted our heads back to stare into the inky black universe, sprinkled with blazing flecks of light and cut with the Milky Way’s luminous swath.

I’ve since synced the New York Times’ Space and Astronomy Calendar to my own, downloaded an app that alerts me to expected “good” stargazing conditions in my home of Pinos Altos, and seen the birthplace of stars in Orion Nebula through a telescope. But that night at Cosmic Campground, we just let the heavens wow us.

“At Cosmic Campground, it doesn’t matter if you’ve never looked at the night sky or spent your whole life looking up, there’s something there for you,” says astronomer Al Grauer. He and his wife, Annie, worked to certify the 3.5-acre campground as a remote, star-studded place worthy of attention and protection by DarkSky. “Whether you look with your naked eye or a telescope, the key is having a place to go to look at the sky, where the sky is natural.”

In New Mexico, those places can be as easy to find as the Big Dipper. Our state claims nine of the 201 certified Dark Sky Places worldwide, including seven Dark Sky Parks and the first-ever Urban Night Sky Place (Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge, near Albuquerque). While 80 percent of people in the U.S. live in places where artificial light and murky air drown out most constellations, New Mexicans need only venture as far as our own backyards to see the Milky Way. “What we really have in New Mexico is altitude, climate, and a low population,” Grauer explains.

But it’s more than that. New Mexico celebrates the night skies like few other places. We see what others are only starting to understand. In 1999, New Mexico became one of the first states to enact legislation making night skies a priority for the health of our people, wildlife, and economy. And for millennia, the ancient people who first called these lands home have used the sky to plan their lives, track the seasons, align their buildings, dictate spiritual ceremonies, and portray cultural ideals.

“The natural night sky is not dark,” Grauer says. “It’s alive with its own lights.”

Stars reflect in the Chama River as it meanders to the Río Grande near Abiquiú.

THE CLARITY OF A NIGHT SKY is influenced by many factors. Weather, light and air pollution, geomagnetic activity, high-energy cosmic rays, planetary atmospheres, and gravity waves all contribute to what and how we see. A place’s night-sky background darkness is rated on astronomers’ Bortle scale, ranging from Class 1 (most natural skies on Earth) through Class 9 (inner-city skies). Our nine Dark Sky Places register no less than Class 2, meaning the summer Milky Way is easily visible to the naked eye. Even our urban areas, such as Albuquerque and Santa Fe, rate no worse than Class 6. The Milky Way is still faintly visible on many nights from a city.

Impressively, a 2019 study found Catron County, where Cosmic Campground lies, to be the place in the nation with the second-least impact from human-caused light. “The county at number one is in Alaska, where it is cloudy a lot,” Grauer says. “Catron County has many more clear nights.

New Mexico has been an environmental leader when it comes to dark skies, passing the Night Sky Protection Act, enforcing municipal dark-sky ordinances that require shielded fixtures, and pursuing Dark Sky Place designations, which carry an obligation to conservation. But more needs to be done if the state is to remain a shining star sanctuary, especially when it comes to the statewide legislation.

Pueblo Bonito at Chaco Culture National Historical Park is lit by moonlight.

With new light technology comes new challenges. For example, popular LED lighting is energy efficient, but its cooler light spectrum affects circadian rhythms and decreases the background darkness of the night sky. A better option might be for cities to require warmer spectra lights and focused illumination only when necessary, as opposed to all night long.

Safeguarding the night sky is also integral for the economy. New Mexico has long been home to professional observatories like Magdalena Ridge Observatory and installations like the Very Large Array, where 27 radio antennas in a Y-shaped configuration observe what we cannot see and search for extraterrestrial signals. With Spaceport America, New Mexico now also plays a role in commercial space flight.

The night skies attract visitors like moths to a flame. The Colorado Plateau, which includes parts of New Mexico, could see as much as $5.8 billion by 2029 in non-local tourist spending from dark-skies travelers, who reportedly spend three times more than day-trippers, according to the Colorado Plateau Dark Sky Cooperative.

“Having a place where people know what the real night sky is like is just as important as having the natural flora and fauna,” Grauer says.

Behind a southern New Mexico petroglyph, a light dome from a growing small town is visible.

TO LEARN MORE about this awesome part of nature, I am heading to a midnight meeting. Navigating the brushy trail toward the Gene & Elizabeth Simon Observatory in City of Rocks State Park is proving difficult. The faint red glow from my headlamp isn’t revealing hazards like cacti, so I try avoiding any dark silhouette that could be a clump of harmless grass or a sleeping snake.

Chiricahua Apache leader Joe Saenz later explains that his tribe respects nature’s cycles and cautions against moving around at night partly out of regard for the Creator and partly for practical reasons: Danger can hide in the dark.

But at the moment, it’s worth the risk for an astronomy crash course from two experienced guides. Former community college astronomy instructor Bill Nigg and Astronomical Society of Las Cruces member Mike Nuss volunteer as guides for the star parties here and at Rockhound State Park. This evening, Nigg is equipped with a laser pointer, while Nuss drives the observatory’s computerized Dobsonian telescope.

“Think of Polaris,” Nigg says, pointing to the North Star’s place in the Little Dipper asterism, “as like the top of a merry-go-round.” He says that in 13,000 years, Vega, the fifth-brightest star, will become the North Star. That’s his segue to the Summer Triangle, of which Vega forms one vertex.

The appearance of certain beacons in the night sky have long been indicators of the seasons. Until the Western world developed a uniform calendar, people’s livelihoods depended on their understanding of the night sky’s movements.

“At Cosmic Campground, it doesn’t matter if you’ve never looked at the night sky or spent your whole life looking up, there’s something there for you.”

—Al Grauer, astronomer

“My dad always said when Scorpius came up, you knew you could start hunting for rabbits,” says Wanda Yazzie (Diné), an amateur astronomer who watches Scorpius rise behind the Sandías from her house in Placitas, and who clued me in to how her culture regards the sky.

Nigg suggests his colleague turn the Dobsonian toward Messier 101, the Pinwheel galaxy, where a supernova was discovered this year. When I peer into it, I see the spiral immediately. Nuss urges me to look closer. Do I see a bright star that looks bigger than the cloud’s others? Yes. That is a star that went supernova almost 21 million years ago.

About 1,000 years ago, the people who lived in Chaco Canyon witnessed and documented a supernova that occurred much closer to Earth, says Nathan Hatfield, Chaco Culture National Historical Park’s interpretive ranger. “There was a supernova in 1006 and one in 1054. We know they’re in the canyon. We know the Chacoans are watching the sky. Logic tells us this pictograph could be a supernova that happened then.”

Supernovas also create the elements in the periodic table. “As you gaze upon these glowing objects, contemplate the elements of chemistry assembled by the forces of physics—naturally,” Nigg says. “Humans are calcium-framed, carbon-celled water bags.”

We are basically stardust.

The traditional Navajo greeting, yá’át’ééh, acknowledges the universe and human participation in it. It’s a reminder that we are related to the ancient energy that preceded our life. “In the Navajo way, we all know we’re from the stars, from the universe,” Yazzie says. “We’ve known it for millennia.”

What the Native community discovered long ago can still be witnessed in the sky on any given evening in New Mexico. Today, these stellar skies continue to tell us stories about the cosmos and about ourselves in equal measure.

Read more: Follow these tips for a great view after sundown.