By Catherine Lutz

There they were, four of Jupiter’s moons, trailing off its right side like a line of ducklings following their mother. When I was handed the high-powered binoculars, I didn’t quite believe that they’d be so easy to see, but indeed they were, shining brightly in the western sky, which had just recently faded to deep indigo after the sun had set.

I was on a stargazing tour with The Little Nell, part of the broad portfolio of summer adventures this five-star hotel offers its guests (along with off-road tours, ride and dine bicycle trips, fly fishing, and more) and its most popular tour. Hosted by the Nell’s adventure concierge and an astronomy expert from Aspen High School (which has its own planetarium, by the way) for the past three seasons, the private tours begin with a ride up the backside of Aspen Mountain to a high point on Richmond Ridge.

Stargazing atop Aspen Mountain with The Little Nell
Stargazing atop Aspen Mountain with The Little Nell

Stargazing atop Aspen Mountain with The Little Nell
Stargazing atop Aspen Mountain with The Little Nell

In total comfort in an Audi 4x4, we were shuttled up to Hurricane Point, an open knob about 300 feet higher in elevation than the top of Aspen Mountain, with near 360-degree views of a sky that is considerably clearer — thanks to the elevation and lack of pollution, light and otherwide — than most places in the country.

Our adventure concierge, Steve Goff, pointed out that most visitors to Aspen spend their time primarily in the “catcher’s mitt” of town and its immediate surroundings, where the views aren’t quite as grand. “So we get people up here,” he said, to take advantage of the amazing sights and experiences available above the mountains.

Set up in comfortable canvas chairs, or on a picnic blanket for those who like to lie down to view the sky, we settle in as our astronomy guide, incoming senior Ricky Wojcik, begins to share his boundless knowledge of the night sky. As if on cue, a shooting star blazes its bright white path over the nearby southern horizon, almost as if it were part of the program.

For those of us for whom it’s been a while since high school astronomy class, Ricky begins with the basics. What is a star? A big mass of plasma, or superheated gas, which shines due to the nuclear fusion that it releases from its core. He explains how stars are created and how they die, and how the speed of light works, so that the stars we think we see in the sky are actually just light that’s traveled, in many cases, millions of years — meaning the actual stars may or may not still be alive. Contemplating the notion that our own sun is about halfway through its 8-billion-year life cycle, some of us strike up a conversation about what will happen to humanity when the sun begins to collapse into space …

The evening continues with one fascinating fact to chew on after another, guided by the questions guests ask or the topics they’re interested in. Did you know, for example, that on a new moon night in Aspen, you can see some 6,000 stars with the naked eye? With the help of his powerful laser pointer, Ricky tells us about many of them, including several constellations and the colorful myths cultures throughout time have told to explain them.

There’s Vega, a very bright star that is “only” 26 light years away — very close in astronomical terms. And a red giant that’s 100,000 times larger than the sun. And then there’s Jupiter, with its duckling moons.

As we munch on homemade chocolate chip cookies and sip our drinks — beer, wine, and rich hot chocolate in our group’s case — we wrap our jackets and blankets around ourselves a little snugly as we contemplate the revelation of the mysteries of the cosmos. And while things like black holes and time travel are still mind-boggling, they’ve become clearer on this windswept mountaintop. Just like the view.

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