Stargazing 101December 15, 2015 No Comments
Showing your children the night sky is something of a miracle. There’s the wonder of the sky itself, the vastness of the universe that you yourself may sometimes take for granted. There’s the eye-opening, round-mouthed joy of children taking it all in. There’s the pleasure of being family together there in the darkness. Unless your children have been raised in a rural environment, the lights of suburbs or city may well have dimmed the full glory of the night sky. It’s almost a parental right of passage to show your offspring what stars really look like for the first time.
That stargazing brings happiness, togetherness, and a sense of awe is undisputed; the real question is where you should go to do your stargazing. Naturally, you’ll want a dark sky, with as little light pollution as possible, but you won’t want a spot so remote you’ll have difficulty heading back to wherever you’re spending the night afterwards.
Before you set out on a journey to explore the real night sky, it’s a great idea to take children to a made-made variation. Planetariums are an excellent resource because they can impart, in an usually short and succinct fashion, information about what you’re going to be seeing in the sky. In Los Angeles, we have Griffith Observatory’s varied shows, supplemented by looks at the planets and space in exhibits throughout the observatory as well as by the ability to look through a large telescope at a planet or two. Even if you don’t live in a large city, many colleges, including community colleges, have astronomy programs. Small teaching planetariums are often open to the public periodically throughout the year. If you can’t visit an actual planetarium, there are star charts, star projections, and on-line star presentations that are all great for giving kids a short course – and refreshing your own knowledge – on what you’ll be seeing in the night sky.
The wonderful Observer’s Inn, which I’ve mentioned in a full article on this site, is another place to teach the wonders of the night sky. Located in Julian, Calif., where the skies are themselves stellar for viewing, this bed and breakfast’s private observatory conducts “star tours” four nights a week. Owners Mike and Caroline Leigh include non-guests in these tours, which last a bit over an hour and include the ability to look through four research-grade telescopes.
The area around Flagstaff – where Lowell Observatory, one of the oldest in the nation, is based, offers great star gazing once you get away from town. Drive west on U.S. 40 and pull off at any farm road exit, douse the headlights, and get out of the car. There’s the Milky Way.
Death Valley also offers excellent star gazing. The parking lot at the sand dunes area near Stovepipe Wells is a comfortable spot to look up and take everything in. If you’re staying at Stovepipe you’ll be less than fifteen minutes from your motel; stay at Furnace Creek and its twenty-five. Closer to Furnace Creek but not so close that the ranch and motel lights obscure your view, the parking lot at Zabriskie Point is also a good spot.
RED ROCK CANYON
Los Angeles residents will often drive to Red Rock Canyon just past Lancaster on Highway 14 to star gaze; if the weather is clear – no beach fog – fairly dark family campgrounds like those at San Diego county’s San Onofre State Beach offer excellent sky viewing.
MOAB’S ARCHES NATIONAL PARK & SAND DUNE ARCH
In Utah, Moab’s Arches National Park is open twenty-four hours, and Sand Dune Arch is less than 0.3 miles from the parking lot. Yes, star gaze from the lot if you’d like, or at the lot near the Park Avenue rock formations. But for more intimate, stunning gazing with soft sand under foot, bring a flashlight and take the short flat trail to the arch.
BIG BEND NATIONAL PARK
Big Bend National Park in Texas is also big on stargazing. With over a hundred miles of open, paved road, there doesn’t need to be a particular spot to pull over and gaze up, but the Chisos Basin area is very accessible and has paved parking lots.
EAST COAST STARGAZING SPOTS
Heading east, upstate New York’s Lake George area often boasts clear skies and sharp stars. In Maine, The Penobscot Narrows Bridge offers vast views of the region, and when the weather is dry, equally grand views of the night sky. To the south, Kiawah Island, South Carolina has warm, dark beaches and relatively zero light pollution.
K’AU DISTRICT – HAWAII
Perhaps our family favorite night sky viewing took place on Hawaii’s Big Island in the K’au district at the tip of the island. Staying at one of our favorite bed and breakfast’s there, Kalaekilohana, we simply opened the french doors to our room, stood out on the balcony, and watched the sky unfold a few feet from our beds.
Wherever you go to look up into millions of light years, millions of stars – savor the view.