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The sky is the limit when it comes to Nevada’s myriad stargazing destinations.
Photo: Chris Talbot (Tonopah Star Trails); Dan Newton (Black Rock Desert)
My degree is in journalism, but one of my favorite college classes was astronomy. Studying a starlit sky is one of the best ways to get some perspective on our very small place in this infinite universe.
If you’re an astronomy lover, the great thing about Nevada—for city dwellers especially—is you don’t have to drive far to get lost in a world that seems so close, yet its distance away is unfathomable to the human mind. If rural Nevada is more your style, then you’re probably already aware of the state’s seemingly endless stargazing opportunities. Following are a few suggestions.
Roughly halfway between the big-city lights of Las Vegas and Reno, Tonopah claims some of the darkest nighttime skies in the country. Prompted by USA Today’s designation of the central Nevada town as the number-one stargazing destination in America in 2004, Tonopah has set up a system of Star Trails—a network of paved and unpaved roads that lead visitors to awe-inspiring starry nights.
Even the most inexperienced stargazers will see more than they’re accustomed to. While those in bigger, brighter cities are used to seeing only 25 to 50 stars due to light pollution, Tonopah’s surrounding skies show more than 7,000, including the Milky Way on a clear night with little moonlight. Those with trained eyes can see stars as faint as visual magnitude +7.0, the faintest stars visible to the unaided eye.
With more and more light pollution globally, observing a wealth of stars in the night sky has become increasingly rare over the past several decades. Tonopah is in a unique geographic position to take advantage of this resource. “Sky parties are one way people can enjoy dark skies,” reads tonopahstartrails.com. “Many families like to get out of the city and take the family [stargazing].”
Or, if you’re Danielle Cook, you don’t even have to get out of the car. “I was lucky enough to be on the Extraterrestrial Highway [east of Tonopah] after sundown…wow! All the way through Tonopah the stars were close enough to grab,” says the Carson City resident. “More stars than I’d ever fathomed. We have some good stars [in Carson], too, but not like that.”
Nevada’s two national parks sit on opposite sides of the state and are quite different in terms of geological makeup, but they do share one characteristic—they’re great stargazing destinations. Because of Death Valley National Park’s scorching summer temperatures, consider a trip from November to March—although nighttime weather can be pleasant even when daytime conditions in the Mojave are unbearable. Conversely, high-elevation Great Basin National Park greets visitors with agreeable summer weather and frigid winters.
Great Basin, about five miles west of Baker in eastern Nevada, is an ideal vacation spot because it’s one of the country’s least-crowded national parks. That ensures plenty of peaceful nights under the stars. “On a clear, moonless night…thousands of stars, five of our solar system’s eight planets, star clusters, meteors, man-made satellites, and the Milky Way can be seen with the naked eye,” reads the park’s Web site. “The area boasts some of the darkest night skies in the United States. Low humidity and [scant] light pollution combine with high elevation to create a unique window to the universe.”
Any open location in the park will provide the best views. A specific spot to try is the Wheeler Peak/Bristlecone Trail parking lot at the end of Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive. Though surrounded by trees, which impede views, stargazing at more than 10,000 feet can be inspiring. Mather Overlook, and other pullouts along the scenic drive, provides more panoramic views with fewer obstructions. Expansive skies can also be enjoyed at the Baker Archeological Site, outside the park.
The park offers special Night Sky Programs at the Lehman Caves Visitor Center—mark your calendars for May 29-30 and July 24-25. The Great Basin Astronomy Festival, in cooperation with the National Parks and Conservation Association, will be held August 6-8.
Frequently cloudless skies and low light pollution in Death Valley, most of which lies in California, allow professionals and amateurs to see many heavenly bodies after dark. In recent years, however, the area has been affected by glows from Las Vegas and the central valley, so head for the park’s remote northern sections for optimal viewing. A plan for limiting light pollution in Death Valley is being developed, as night-sky conditions are monitored annually by scientists.
Don’t be deceived by Death Valley’s low-desert reputation. Aptly-named Telescope Peak—at 11,049 feet—is accessible via a strenuous seven-mile one-way hike. There are numerous easy hikes in the park as well. Consider staying in nearby Beatty or Pahrump if you don’t want to rough it.
If you ask Panaca resident Barbara Rohde, she will respectfully disagree with Tonopah’s label as the unofficial “Stargazing Capital of Nevada.” In Rohde’s opinion, that title belongs to Cathedral Gorge State Park, where the Las Vegas Astronomical Society has held its annual Spring Fling since 1986. Rohde worked at Cathedral Gorge as a park ranger from 1986 to 2008.
The LVAS will gather at Cathedral Gorge for this year’s Spring Fling, May 14-15, and the Fall Campout and Star Party, September 10-11. The park, about 50 miles south of Great Basin National Park, is far enough away from major cities that astronomy groups such as the LVAS covet it for star-viewing. In fact, the group is working with the Nevada Division of State Parks to establish a remote observatory there.
One of Nevada’s four original state parks, Cathedral Gorge is located in a long, narrow valley where erosion has carved dramatic designs in the soft Bentonite clay. Numerous trails offer visitors access to the cave-like formations and cathedral-shaped spires.
Miller Point, a scenic overlook just north of the park entrance on U.S. 93, offers excellent views of the canyon. Shaded picnic areas and campgrounds are open year round. Hiking, picnicking, camping, nature study, photography, and ranger programs—some specifically about astronomy—are common activities at the park. The area is typically arid with hot summers and cold winters.
Every year during Memorial Day Weekend, nature lovers unite in the Black Rock Desert, north of Reno, for the Black Rock Rendezvous (this year May 29-30). On Saturday, May 29, the evening closes with a stargazing session until midnight. “Huge night sky, super-wide horizon, and no light or noise pollution,” says Margie Reynolds, a devoted member of Friends of Black Rock/High Rock, about the area. “We [also] have a star party out there in August during the Perseids meteor shower.”
The Perseids Meteor Shower Campout, August 12-15, takes place on the deep playa in the Black Rock Desert, the largest flat expanse in North America. This year’s shower should peak on the night of August 12 and the morning of the 13th. Traditionally, Will Roger, president of Friends of Black Rock/High Rock, is the camp host and serves up his famous margaritas. A Porta-Potty is provided, but note that there are no other services or shade of any kind. Arrive prepared, and bring everything you need for basic survival.
The Black Rock Desert-High Rock Canyon Emigrant Trails National Conservation Area is a unit of the Bureau of Land Management National Landscape Conservation System. The expansive area, home to the popular annual Labor Day event Burning Man, is a unique combination of desert playas, narrow canyons, and mountainous areas.
No matter where you travel in rural Nevada, be sure to leave your itinerary with someone at home and always follow the rules of Leave No Trace.
WHEN TO GO
Two factors determine the best nights to go stargazing: cloud cover and the current phase of the moon. Cloudy or stormy skies obstruct views of the cosmos.
The moon is the brightest and most prominent object in the night sky. You can see more stars during a new moon phase, when the moon is not so bright.
WHAT TO BRING
To make stargazing more enjoyable, take along:
• A warm jacket, extra layers of clothing, and an insulated hat. Evenings are cool, even in the summer. A thermos of coffee, tea, or hot chocolate is a nice bonus.
• A blanket. Use a blanket to make lying on the ground, or in the back of a vehicle, more comfortable. Sitting can be uncomfortable and cause neck pain, unless you have a reclining chair.
• Binoculars. A pair of 7x50 binoculars is comparable in magnification to an entry-level telescope. You may need to brace yourself for steady observing.
• A star chart (available online and in bookstores).
• A flashlight to read the star chart. Covering the end of the flashlight with red paper will preserve your night vision. Regular white light disrupts it.
Cathedral Gorge State Park
Death Valley National Park
Great Basin National Park
Tonopah Star Trails
Friends of Black Rock/High Rock
Fleischmann Planetarium & Science Center
University of Nevada, Reno
1650 N. Virginia St., Reno
Hours: Daily; closed on major holidays
College of Southern Nevada
3200 E. Cheyenne Ave., North Las Vegas
Hours: Stargazing programs
Fri. & Sat. thru May 29
Astronomical Society of Nevada
The ASN was formed in 1934 for the purpose of uniting persons interested in the study and activities associated with astronomy. The ASN hosts various activities, whether it is a public star party or private gathering. The club also owns a 24-inch reflector telescope. astronomynv.org
Tonopah Astronomical Society
A chapter of the Astronomical Society of Nevada, the TAS holds two star parties per month, including the sixth annual Central Nevada Star Party at Monte Cristo’s Castle, September 9-12. tas.astronomynv.org
Las Vegas Astronomical Society
Established in July 1980, the LVAS is an organization of amateur astronomers formed to promote astronomy in Southern Nevada. The Society is a nonprofit operating under the auspices of The Planetarium at College of Southern Nevada and holds regular observation sessions and meetings. lvastronomy.com