Stargazing is a major perk of camping in the backcountry under the vivid night sky. Void of city light pollution you can see the Milky Way and an array of stars and planets. Stargazers can get to know these heavenly bodies by using a star chart – either manual or as a cell phone app.
The Sierra Nevada Mountains are called the “Range of Light” which comes most into play at sunrise and sunset. A reflective glow from the setting sun makes the stunning peaks seem to be “lighted” while we are camping in the shadows of a canyon. Waiting for the sky to darken, we watch for the 1st planet or star to appear and will call out – “Starlight, star bright”….do you know the rest of this traditional rhyme?…. “first star I see tonight, I wish I may, I wish I might, Have this wish I wish tonight.”
USA Today, June 2016, reported that “Light pollution now blocks the Milky Way galaxy in the night sky for nearly 80% of Americans and more than one-third of the world….”
Sadly, the city lights of Las Vegas have begun their encroachment on the night sky – even in Death Valley. We have seen the faint glow of Las Vegas along the horizon at times when in the Funeral Mountain Range on the eastern side of the National Park.
Death Valley National Park is designated as the largest Dark Sky National Park in the U.S.A. Death Valley’s natural darkness led the International Dark-Sky Association to designate the park as the third and largest International Dark Sky Park.
“The Dark Sky Park designation represents not only the efforts of the park and its partners but the dedication of avid amateur astronomers who have sought the park’s world-class starry skies for decades,” said Dan Duriscoe, of the National Park Service’s Natural Sounds and Night Skies Division. Read more about the dark sky observation opportunities from the park service.
We always bring along a star chart/wheel so we can learn the names of the constellations in the dark velvet sky of the backcountry. These star charts come in various types and sizes so you can carry them backpacking, your truck’s glove box, or pack with your camping gear. This reliable tool does not need batteries or cell phone service and is an easy skill to learn. As you can see in our photo, these have been love-worn like the Velveteen Rabbit.
A favorite cell phone app we like is called, “SkyView”. This app uses the phone camera and your location. Simply point your phone towards a planet, star or constellation and its name will appear. Due to needing your location turned “on”, I have not yet tried to see if this app will work without cell reception in the backcountry. Get the app via Google Playstore or at this link. SkyView works with both iPhones and Android.
The 88 constellations will appear transposed over the stars so you can recognize them. I have often wondered how certain constellations were drawn from the array of stars that seem to look nothing like the figure it represents. I guess it is like seeing shapes in the clouds that some folks see and others do not.
Getting a closer view
Having a good pair of binoculars with a tripod is key to seeing more detail in the moon and stars. I have the Celestron Sky Master which is heavier than regular binoculars but gives better clarity to see craters on the moon and the rings of Saturn. I like using a tripod as it is hard to hold the heavier binoculars steady to gaze at objects so far away. Get a tall tripod so you can sit more comfortably without cramping your neck.
Knowing the names of stars and planets is like knowing the names of wildflowers and canyons. When you know their names they feel like recognized friends, helping me to feel at “home” in new places.
My personal favorite constellation is Orion. The “hunter” is easy to pick out of the night sky with his banded belt of 3 stars in the center of 4 bright stars in a rectangle forming his shoulders and legs. Orion also contains several nebulas. If you follow his top right shoulder up you will come to a tight cluster of stars called the Pleiades or the 7 Sisters, also known as Orion’s kite. Orion can be seen best in the winter months and contains both “red supergiant” and “blue supergiant” stars.
It is the LORD who created the stars, the Pleiades and Orion. He turns darkness into morning and day into night. He draws up water from the oceans and pours it down as rain on the land. The LORD is his name!” Amos 5:8
The Big Dipper is another favorite as it can be used to trace the ladle to find the North Star in the Little Dipper. Knowing the location of the North Star can be very handy in orienting yourself under the night sky.
I recently discovered some interesting info about my zodiac sign, Cancer. The word Khan-Cer or Cancer, as the ancient Romans used it, means “The traveler’s resting place for the encircled.” Isn’t that what camping is? A resting place for the traveler, often using a fire circle. Becoming a stargazer will enrich your nights camping in the backcountry.
What star gazing apps have you enjoyed using? Do you have a favorite constellation?