Tag Archives: light pollution

Where to Go for Dark Skies?

No matter where you live on earth you have a chance to witness the incredible experience of watching bits of space debris streak through our atmosphere and create cosmic fireworks. In an older column I described How to Photograph Meteors – it is a daunting and luck laden process. Here I want to give some useful hints about WHERE to go to get the best view. These same hints may also help you find a location to view the Milky Way.

What I am not planning to tell you is where *I* would go because many of you are reading from all over the world and it would be little help to you for me to mention Yosemite, or Windy Hill Open Space Preserve.  Instead, what I want to do is to give you the insight to figure out where the best place is for YOU.  Here are the parameters to weigh:

  1. Goals
  2. Weather
  3. Accessibility
  4. Distance
  5. Darkness

Goals

It might seem strange, but I pick different locations depending on what it is I want. If I just want to watch meteors then I will pick a place that may compromise the other factors.  Assuming my goal is to photograph meteors, I have a second important decision: Do I want meteors, or do I want meteors in the context of a landscape?  For me the answer is almost always in the context of a landscape for the reasons I illuminated in this article.  In my opinion a shot of a meteor might be interesting, but a shot of a meteor over a lovely mountain, lake or landmark is WAY more interesting. For example compare the two photos below. The first shot is an Iridium flare (not a meteor, though it looks like one). The second is definitely a meteor. Which one is the most interesting? Yeah, the second one!

Meteor or Iridium Flare? [5_028205-dk] Star Man and Perseus [C_059960-1]

The next part of the goal is to figure out WHICH direction the landmark needs to be.  For example the Geminid Meteor shower is one of the few showers where the “radiant point” is visible all night long. But that also means that it may be best to shoot East after sunset, or West before sunrise and around midnight you’ll want to point south when the constellation will be high in the sky.  Of course meteors appear anywhere in the sky, but I like to keep a part of the radiant in my shots.

Once I’ve figured out which direction I’d like to face, only then can I start including and excluding locations. Of course an ideal place would allow me to face ANY direction, but the truth is not many ideal places are left in the world.

Weather

Now that I know which direction I’d like to face, I have to decide how much I am worried about bad weather.  Out here on the US West Coast a drive of 4 hours will get me to a mountain – the Sierras, 5 to 7 hours can take me to a desert area where it will generally be clear – but often windy, and a shorter drive will get me to a coastal area that may be fog plagued in some seasons.  In short, I would like to be as certain as I can about the weather conditions and thus will always have a plan B.  I have previously discussed the tools I use to track and plan for the weather.

Accessibility

While I would love to pass the time at a High Sierra location watching a meteor shower (awesome!), it might be really impractical or impossible for me to get there with my equipment in the dead of winter – even if the weather itself is not the problem. Road closures, park closures, etc. may interfere.  If I want to take friends or clients I need to restrict the amount of schlepping and walking required.  Some areas, like state, county and local parks which might be ideal are usually CLOSED, locked and gated at night.  National Parks and BLM designated land are generally open at night so rank high on my favorite places list.

Not only should my desired location be easy to get to by car but I would prefer a short walk to a safe location, and preferably in an area that has little or no car travel at night to ruin my night vision or my night shots.  Sometimes little intangibles like the direction and slope of any nearby roads makes a big difference. If a location is the top of the hill but a road points directly at it means I probably want to be on the other side of that hill to prevent the intrusion of headlights.  The arch shot above is an example of that hazard – a bend in the road causes cars to sweep their headlights across the landscape at that location.

It’s also unwise to attempt to use private land without permission. Being an unwelcome guest could result in embarrassment, hassle or hazard!

Distance

I have already touched upon this, but by distance I really mean time, effort and cost to reach the location. Since meteor showers occur annually, I am less inclined to make a huge effort if the circumstances do not look like they will be ideal.  On the other hand, I had no problem driving 1,000 miles roundtrip to put myself in the path of the Transit of Venus – an event that will not happen again in my lifetime (or yours).

Darkness

The one commodity that we are perhaps in the least supply of is darkness. So many cities, so much light pollution. But I do not need TOTAL darkness. If I have decided the best view is to the south, I just need to make sure no major cities lie south of my location. If my intended view is east, then I want mountains or distance to insulate me from the glow of light pollution to my east.  Unfortunately darkness is also a function of weather.  Humidity, clouds, water vapor and air particulates can turn a generally dark location into an awful mess through the effect of human-made light sources. A place that is clear and dark during most of the winter might be horrible in the balmy summer.

Prior experience is often the best indicator of where deepest darkness is found. Sometimes the easiest way to find a dark place is to simply look at a map – making note of the terrain and where the cities are in relation to your desired direction of view.  There is a dark sky locator that may help as well.  And you can do your part by joining the International Dark Sky Association and being an advocate for responsible lighting ordinances. I am a member.

Putting it All Together

You’ve probably already figured out that finding a combination of an interesting foreground that is easily accessible but a not too distant place with reliable weather is no small feat.  Some people think that if you go where astronomers like to go you’ll get all the right stuff. But that’s not true. Astronomers do care about almost all of these things, but the one thing that matters little to an astronomer is the landscape.  Astronomers are looking at the sky so a featureless high plateau is just fine. Oh, and if you want to light paint your foreground, you will really tick off astronomers!

So now you may have also surmised why I do not freely share my hard found locations. BUT if you join me on a workshop or webinar you will find out!

 

Astrophotography in the Big City

Getting back to the “good old days” when the Prince Georges County Maryland police paid a visit to my buddy and me… ah, nostalgia.  I will get around to the story in a moment, but first take a look at this:

Andromeda - Messier Object 31 and M110 [B_038508-22 DSS]

Photo 1: Andromeda (Messier Object 31) with M110

That is the Andromeda Galaxy, one of our nearest neighbor galaxies and it is visible with the naked eye in reasonably dark skies – or with binoculars in less friendly skies. Andromeda is almost directly overhead at midnight through the middle of October and directly overhead puts it in the best spot to photograph it (and the most pain in the neck to observe). Not surprisingly the Andromeda Galaxy is visible in the constellation Andromeda but the easiest way to find it is to look between the back of the Cassiopeia “W” and the large constellation Pegasus whose 4 dominant stars form a big square in the sky.

This image was taken from my backyard in San Jose, California WITHOUT a telescope but with a special apparatus called an Equatorial Mount. It’s actually not one photo, but more than two dozen. When I posted this image on Flickr many people asked me how I could get such detail without using a telescope. The answer is that Andromeda is very large. Here is a size comparison between Andromeda and the moon which may shock you:

AndromdeaVsMoon-1

Illustration 1: Size comparison between the Andromeda Galaxy and the Moon

The learning curve to do astrophotography is pretty steep, and if one is not careful or well informed it is easy to sink tens of thousands of dollars on astrophotography gear. My approach is much more modest. I am not a hard core astrophotographer. My relative newness to the field makes it easier for me to convey what good and bad choices I’ve made. If you want to learn what I’ve learned, I am offering a Webinar on “Astrophotography 101” that you may find well worth the cost of the class.

Back to my story…

As a teenager my friend and I checked out a telescope from our high school. The end of my street was a mostly vacant area and much darker than the surrounding suburbia. There was a nice flat sidewalk in front of a recently completed new home (which as far as we knew was unoccupied).  It was about 10:30 PM on a summer evening when we decided to set up to do some observing and attempt some photography. The problem was that the new home had a gas lamp burning in the front driveway. It was an annoyingly bright light. We discovered that we could turn off the lamp using a screwdriver on the gas valve. Problem one was now solved.  We also wanted to find a place to plug in our telescope drive motor so we could track the stars and take long exposures with our SLR camera. We knew the occupants of the other nearby house, but also could tell by the absence of light in any windows that they were asleep. We used our flashlights to search for exterior outlets to plug our extension cord into.

You can probably guess where this was going. More distant neighbors saw young males creeping about, turning off lights and searching about with flashlights. They justly reported suspicious activity to the police. The good news is that the police – after confirming with our parents – were pretty sure that we were doing what we told them we were doing: using a telescope! The fact that the telescope was there with a long extension cord running to it almost told the whole story.

These days I try to stick to places where my intentions are clear but even so I still sometimes find myself explaining to the rangers or the police what I’m up to.

And now I’d like to leave you with a stunning photograph made by a local astronomer: Erik Larsen:

Horse Head & Flame DDP

Photo 1: Long Exposure Astrophotography by Erik N Larsen; The Horsehead Nebula & Flame Nebula

Mission: Peak!

Viewing Space [5_025469]

It is not a secret but one of my favorite places to be is right here, 18 miles away from where I live in Northern California.  The place? Mission Peak Preserve which is located in eastern Fremont California. The most popular access point is at the end of Stanford Avenue off of Mission Boulevard. Mission Peak is part of the Diablo Range which extends south all the way to highway 46 near Paso Robles. The northern portion of this range includes Mt. Diablo, Sunol Peak, Mission Peak, Mount Allison, Monument Peak. Farther south and east are a number of even taller mountains including Discovery Peak, Mount Isabel, and Mount Hamilton. Still farther south the Pinnacles National Monument lies in almost the center of the entire range.

Now lets move on to your questions:

  • What will I see?
  • How long is the hike?
  • How hard is the hike?
  • What should I take?
  • Where should I go for the best pictures?
  • What should I worry about?
  • Who can I go with?
  • What if I still have questions?

What Will I See?

I have posted at least 130 images taken at Mission Peak out of thousands. Mission Peak Preserve is a wonderful place especially when the sun is setting…

When the Lights Go Down in the City [5_018683]

Photo 3: Sunset over the San Francisco Bay as seen from Mission Peak, Fremont, California

Or rising…

Rosy Glow of Sunrise [5_019044ps]

Photo 4: Mount Allison and San Jose, California glowing in the pre-dawn light.

And when the sun is nowhere to be found:

Photo 5: Celestial Rotation over Mission Peak

How Long Does it Take To Hike Up?

Now that is a tough one. You might as well ask me “Steven, how many pounds can I lift?” or “Steven, how far can I hit a golf ball with a 5 iron?”  The answer, of course is I do not know. How fit are you? How much hiking have you done? What are you planning to carry? While Mission Peak is literally a walk in the park, it is definitely not the colloquial walk in the park.  The East Bay Park District guideline says it takes up to 5 hours to reach the summit and return. For some people that may be optimistic. It is a STEEP hike. Mission Peak rises 2,517 feet above sea level, and the longest trail to get to the top from Ohlone College, is a little over 3 and a half miles.  The steepest trail – Horse Heaven trail from Stanford Avenue – is a little under 3 miles.  Walking 3 miles on flat ground is easy for most people to do in about 45 to 60 minutes.  When I carry my 20 pound pack with camera gear, water, extra clothing, first aid kit, flashlight, etc. it takes me about an hour and 40 minutes to reach the summit and about 50 minutes to descend.  When I’m feeling fit and traveling light I’ve reached the summit in 55 minutes. I have friends who can run to the top in less than 30 minutes. I have other friends who, I fear, will never reach the summit.

How Hard is the Hike?

Hard. See above. For me, as for most people, going up a steep incline is daunting. People tackle this in two ways: set a slow pace and keep it. Or go at a faster pace and rest when necessary. I prefer the latter.  This hike is hard enough that I use Mission Peak as training prior to my summer backpacking expeditions into the high Sierra.  If I can summit Mission Peak twice in one day I know I can conquer Half Dome in Yosemite. Mission Peak is shorter and at a lower elevation but it is steeper than Half Dome.

My best advice is to try hiking Mission Peak. And when you try, be well prepared. See “What Should I Bring” below.

The last 1/4 mile of the trail climbs about 700 feet over sometimes slippery rocks. Good footing is important.  I do not think anyone – even the acrophobic will find the trail scary. Unlike Half Dome there are no sheer ledges to fall off if you stay on the trail.  By the way, there is no shame to not reaching the top.  The views are excellent once you get past the first bench. TIP: When walking up, use that big muscle (your buttocks) to pull you up – your calves and thighs will thank you.

Also, while traveling up can be exhausting, coming down can be downright painful.  On the way down you are much more likely to slip – especially in bad shoes – and the pounding on the knees and ankles is quite noticeable. You are also likely to notice your quadriceps complaining. They will be doing work they are not used to.

What Should I Bring?

Be over prepared!

  • Water – plenty of water (2 litres or more on a hot day)
  • Snacks for energy
  • Layers of clothing – including WARM clothing and windbreaker. It can be cold and windy at the top – very cold and very windy.
  • A cap or wide brimmed hat, knit hat and light gloves – yes, even in the summer.
  • Sunscreen.
  • Insect repellent is usually not necessary, but might be a good idea as there are ticks.
  • Flashlight or headlamp – even if you do not plan to be there when it is dark.
  • Moleskin or glacier ice (for preventing or managing blisters) and a knife or small scissors if not precut.
  • GOOD hiking boots or shoes with thick, comfortable hiking socks (take a second pair of socks, too)
  • A hand towel to wipe sweat or muck
  • (Optional) A camera and a tripod.  If you’re not taking a tripod you’re not going to get the best pictures, trust me.
  • (Optional) Hiking poles

How Should I Get to the Summit?

Stay on the trails, please. On the way up pick the trail that goes uphill – there is very little down on any of the uphill hikes. My favorite trails in order are:

The two main trails from Stanford Avenue

  1. Horse Heaven trail – the steepest but also the best views and the most varied terrain – and the least traveled by park goers so there is more solitude. Start at Stanford Avenue and take the first fork in the road down and to the right (here it is called the “Peak Meadow Trail”). This trail has a few locations where you can miss a turn so make sure you have a map. The most common mistakes are to take the very steep shortcut too soon or to miss the switchbacks which exit Peak Meadow Trail and become Horse Heaven trail. The Peak Meadow Trail makes a wide 180 degree turn to the left, but before you exit that elbow you must head up the Horse Heaven trail which is easily overlooked if you keep following the fire road.  The Horse Heaven trail joins the Peak Trail on the southern side of the Mission Peak summit closest to Mount Allison. After paying a penalty going up some mercilously steep sections (with a few down segments) getting to the summit involves a kinder, gentler, slip free ascent to the Mission Peak summit.  The Horse Heaven trail crosses very small streams about 3 times.
  2. Ohlone College trail (properly called the Peak Trail or the Bay Ridge Trail) is the easiest and the fastest route to get to the eastern wilderness side of the preserve. Easiest because it is the longest thus the least steep – not easiest as in easy. The Ohlone trail is interesting because a segment of the trail goes through a wooded section where you are very likely to see or hear a rafter of turkeys.  Except for the wooded section, the trail is mostly a fire road. Parking on Mission Boulevard is your best choice. If you park in the college, do not forget to pay!
  3. The “main trail” from Stanford Avenue is where the masses of people aimlessly go. It is the most obvious route and for me, the most boring. The trail (called the “Hidden Valley Trail”) is a fire road that winds its way up to the northern shoulder of Mission Peak. The road is pretty well maintained and drained. From the North shoulder a long scramble (not climbing!) up rocks is in needed to reach the summit OR you can follow the trail around the backside of Mission Peak past Eagle Springs Backpacking camp and then ascend on the easier southern side of the summit. There is almost no shade anywhere along this trail.

I have never taken the trail up from Sunol Regional Wilderness, but it is long and connects to the backside of Mission Peak.  While standing on the summit is a psychological boost, many people do not realize that the summit is NOT where the marker pole is. Also Mount Allison and Monument Peak are both taller than Mission Peak. Mount Allison is the next peak to the south with lots of radio towers on it – the summit area of Mount Allison is private property, but the trail does go around it on the way to Monument Peak.  It is possible to hike across Mission Peak, to Monument Peak and down into Ed Levin park.

Where and When Can I Get the Best Pictures?

If you are reading this thinking I am going to tell you… wrong!  There are thousands of great spots and any time of the day or night presents great opportunities. You may notice I prefer sunrises, sunsets and night time. There are practical and photographic reasons why I prefer those times. The practical reason is that it falls outside my normal working hours, and the mornings and early evening are generally cooler than mid day and mid afternoon.  Early morning and early evening parking is more plentiful, too – except on weekends when huge throngs of humanity take on Mission Peak.

There is more to see than landscapes. There are turkeys, raptors, vultures, ground squirrels, coyote, cows (lots of them!), mice, deer, snakes (including rattle snakes), toads, frogs, lizards, and a variety of flowering plants including lupin, mules ears, venus thistle, clover, butter cups. There are two seasons: the cool lush green season, and the dry brown season. Both have their charms.

What Should I Worry About?

People worry about a lot of things which I think are a waste of energy. People worry about cows and snakes, for example. Both are docile. People worry about seeing or hearing coyotes.  Really, they’re harmless.  I suggest worrying more about good shoes, having layers of clothing, plenty of water and being prepared in case you or someone you meet up with needs attention due to a slip or a fall. And inspect yourself for ticks after a hike. Ticks tend to be abundant where the cattle hang out and Lyme disease is much more sinister and much more likely than a rattle snake bite. There is poison oak in a few spots – none that I’ve seen on the main trail, but some along Horse Heaven and the Ohlone College trail.

I wouldn’t spend much time worrying about getting lost either. Almost the entire mountain side is open so it is usually easy to see where you need to go even when its not obvious which trail is the correct one.

On the other hand vulgar and rude people are not that uncommon.  Cell coverage is extremely spotty. Full bars in one spot and no bars 3 feet from that spot.

There is no water on the trail – only at the beginning.  There is also a permanent pit toilet at the north shoulder where three trails meet, and at the trail head at Stanford Avenue.  Oh, and worry about car breakins! There have been many. Leave your valuables out of sight or not in the car at all.

Who Can I Go With?

I regularly schedule photography hikes with a limited number of participants through the Bay Area Night Photography Meetup. In each I post my planned hiking speed. Please do yourself a favor and know your speed if you plan to join. Often I plan these hikes to arrive in place near sunrise or sunset and slowness means missing the best light.

The San Jose Hiking Meetup also regularly tackles this summit.  They are hikers whose goal, remember is to HIKE for health, fellowship and enjoyment. They are a fun bunch and I always enjoy their company (in part because I have never heard any of them whine about how difficult the hike is). There are other Bay Area Hiking groups, too. Or just recruit a friend and try it first on a weekend when you have plenty of time.  I generally do NOT go on weekends. Too crowded and too many other great places to go.

NOTE: If you have somebody who will drop you off you can massively cheat. Study the maps and you will notice that Mill Creek Road connects with the Peak Trail at 1200 feet. That’s almost half way up – but there is NO parking on that road. Expect a ticket and a tow if you try to park there!

Still got Questions?

If you do not see the answer above and cannot find it on the Mission Peak site, use the comments to ask a question.