Chasing Stars in the High Desert

By Jim Chamberlain

The night was so dark I could not see the buttons on my camera without my red lens flashlight.  The sky seemed black above the granite boulders.  As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I could see the arch of the Milky Way start to appear.  Hundreds if not thousands of stars were twinkling through the great bands of dust making up the core as it arched over the rocks. I began taking multiple images of several seconds each to try to capture the colors that my eyes could not see.  These dark skies were why I had come to the high desert of Southern California in the National Park called Joshua Tree.

Most of the world’s population live in cities and their surrounding suburbs.  The bright lights of our homes, businesses, and streets fill the air with light so we can find our way even in the dark.  The amount of light created prevents us from seeing most of the stars in the night sky.  It is called light pollution.  Finding places where the sky is truly dark allows us to gaze upwards and be amazed at what we can see once we leave the glowing boundaries of our communities.

The International Dark-Sky Association began designating International Dark Sky Parks, or dark areas surrounded by communities dedicated to preserving them, in about 2007.   I can see a few hundred stars from my light-polluted backyard.  Parks with the Dark Sky designation provide the opportunity to gaze at thousands. National parks are some of the best places to view the night skies due to the National Park Service working strategically with local communities to protect these places from light pollution. Twenty-seven national parks have been recognized by the IDA for their dark night skies. Only two are in California and both in the Mojave Desert regions of the state.  My visit was to Joshua Tree.

Joshua Trees

Joshua Tree National Park is beautiful in the daylight, too.  Its signature flora covers large areas of the higher elevation Mojave Desert from the west entrance near the town of Joshua Tree past the rock climbers at Cap Rock but dwindle near the Key View overlook, where you can see the Coachella Valley dotted with its large white wind turbines. These relatives of the yucca have a life span of about 150 years though some may be older.  These desert giants with their spiny arms look like an alien army invading the planet as you view them across the vast desert landscape.  A Joshua Tree silhouetted by a beautiful sunset is worthy of your time.

Cap Rock Sunset

The eastern side of the park with its entrance in the town of Twenty-Nine Palms has less Joshua trees but random formations of stone like Jumbo Rocks, Skull Rock, Split Rock and Arch Rock.  The lower Colorado Desert (part of the Sonoran Desert) dominates the southern region with the cholla or teddy bear cactus having its own natural garden just south of the White Tank area.  Joshua Tree NP is one of the few places you can visit two different deserts in one park.

The most spectacular views, however, appear when the sun goes down and the constellations appear overhead.  If you are not familiar with the night sky you might wish to purchase one of the many apps available for your smart phone which will make identifying the multitude of formations overheard easier.  However, there is almost no cell phone coverage in most of the park so having an app with a virtual view that does not require cell service might be advisable.  You could also buy an inexpensive Planisphere, which is a simple handheld laminated guide to the night sky where you turn the dials to the date and time of your visit and then face either north or south to identify the wonders that are above you.  A small red lens flashlight will allow you to view the diagrams without losing your night vision.

Joshua Tree provides several campgrounds that fill up fast in the cooler spring and fall. This is the desert and temperatures can vary greatly from below freezing at night to over a hundred degrees in the summer daylight.  There are few services in the park and only 5 places to get water.  So be prepared and stock up in one of the towns before heading to your polyester planetarium or motorized hotel room.

I was here to see the star of the night sky: The Milky Way.  Not the whole galaxy, just the part of our spiral galaxy that can be seen from our planet’s home in one of its spiral arms.  You will need to visit the park during a period with no moon to appreciate the rise of this band of nebulas, stars, and clusters.

Milky Way Panorama

Milky Way season usually starts in March and goes through October.  The full bow of the core is best seen in the spring as the rotation of the earth causes the core to arch to a vertical position by the fall. The moon is another factor to consider.  If you wish to see the Milky Way, make sure you are viewing on a night with no moon which only occurs a few nights each month.  I visited in early April and had to wait until almost two-thirty in the morning for the Milky Way to rise over the rocks at my viewpoint at Live Oaks picnic area.  I was greeted with a wonderful view of the whole bow of the core covering the sky from east to west.  I notice a lone Joshua tree to the north of my location just below the star Polaris.  I decided to try to capture an image of the stars moving across the night sky, called star trails. The stars do not actually move – the earth does with its rotation. I took multiple short exposures, but you could take one image of say 30 minutes in duration to get the same thing.  I was pleased with the unusual motion the planet’s rotation allowed my camera to capture.  If you are interested in this type of photography, check out Arizona Highways PhotoScapes.  They will help you capture images like the ones that I got.

Joshua Tree Star Trail

The next day while scouting another location near Cap Rock for star gazing, I met a Park Ranger who was setting up his 11-inch aperture (looks like a beer keg) Telescope on a hefty tripod near the parking area.  He was going to view Jupiter and Saturn later that evening. Unfortunately, he was not going to be there at 2 AM when I returned but there are star gazing walks and talks at different times within the park so check what programs the rangers are offering during your visit.  If you do not have your own telescope, a good pair of binoculars like 10x50s will suffice for most star gazing, but the Milky Way just requires your eyes as it is huge.

Clouds battled the stars for dominance of the night sky and the Milky Way was mostly hidden on my last night in the park.  Weather can be a factor even in the desert.  I went back to my hotel disappointed but able to get enough sleep to allow for an early morning drive to capture a sunrise over the prickly armed denizens of the Cholla Garden.  The spines of these small cacti glow in the early morning light of sunrise and my disappointment from the night before disappeared with this spectacular view as the sun burst over the nearby mountains.

This park is unusual because of its weird “trees”, scattered piles of granite boulders, and dual deserts under some of the darkest skies you can visit.  Do not miss the opportunity to see more stars that you can count at Joshua Tree National Park.

Cholla Garden Sunburst

Jim Chamberlain is a Photo Guide with Arizona Highways PhotoScapes