Lookin’ at Stars

Milky Way over Haleakala

Milky Way over Haleakala

Have you ever seen stars like this in person? If you live in or near a city and don’t get out of it much, then there is a good chance you haven’t. With an increasing percentage of people moving to cities every year, fewer and fewer have seen in person what I consider to be one of the most beautiful and amazing sights in the world — a night sky filled by the Milky Way.

As I grew up in the suburbs, I was probably legally an adult before I realized that pictures of the Milky Way were not just illustrations or photos taken from fancy telescopes. When I looked up at the night sky as a kid, all I saw was the Big Dipper, the north star, and a few other points of light. It wasn’t until my dad and older brother relayed stories of their trip through the empty American West that I realized older people weren’t lying about being able to see the Milky Way from the country when they were young.

Now one of my favorite things to do any time I am out in the middle of nowhere is to sit outside late at night with my binoculars, my camera and tripod, or just my low-tech eyeballs and admire the vast clouds of stars, planets, and galaxies littering my entire field of view. Camping happens to be a great way for me to indulge in this activity. We are usually decently far away from the light pollution of cities with no reason to be indoors at night. I can stay up late and capture the Milky Way high above the horizon or get an up close view of the gorgeous blue Pleiades.

The trick is finding a good location for this is combining a dark sky area with a good campsite. I used the following site for a map of light pollution:

http://www.jshine.net/astronomy/dark_sky/

Then I cross-reference the parks visible in the darker areas of the map with a list of parks with camping such as this site for Missouri:

http://mostateparks.com/activity/camping

For example, Sam Baker State Park in south-eastern Missouri sits far enough from any source of light pollution to be a good place to camp and see a lot of stars.

Milky Way over Sam Baker State Park

Milky Way over Sam Baker State Park

Lake Wappapello State Park is further south and offers a great view of the sky but the light from nearby Poplar Bluff is quite visible on the horizon.

Milky Way over Lake Wappapello campsite

Milky Way over Lake Wappapello campsite

And if you are lucky enough to get out to Haleakalā National Park on Maui, you have the privilege of viewing from one of the top dark sky sites in the entire world.