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Observing in the Desert

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#1 av8or

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Posted 11 November 2012 - 02:12 PM

Hi all, about a month ago I moved from Wisconsin out to Southern California. I've done a little bit of observing from my apartment just to satisfy a DSO craving and relax a bit. The skies, however, are disappointingly masked by a glowing pink haze so I'm fairly limited with my observing list. Talking to some of the guys at OPT, I understand that there are some fairly dark and steady skies out east in the mountains and desert. My question is, when I go observing out there, it will be fairly remote and I've never observed in the desert before. Are there any things I should take or be aware of concerning safety? Specifically, are there any animals or insects that I should be prepared to deal with and how should I deal with them? Also, are the specifically good spot to go observing from the North County San Diego area? Looking foreword to seeing dark skies again!!

#2 csrlice12

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Posted 11 November 2012 - 02:38 PM

When I lived in New Mexico, which is also desert; at least the mosquitos didn't bother me. In SoCA, just ask around to other astronomers (like you are here), they'll tell you the spots to stay away from (frequent illegal alien crossing spot; drug smuggling spots, and where the safer spots are). As a norm, animals are not a problem, most will stay away from human presence. Snakes, scorpions, ants (yes, ants) and other insects are usually more quiet at night. Wouldn't hurt to have a noisemaker of some sort though if something bigger comes closer (unusual, except for cows for some reason; I'm beginning to believe astronmers are reincarnated cows). Also, while night vision is important; having a good bright flashlight handy is also a good idea.

#3 Robert Friefeld

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Posted 11 November 2012 - 03:24 PM

The main danger in the high (Mojave) desert is cactus, especially at night. The low desert (Colorado) is more like the beach. Don't worry about animals.
I used to actually drive up to Mt. Palomar to observe, about an hour from Oceanside. Consider joining Orange County Astronomers. They have an excellent dark sky site near Anza with electricity.

#4 GeneT

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Posted 11 November 2012 - 03:30 PM

Contact the nearest astronomy club to where you live. They will point you in the right direction. Maybe the first time or two, go out with a group.

#5 JayinUT

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Posted 11 November 2012 - 04:12 PM

1. Dress warm at night in layers. A desert can be cold at night.
2. Animals. Coyotes you'll hear, birds, owls and bats from time to time. Nothing else really. We have Pronghorn up here and the males have come up to check us out, snort and stuff for a while and then go away. In the spring watch out for baby rattlesnakes.
3. Plants: Cactus are mentioned already.
4. Humans: Don't go near known drug traffic or human traffic routes. Be aware of bright car lights in the distance and be aware of where they are and if they are coming to you. Usually these are people out shooting or goofing off and I haven't had a problem with them, but better to be safe.
5. Water, water, water. Better even in the winter to have too much than too little. Have something to eat to keep energy up also.
6. Enjoy! For me the desert is a lovely, beautiful place and I love observing in the ones around me.

#6 Gastrol

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Posted 11 November 2012 - 05:00 PM

I would also seek out the local clubs and check their calendar. Most in that area get together at Anza Borrego, Cottenwood, or other regular sites.

#7 MikeRatcliff

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Posted 11 November 2012 - 05:01 PM

You can start out in a relatively civilized place like the Cottonwood Springs Campground in Joshua Tree National Park. They have paved roads, flush toilets, and running water but no electricity. $15 per night which is enforced. In the winter and summer there is less crowding. Spring and fall not so good with lots of lanterns from neighbors. Pretty dark skies towards the east.

The club site suggested before is an excellent idea. In my area, the Riverside Club has a nice setup.

Have fun! The difference in this drier part of the country is noticeable.

Mike

#8 Ron (Lubbock)

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Posted 12 November 2012 - 01:59 PM

As with all observing sites, I would bet that the human criminal threat far exceeds the natural threats combined. Think about it- what you want as an astronomer is a dark, secluded spot with adequate parking. These are the same exact locations the party animals head out to on Friday and Saturday night with their booze, drugs, etc. I had to pack up and leave a remote site due to a car full of intoxicated party animals about 2 months ago; they were so blitzed that they did not even see my parked car and almost drove into it from behind, then proceeded to park right next to it with headlights on and blaring music for 30 minutes while smoking up on ????. This is in the middle of freakin' nowhere in west Texas, mind you, so they definitely had at least 10 guns in their vehicle (LOL). So think about this problem first and foremost before you select a site. Also think about areas the police might check for suspected criminal activity; I used to get a thorough police checkup every time I used my telescope in graduate school due to local problems with the aforementioned party animals.

#9 FirstSight

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Posted 12 November 2012 - 04:34 PM

In the spring watch out for baby rattlesnakes.


Question Jay: How exactly does one "watch out" for baby rattlesnakes while observing at night at one of those dark desert sites like Vernon? That was a special point of concern the night I camped out at Natural Bridges National Monument, although the Rangers said that except for twilight when they sometimes came out to bask on pavement and warm rocks, they weren't much of a risk in any of the areas I'd be near for observing.

#10 rdandrea

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Posted 12 November 2012 - 05:00 PM

Fire ants. Make sure you don't set up on an ant pile.

#11 Jon Isaacs

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Posted 13 November 2012 - 05:27 AM

Also, are the specifically good spot to go observing from the North County San Diego area?


Hi and welcome to San Diego... :waytogo:

Popular spots would include the Anza-Borrego desert, Little Blair Valley seems to be popular. There is also Mt. Palomar. The Laguna Mountains have a number of spots that are quite good, along the Sunrise Highway there are some pull out and short side roads that are quite good. And then further south along the eastern slopes of the Laguna's there are some darker spots.

The San Diego Astronomy Association has their site at Tierra del Sol, not far from the town of Boulevard.

As far as things to worry about...

The desert and the mountains can be cold and windy. The clear air combined with the wind makes the cold penetrating. Saturday night it got down to about 30F, not cold by Wisconsin standards but combined with a 20 mph+ wind, it took several layers to keep warm.

As far as bugs and animals, there is not much to be concerned with, red ants during the day can be a problem, don't camp on top of an ant hill. There are Black Window spiders but they are generally only a problem in garages and under rocks.

As far a people problems, San Diego county has a lot of smugglers of all types but in my 64 years as a resident, I have never had a problem in spite of observing very close to the border. The one thing to be aware of is that in some areas, the Border Patrol is very active and they have a tendency to drive too fast on the back roads so be careful pulling out.

The skies aren't the darkest but they are clear much of the time and for a large metropolitan region, it's a good place to be.

Jon

#12 Starman1

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Posted 13 November 2012 - 02:34 PM

Hi all, about a month ago I moved from Wisconsin out to Southern California. I've done a little bit of observing from my apartment just to satisfy a DSO craving and relax a bit. The skies, however, are disappointingly masked by a glowing pink haze so I'm fairly limited with my observing list. Talking to some of the guys at OPT, I understand that there are some fairly dark and steady skies out east in the mountains and desert. My question is, when I go observing out there, it will be fairly remote and I've never observed in the desert before. Are there any things I should take or be aware of concerning safety? Specifically, are there any animals or insects that I should be prepared to deal with and how should I deal with them? Also, are the specifically good spot to go observing from the North County San Diego area? Looking foreword to seeing dark skies again!!

Jon's advice is good. In San Diego County. the viewing from Mt.Laguna is often quite good.
If you want to experience the darkest skies SoCal has to offer, you need to travel a little farther north to the area around Desert Center. Though you only gain a few tenths of a magnitude from the Mt.Laguna/Little Blair Valley skies, sometimes a weekend jaunt can make it worthwhile to drive the extra distance.
The east side of Joshua Tree National Park, suggested by Mike, is dark, and is about the same as Mt.Laguna or Little Blair Valley.
If you keep an eye on the Clear Sky Charts for all those sites, you'll find one may be clear when the others have reduced transparency. I follow the skies to find the clearest skies I can, commensurate with at least a blue-zone LP area. Of course, if you have a green-zone area close to you, don't pass on the opportunity to do a little more observing with a little less driving. :grin:

#13 csrlice12

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Posted 13 November 2012 - 02:59 PM

+1 on dark sky drives. Someone on another thread put it nicely; his best filter; and the one that gets the most use, is his "gas filter". No filter made, will improve your views like going to dark skies will.

#14 Dan Watt

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Posted 13 November 2012 - 07:46 PM

If you are in North County San Diego then Palomar Mountain is a great choice. The Orange County Astronomers site is nearby, a little over an hour and twenty minutes away from Oceanside/Vista area. Tierra Del Sol is also great but a little further.

It is plenty safe where ever you go out here, especially at the club sites. I often times leave my setup unattended during the day while I go into town and never give it a second thought when I'm at club sites. Feel free to PM me for more info.

It is plenty dark in the mountains here, especially when you get to elevation and a marine layer comes in and drowns out all the city lights.

#15 Starman1

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Posted 13 November 2012 - 08:12 PM

If you are in North County San Diego then Palomar Mountain is a great choice. The Orange County Astronomers site is nearby, a little over an hour and twenty minutes away from Oceanside/Vista area. Tierra Del Sol is also great but a little further.

It is plenty safe where ever you go out here, especially at the club sites. I often times leave my setup unattended during the day while I go into town and never give it a second thought when I'm at club sites. Feel free to PM me for more info.

It is plenty dark in the mountains here, especially when you get to elevation and a marine layer comes in and drowns out all the city lights.

But, alas, it is just not as dark as Little Blair Valley or Mt. Laguna.
My philosophy is that if you're going to drive, and an extra 20 to 30 minutes gets you a sky a half magnitude or more darker, then you drive the extra distance. It's such a schlep to haul all that stuff out there anyway that I just can't see sacrificing the darker sky.
And Palomar, in my opinion, is one of those places where you can stop to observe IF it's really close to home. But it's simply not dark enough to be a destination site for a night of true dark sky observing--it's in a green zone and almost in a yellow zone (you can't count on the marine layer NOT covering Palomar if it comes in). Tierra del Sol is much darker--it's in a blue zone. But since it's a long drive from north county, Mt. Laguna would be closer, as would Little Blair Valley.
The OCA's site at Anza is also a little brighter.

For sure, though, the OP should contact the SDAA and get a lot of ideas for sites.

#16 av8or

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Posted 14 November 2012 - 02:39 AM

Wow lots of great info guys, thanks!! I've been thinking about joining the OCA so I can use there site since they don't tell you where it is unless you're a member. I did a little searching on my own and found the nearest "black" zone is at Clarks Pass, it's a little ways away but I'm wondering if anyone has been there and if it seems safe? Joshua Tree park is a great idea, I could make a camping trip out of it too. Going by all the great info, I'm guessing most of my observing will be done at Mt. Laguna, Little Blair Valley or the OCA Anza site. Can't wait to check them out and I'll be sure to double check for any nearby fire ant hills!! The first time I heard cactus mentioned as a possible threat I just imagined myself stumbling around in the dark running into a giant cactus face first... classic :roflmao:

#17 Megabusa

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Posted 14 November 2012 - 10:43 PM

BigFoot :shocked:

#18 bleep

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Posted 14 November 2012 - 11:23 PM

I'm from north county too! My parents took us to Joshua Tree in the early 80s when we were kids with just binoculars and I can remember the stars and Milky Way were awesome. I've been wanting to go since I got my first "real" telescope a few months ago. If you guys plan a trip up there you should post here on the forums. I think it would be pretty cool and since I've never been to a club type event I might learn a few tricks of the trade.

#19 Starman1

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Posted 15 November 2012 - 12:17 AM

I was there Sunday night.
I'll try to remember in the future to post here if I'm going.

#20 av8or

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Posted 15 November 2012 - 02:12 AM

Please do!! It could turn into a spontaneous star party!!






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