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Williams Hill Site Report

williams hillThis is a site report, not so much an observing report. My main goal was to go to check out the surroundings. On July 30-31 2016, I went to Williams Hill Recreation Area, managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), to investigate the suitability of the site for purposes of astronomical observing, with the possibility of spending the night.  The area is located about 27 road miles, or 17 miles as the crow flies, south of King City.

My plan was to get there earlier in the day on Saturday with my dirt bike, and then tool around to explore and get to know the area, and settling on a location where I could set up my scope. I would then have dinner, and head to that site to set up, and wait for night to fall. Things went very much according to plan.

on the freeway

One hundred miles of this kind of view.

The ride down 101 was uneventful, though slow going getting out of Santa Clara County due to Gilroy’s annual Garlic Festival. Getting through Prunedale and Salinas was also slow in spots, and much of the afternoon sky was obscured by smoke from the fire near Carmel (prevailing winds were taking the smoke northeast, thankfully away from my destination). It was over a hundred miles on southbound 101, through all the towns we know when we are traveling to dark sky sites: Gonzales, Soledad, Greenfield, King City.

dirt road leading to williams hill

About eight miles of white dusty dirt road.

The exit to take is called San Ardo, then a right onto Paris Valley Road. After a little less than two miles of paved farm road, you have to make a sharp left turn onto Lockwood San Ardo Road, at which point, it turns to a fairly well maintained dirt road. Once on the dirt, going was slow. I had a trailer so I took it easy, no more than 25, and in some places, 10 or less toward the top. Nearing the camp, the road is cut into the side of the hill, exposing the Monterey shale formations. It’s a very dry, dusty white ride.


Once you see this sign, you know you’ve made it!

antenna hill

The actual Williams Hill, where all the antenna towers are. It’s four and a half miles past the campground.

I arrived at the campground closer to 4pm, about ninety minutes later than I originally planned. The first order of business was to unhitch the trailer and pull the bike down, getting ready for the first phase, local exploration. The campground is four and a half miles before the end of the road that leads up to the actual Williams Hill, which can also rightly be called Antenna Hill. I made my way to antenna hill via the fairly well maintained dirt road comprised mainly of switchbacks that lead from one hill to the next. At the top of the hill, the antennae live behind a chain link fence, some of the towers more securely enclosed than others, possibly giving away their importance to their owners. At the end of the road, there is a fairly wide area that may be suitable to set up maybe a dozen scopes, but it’s a long way to go past the campground, there are large circles etched into the ground by spinning wheels (ie, donuts), and if anyone were to come up that road at night, you’d be blasted with headlights with little to no cover. Further, the flat area, though wide open at the top of the hill with nice horizons (except for the towers), is not entirely level. Being the top of a hill, it has a mild crown, I thought to myself that this area would do in a pinch, but there very well could be better sites.


Lots and lots and lots of spent shotgun shells littered every turnout.

I kept exploring and found miles of more trails on this BLM land. North of the campground area, ie, north of Lockwood San Ardo Road, there are plenty of possible observing sites with decent horizons and plenty of space for plenty of astronomers’ vehicles and their gear. Many, most or all of them were littered with spent shotgun shells. It was shameful, how the shooters left such a mess. There weren’t too many targets, and thankfully not much broken glass, though a gallon size fire extinguisher appeared to be on the receiving end of a muzzle. After a good hour and a half of exploring, I concluded that the best overall site for observing is only about half mile from the campground, at 35.984279, -121.011742. It’s an open hill good with horizons nearly all the way around, especially to the east. So much so that you can look down and see headlights on highway 101. After dark, there was just a small light dome to the east, Paso Robles, perhaps. (EDIT: I was informed this light dome is not Paso Robles, which is way more to the south, and there is nothing east; this is most likely skyglow.)

The campground is wooded with pines, though sparsely, and each of the six sites are far enough apart which provides for privacy. The location is on top of a ridge, so the wind was sailing briskly over the ridge top, making tent assembly a bit difficulty. However, it died down rather abruptly after about 7pm.

The campsite showing fire ring, canopy, picnic table.

The campsite showing fire ring, canopy, picnic table.

There is no water at the campground whatsoever, so any campers or other visitors are well advised to bring plenty of their own. There is a single vault toilet that was fairly (relatively) clean and even stocked with adequate amounts of TP. The sites each had a metal picnic table and a canopy as shelter from the sun, or perhaps the rain, and the sites and much of the rest of the campground were roped off to keep offroaders off the vegetation.

There were other campers, including a fairly large group of young men, in about 6 cars. They were not any problem, we didn’t socialize at all, and the smell of clove cigarettes adorned the air on the road leading away from camp. There was also a later arrival, a guy with his girlfriend, out for a romantic camp getaway in the local hills.

As far as observing, I don’t have much to write about. The hilltop location were I set up was mildly rutted by vehicles turning around when the ground was last wet. The ruts made it slightly challenging to find an adequately flat, level spot for the dob base. It wasn’t dusty there, but rather a bit rocky with small scrub growing low. After it got dark, I sampled Saturn, whose tilt is now so great that seeing the Cassini division is easy, and enjoyed the planets wandering through Scorpius. viewed some objects around Ophiucus but mainly I was happy just taking in the dark sky, with the milky way hanging above like fluffy clouds. A few streaks of light appeared during the night, perhaps a pre-game show for the coming Perseid meteor shower. It was very much plenty dark.


The view of the road leading up to Williams Hill Recreation Area, from the top, looking east.

I didn’t stay out long since I had to be out of there early. The next morning, I loaded up and took it easy down the hill again, and it was a nicer ride since it wasn’t as hot. Got back to San Jose around 11am.

Would I recommend this place for SJAA members to go observing? Definitely yes. The recommendation would also include that you should plan on staying the night. Though there is no water and no trash service, and it’s a fairly remote location where shooting is allowed, it does have fairly decent cell service, a nice campground, and good horizons at 2200 feet (671 meters).

distant forest fire smoke

Smoke from the fire near Carmel, California.

camp site

Rob’s camp in the sunset.

bug in tent

An overnight visitor, clinging to the ceiling of the tent.


Afternoon wind whipped up a section of thick white dust at the one tight hairpin turn.

Posted in Trip Reports

16 Degrees South

Australia - A Year of Edits

I just got back from a holiday in northern Australia.  Though it wasn’t an astronomical vacation at all (brought no scopes or astronomical meaningful binocs), I did get a chance to look up at a far more southern sky than I’m used to seeing.

The trip was a family vacation to tropical northern Queensland, specifically, Port Douglas and Cairns, so we were mostly between 16.5 and 17 degrees south latitude, definitely in the tropics, but not all that far south.

The first thing that I noticed was how high Scorpius is at that latitude.  It’s practically overhead, along with the teapot, with the Milky Way running pretty much between the two.  While shielding my view from the bright and numerous resort lights, the sky was still noticeably dark, which allowed the Milky Way to be so visible. What also stood out was a splotch of fuzz between the scorpion tail and the teapot spout, which is known as the open star cluster M7.  It was very bright, very noticeable with the naked eye.

After I got over my fascination of how high these summer, er, winter constellations were, I turned my focus to the unknown area just below Scorpius (would that be south or Scorpius, or maybe south west?).  It was entirely unfamiliar, and I knew that was a completely new area of the sky that I’ve never seen before.  That was a really cool feeling, knowing that I was looking at something I’ve never seen before, something I can’t see from home because it’s over and beyond my familiar horizon.

Checking the southern hemisphere sky map (thanks for sending it, Ed!), I realized that it was mostly Centaurus that occupied that space.  This constellation, according to Wikipedia, is visible only up to about 25 degrees north. Its two brightest stars, alpha (yes, *that* Alpha Centauri), and beta, which, btw, are unmistakably bright, point directly to Crux, the southern cross.  Crux is recognizable as a cross, and the “fifth” star of the cross that’s depicted in Australia’s national flag, though readily apparent in the sky, isn’t all that noteworthy. I would opine that it could easily have been left out of their flag and ensigns. I have to go with New Zealand (and a few others) on this one.

Southern Cross

The other constellations I identified were the southern crown (Corona Australis) and Triangulum Australe.

After doing a couple of brief (ten or fifteen minute) naked eye observation sessions over a few days, I wanted to see if there was anyone local that I could meet up with to get a better tour, possibly a telescopic one, of the views from sixteen degrees south.  Turns out that there is an astronomy group in Cairns, but unfortunately, emails to their listed address went unanswered while I was there.

Of course I wish that I had brought some gear and prepared better for this visit to the south, but I have to remind myself that I went in knowing that this was not going to be an astronomy focused trip.  The scuba diving at the Great Barrier Reef, visiting the rainforest as far north as Cape Tribulation, and avoiding the pademelons, wallabies and kangaroos on the road at dusk kept me busy.  It’s a really interesting area of Australia to visit, where the rainforest meets the reef, as they say, and the lack of astronomy during this visit only gives me an excuse to go there again, perhaps further south, so that the Magellanic Clouds can also be bagged!

Posted in Articles, Blog, Trip Reports

Grandview Campground – Trip Report – July 2014

The following is an observing and site report submitted by SJAA members Jose Marte and Gary Chock


(From Gary)
Here’s a report on our visit to Grandview Campground on Tue & Wed July 22-23, 2014.

Grandview Campground is in Inyo National Forest on the way up to the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest. It is about 8 to 9 hours from the Bay Area depending on your driving pace. It is at 8560′ elevation. There are 26 campsites nicely spaced with trees between offering privacy and shielding from other camper’s lights and campfires. No water, pack your trash. At least 3 vault toilets. At this altitude, the only wildlife problems seem to be squirrels (no bears).

Weather-wise, we were lucky. A monsoonal weather pattern was in place over the Sierras for ~2 weeks and dissipated just before we left the Bay Area. It reformed Sat July 26 after we left.

While Bishop was baking in 105 degrees in the daytime, Grandview was in the 80’s in the daytime and in the 50’s overnight.

IMG_Grandview_Site4_000_NorthTo the left is a photo of the north horizon at campsite 4.

Seeing and transparency was excellent for the nights we observed. Great horizon-to-horizon views of the Milky Way. We easily viewed dark nebula. Barnard’s E near Altair. Also the cloudiness around the Sagittarius Star Cloud was well defined. M31 Andromeda Galaxy was wide and ethereal with M32 and M110 in view.

We met up with some astronomers from Southern California – visual and imagers. They visit regularly, traveling from Orange County and Tehachapi. While we experienced great weather, seeing, and transparency, they mentioned times it got down to 16 degrees. Other times windy.

I will keep in mind Grandview for a revisit, planning on keeping things flexible and check the weather a lot. Hopefully synchronizing excellent weather, seeing, and transparency. Here are convenient links for checking.

There are two observations I enjoyed that exemplified to me the excellent dark skies we had at Grandview Campground.

Viewing M7 Ptolemy’s Cluster with my 20×80 binoculars, the stars of this splendid open cluster were brilliant points in a dark field that seemed to be suspended in three dimensions. The binocular-mind integration effect seemed to connect the star-vertices with faint blue filaments. Stunning.

Viewing M13 The Great Hercules Cluster with my 10″ Dob, the stars of this spectacular globular cluster were fine pinpoints in a velvety dark field. My mind connected these points, arranging them in three dimensions as facets of a diamond. Wondrous.

(From Jose)
I joined Gary Chock for a visit to The Grandview Campground (GV) in the Inyo-White Mountains, nearby Big Pines in California. Gary’s comments regarding the seeing/transparency darkness accurately describes just how terrific conditions were for observing. I’ve only been involved in the hobby for just over a year, but the couple of nights we camped were easily the best sessions I have experienced.

I’m an observational astronomer using a 14″ Orion Dobsonain telescope. I don’t use computer guided tools just a Telrad, 9×50 finder, and usually paper finder charts. Basically, I was able to find everything that I intended to see. The only limiting factor was the fact that I needed to sleep and plus my inexperience at being in a premium dark site. It is hard deciding what to look for when everything seems possible to find. My enthusiasm probably caused me to waste some time and energy because I found myself swooping from one side of the sky to the other, feasting on eye-candy, rather than honing in on a particular location.

To describe the conditions I will elaborate on one object. Just about every astronomy book points out the Whirlpool Galaxy, M51, as being “bright” and “spectacular”. To me this has been a source of frustration, and even a minor disappointment, since it is invisible from my driveway in San Jose. At our local, semi-dark sites (Mendoza Ranch or RCDO) M51 is readily available and appears to be a low-contrast, lop-sided figure-eight. It is brighter and larger but still a “faint fuzzy” without detail. At the Grandview, however, (~165x) I could see its spiraling arms and I didn’t really need to use averted vision! Very cool and yes, spectacular. In fact, and this could be from the delirium of lack of sleep, I thought I saw M51, naked-eye, as a fuzzy, dim star.

This trip was actually my second time to the White Mountains. Last August, during the Perseids, I spent a night at the Patriach Grove, one of the areas where the amazing Bristle Cone Pines grow. (FYI camping is not allowed at the Patriarch Grove.) It is just a few miles away from the Grandview Campground but at 11,000 feet. Again, observing conditions were fantastic, but I didn’t bring enough warm clothing and spent most of the night, uncomfortably cold in my car.

If you intend to go the Inyo-White Mountains be prepared for extreme cold and heat. But also be prepared for extreme natural beauty. Even if you encounter the misfortune of a cloudy night, you will still be in one of the most spectacular landscapes on earth. The view of the Eastern Sierra peaks, rising upwards of 10,000 feet from Owens Valley is absolutely magnificent. Aside from the great astronomy, there is fantastic hiking, birding, fishing, geology, and even archeology to experience in the Eastern Sierras. It is only about eight hours away from San Jose and plus you’ll have the pleasure of driving through the backcounty of Yosemite National Park and seeing Mono Lake. Furthermore, this area is vast. Finding a campsite or lodging is very easy compared to Yosemite.

Editor’s Note: Documenting your visits to dark sky sites or any other astronomy related place is a good way to help you remember your visit, as well as help you develop your observing skills.  Just as writing and rewriting your class notes in college in itself helped you study and master the material, writing and keeping notes of trips helps you become a better visual observer.  Please consider submitting any site notes or observing reports to the SJAA for posting on the blog or for publishing in the newsletter, The Ephemeris. You’ll be glad you did!

Posted in Articles, Observing Reports, Trip Reports

SJAA Yosemite Trip Report

Yosemite Trip A Success

We were concerned about the fire and clouds but the reality was we showed Saturn, Iridium Flares, the host of significant objects inside and outside our galaxy to folks from Europe, Africa, Oceania, the Americas and Asia.



Credit M. Packer


Credit M. Packer


Credit J. Jones


Credit: G. Chock

One highlight of the weekend was an Iridium Flare passing over during pre-star party talk. Morris Jones asked “what’s the difference between astrologers and astronomers?” Answer: “Astronomers predictions come true” Where-in Morris told audience to look up for the flare and score – the satellite passed overhead to the delight and applause of audience.


Credit M. Packer

Thanks to our SJAA volunteers. Left to Right: Morris Jones, Philip Lieu, Don Lieu, Jane Houston Jones, Jim Van Nuland, Terry Kahl, Gary Mitchell, Kenichi Miura, Paul Mancuso, Michael Packer,  Jose Marte, Greg Bradburn, Gary Chock, Rus Belikov

Other highlights of the weekend: scope views of climbers on Halfdome, M55 in a large dob, Swan and Veil (nice view Terry and Gary). Saturn of course – it rings but also it’s moons. M6, M7 and lots of planetary nebulae  in Aquila (thanks Rus). Also several shooting stars both nights along with the Crème de la crème – Pleiades “un-occulted” or rising over Half Dome in the wee hours. Below are some pics of the weekend.


Credit M. Packer


05-Yosemite_2014 06-Yosemite_201407-Yosemite_2014


   08-Yosemite_2014 09-Yosemite_2014


Credit G. Chock


Credit G. Chock

Morris snapped this shot of a grouse that stopped by:


Credit M. Jones

Posted in Articles, Blog, Trip Reports

Exploratory Trip to Henry Coe State Park – Hunting Hollow Lot

This is my report of an exploratory trip to Henry Coe – Hunting Hollow Lot. I have been interested in exploring this parking lot as a potential site that club members could visit for dark sky viewing and imaging. I came across this lot when I was out scouting for new sites to view and image from back in January and wanted to bring some members back with me to an Exploratory Trip. On Fri. May 21st. Lee Hoglan, Gary Chock and I met at this site to explore it and do some observing. First view of the lot, it is big. It is 265 feet by 171 feet. For comparison, RCDO is 146 feet by 70 feet.

We setup our gear as the sun was going down. Lee brought the “son of the beast” scope, a 16 inch Dob, Gary had his Astro72 refractor and 20×80 Celestron Binoculars and I had my Oberwerk 28×110 Binoculars. As sun went down, we started to look at the objects in the west, The Pleiades, The Orion Nebula, Double Cluster. There was a light dome in the west, the Orion Nebula in the 16” dob was very bright and impressive but, so was the sky glow behind it. I wanted to see how it would in my binoculars. I put in my DGM Optics NPB filter in the binoculars and the view was quite good, not quite as bright as the dob but, very nice. The difference was that with the filters in the binoculars, the skyglow was cut down quite a bit and the contrast and detail on the nebula really popped out.

Then we went on a galaxy hunt. In both the Dob and the 28×110 binos we had pretty good views of the Leo Triplet, M95, M96, M105, the Markarian Chain, M51, M101, M106, M108, M109, Owl Nebula, M81, M82, M64. Gary was having some nice views of the bigger star clusters like the Hyades, Beehive and Mel 111. We ended up wrapping up about 10:30pm. We all agreed it was one of the best nights of observing we have had in a long time.

As far as the site:
The Good – This site is big, all of the regular SJAA members who come out to view on a regular basis could fit in that lot with room to spare. There is no lock or gate at the entrance so it’s 7/24 hour access. You pay for use via dropping $6 into a slot in a metal pole. Easy drive within 1 hour from HP. 10 mins from Mendoza Ranch. The road ends shortly after the lot so there is not too many cars going on that road. The site is pretty dark, SQM meter reading of 21.1 around 9:30pm. Overnight camping if you want to stay overnight.

The Bad – The is no lock or gate at the entrance so it’s 7/24 hour access so, we have no control other cars driving in while we are viewing. Horizons not that low. From center of the lot, the south is about 30 degrees, east, west about 20 degrees, north is about 15 degrees. Elevation is about 600 feet so there could be fog on some nights.

The Ugly – Possible that night hikers could pull into the lot, happened to us. They had some lights on for about 15mins as they were gathering their stuff to hike into the park. This site I would say is more suited to viewing then imaging for this reason.

Overall impression of the site:
I think this is a good site for viewing. It is the darkest of the sites that club members currently go to (RCDO, Mendoza Ranch) It’s good to know that this site is available for use on a 7/24 basis. While it’s not perfect, neither are the other sites that we have access to. I think overall the good does outweigh the bad on this site.

The GPS location of the site is: 37°04’33.6″N 121°27’59.4″W

-Ed Wong

Posted in Articles, Observing Reports, Trip Reports

Second Exploratory Trip to the Pinnacles

This a report on my second exploratory trip to the Pinnacles. (Please see the earlier blog post on the first trip for some of the details on the Pinnacles itself)

On Sunday 12-1, me and 4 others from the SJAA met down at the Pinnacles (Nhan Nguyen, Guna Purushothaman, Sanjaya Srivastava and Srinivas P) For me, this was a second exploratory trip. On the first trip I did some imaging, but on this trip my goal was to see how good the viewing could be at this dark location. Guna, and Srinivas were imaging and the rest of us were viewing.

I brought my 6 inch scope to see what could be seen with a modest size scope under the dark skies. As the sun went down, the Milky Way and other stars began to light up the night sky. Venus again was so bright it was casting a glow over southwest. As Venus set, I started to do some observing on some of the objects I have never been able to see from RCDO with my 12′ SCT. Here is a list of some of the objects.

NGC6960 – The Veil Nebula, Using a OIII filter and my 40mm 72 degree eyepiece both east and west sides of the Veil Nebula easily seen with shape and detail.

NGC7000 – The North American Nebula, Using a nebula filter and my 40mm 72 degree eyepiece this nebula was easily visible, showing the shape and some detail to it. I’ve tried many times from RCDO with the 12″ to see this but, never was able to, so I was quite happy to see it this time.

IC1396 – Elephant Trunk Nebula, Using a nebula filter and my 40mm 72 degree eyepiece I could barely make out some outline of the object. Need bigger scope for this one.

IC1318 – Gamma Cygni Nebula, Using a nebula filter and my 40mm 72 degree eyepiece I could barely make out some outline of the object. Need bigger scope for this one.

IC1805 – The Heart Nebula, Using a nebula filter and my 40mm 72 degree eyepiece I could make out outline of the object. A bigger scope is needed to see more detail of it

M74 – A nice face on galaxy Mag 9.39, Using my 14mm 100 degree eyepiece, I could easily see the object and the spiral arms. I’ve tried many times from RCDO with the 12″ to see this but, never was able to, so I was quite happy to see it this time.

M33 – Another nice galaxy, Using my 14mm 100 degree eyepiece, I could easily see the object and the spiral arms. I’ve tried many times from RCDO with the 12″ I could see a smudge, but never was able to see the spiral arms, so I was quite happy to see them this time.

IC342 – A nice face on galaxy Mag 8.39, Using my 14mm 100 degree eyepiece, for some reason, I could not see this one, even though it’s supposed to be brighter then M74. Might need a bigger scope to see this one.

Overall, we had a good time on this trip, I did learn that dark skies really do make a difference as far as what is visible to you in your scope. Kudos again to Nhan Nguyen for finding this site. I think there is a possibility for this location for club members who want to view at a dark site within 2 hours of home base. I’m planning to go back again when I have the opportunity. If you would like to go view at this site with others, let us know hopefully we can get a group of people to go again.

-Ed Wong

Posted in Articles, Observing Reports, Trip Reports

Exploratory Trip to Pinnacles National Park

This is my report of a trip to Pinnacles National Park. I have been interested in exploring this park as a potential site that club members could visit for dark sky viewing and imaging. My friend Nhan Nguyen had told me about the location since he has been there a few times for imaging.

On Sun 11/24 Nhan, Bill & Susan O’Neil and I met at the Pinnacles to explore the location and do some imaging and viewing. The Pinnacles is location in a fairly remote location south of Paicines on Hwy 25. From my place in the south bay, the drive was pleasant no remote or off road excursions needed and no excessive winding mountain roads. It took me 1 hour to get there. From the club’s home base at Houge Park, it should take about 1.5 to 1.7 hours to get there depending on traffic. The city of Hollister is about halfway and has gas and other stores if need to get food or other stuff on your way down.

As, I drove around the park, I noticed there are a lot of mountains and trees so the horizons are somewhat limited. On my way to the visitor’s center to meet the others, I noticed an somewhat open area with pretty good horizons. After meeting the others, we talked with the Rangers about having access to that location which is a overflow camping area which also includes an flushable toilet.

As we were setting up, I noticed there were some cars leaving the park on a road next to the campground. Nhan had said once it got dark, that really would not be a problem and it was not. Once it got dark there were no cars after we were set up. I was amazed at how quickly it got dark once the sun had gone down. I had my mount polar aligned and ready to go by 6pm.

This was my first time to a true dark site and it was a new experience. Venus was so bright in the night sky in the west, it was almost seemed like the moon was up on that side of the sky!! But, as Venus went down it did get dark, really dark. I was able to see the Milky Way in detail naked like I had never seen before from RCDO or Coyote Lake. I could easily see all the stars in the little dipper naked eye. The Andromeda Galaxy, Double Cluster, M33 Pinwheel galaxy visible naked eye. The view of the Double Cluster in my 20×80 binoculars were spectacular!!! so much more detail and contrast.

For those into imaging, I was imaging IC342 with a F7 scope. I was able to shoot 12min. sub frames at ISO1600 with no light pollution filter with no skyglow.

I did take some measurements of the location. Most of the horizon are between 15-18 degrees high except for the north which is slightly lower. I took some SQM meter readings with my iPhone app and the readings taken several times through the night were 21.6-21.8 and the highest rating. For comparison RCDO is 20.5. I’ve been told by TAC observers Lake San Antonio is about 21.5. Granted, my iPhone app most likely is not as accurate as a dedicated meter but, it does give a rough reference point.

I enjoyed my time at the Pinnacles with Nhan, Bill and Susan. I think there is a possibility for this location for club members who want to view at a dark site within 2 hours of home base. I’m planning to go back again when I have the opportunity.

-Ed Wong

Posted in Articles, Trip Reports

Expedition – Laguna Mountain

laguna tall tree and view

The following is my report about our visit to Laguna Mountain, in California’s Hernandez Valley, nestled between the coastal and Diablo mountain ranges. Chris Kelly, my friend Tim Berry, a TAC imager named Enrico, and I comprised the entire group that day and night on 07 September 2013.  I knew we would be going to a really remote place. My goal was to experience what it would be like to try it from a one night perspective.

Laguna Mountain, managed by United States’ Bureau of Land Management (BLM), is a long way to go, but you really get a sense of the central part of California from the drive down there, traveling through Hollister, passing by the east entrance to Pinnacles National Park on highway 25 . The location is just about exactly one hundred miles from base camp Houge Park in San Jose. It takes about two hours with no stops (as measured driving back to SJ in the very early morning).

Highway 25 is a leisurely drive, but does get a bit twisty and a little slow in certain areas. It’s well maintained and can be fast in certain stretches.  On your way to Laguna, on Highway 25, well past the Pinnacles, you come down off a hill where the road turns sharply to the right. You see a sign pointing to the left toward Laguna Mountain Access, Coalinga Road.  This road is not as well maintained, so the going is slower. The pavement is rougher, the road crosses several single lane cattle crossing grates, and low areas, dips, where bridges should be (but are not).

laguna mountain entranceAfter about 25 minutes on Coalinga Road, you start to approach BLM land, with the Short Fence Trailhead parking area.  A little while later, while noticeably gaining elevation, you pass by the Sweetwater Trailhead and campground.  A short while after that, you reach your destination, the Laguna Mountain Campground, so you make a right onto the gravel road.  It leads up to the campground and terminates at a small clearing where there is a vault toilet building, an information kiosk, and the gate.

At the camping area of Laguna Mountain, there are five sites, on seemingly fresh crushed gravel; it’s a little dusty.  There are shade structures, about 10 by 12 feet in dimension, on a concrete pad with a metal picnic table bolted, chained to the slab.  Sites are decent sized and space away from each other, providing plenty of privacy.  There is no water, so be sure to bring plenty your own. laguna campsiteThere are no trash cans, so  you have to pack your trash out.  There are fire rings but it’s hot and dry out there, I would hesitate having a campfire.  Site 5 is the best, at the top of the  hill, but it’s technically behind the gate. To use it, you would have to park in the clearing, near the gate/kiosk and haul all your stuff up the hill, about 30-50 meters around the gate, then back up again to the site.  It has good views and is relatively flat, so you could even set up your gear there and observe right at your camp. UPDATE: I’m told that this site is fully available for the asking; contact the local BLM office (links are above in this post) or the SJAA’s Rob Jaworski.

The observing area where we set up that night was up the hill beyond the locked gate.  To get there, we had to drive about a quarter mile past the gate, for which Chris had the combination as he was also in possession of a permit. Driving up that dirt road, the biggest issue is one fairly steep section of road, maybe fifty feet in length, we had to climb with our vehicles. The 4WD vehicles had no problem but the one non-4WD sedan in our group did have problems climbing. locked gate at lagunaA second run at the hill with more momentum and using a different track, with less loose dirt and rock, proved successful.  If the surroundings are wet and muddy, this may be a significant problem as the  grade would be impassable, possibly even to 4×4’s.

At the top of a ridge, we set up right in the middle of the well graded dirt road, at N36 21.678′ W120 49.608′ (link to google map satellite view).    Being in the middle of road, if another vehicle had happened to encounter and want to pass us, it would have been impossible  unless we all broke down our equipment to let them through. Luckily and expectedly, there was no one trying to get to nowhere beyond to the mountain (or returning from it).

South wasn’t perfect, horizon was slightly obscured by the mountaintop, but IIRC, all of Scorpius’ major stars were visible.  To the north was the Hernandez Valley, and you could see the reservoir; the horizon is pretty low, the Big Dipper swung all the way down and you can easily see all the stars in Ursa Major’s famous asterism. To the northwest, there is a distinct light dome coming from either Hollister or Soledad. Most of us argued for the former while Chris suggested it was the latter. Later, looking at maps, it was apparent that Soledad was the most likely candidate, being much closer and more to the west. Another, much smaller light dome was visible closer to due north, which matches pretty well to where Hollister would be.  The hills to the east had a very faint glow coming from behind them, to which I guessed those were probably all the far off towns in the central valley blending together. To the south, there was nothing.  In the valley below us, to the west, there were only two, very faint and very far off lights coming from a ranch house or barn.  You have to stand up tall and look over the brush to see them.  You won’t even be able to point at them with most scopes, especially dobs.  Other than that, locally, there was nothing else, nothing but occasional coyotes yapping in the distance.

This is more of a site report than an observing report, but I’ll make small mentions of what we did up there in the dark.  Chris was all over the place with his C14, as usual. Enrico was imaging and showed us versions of the eagle nebula, which looked best in red, though green looked red, and so did blue. Confused? So was I; I don’t image.  I did manual searching around through the awesome Milky Way, pretending I was an eighteenth century Herschel or Messier, trying to find random things in my XT8.  For some reason, I fixated around Delphinus, and found NCG 6834 pretty easily.  A lot of my time was also just taking in the dark sky naked eye, what a fabulous place we live, our galaxy.  We weren’t disappointed with space pebbles crashing into our perfect-for-us atmosphere, many of which seemed to travel from west to east across the southern sky.  It just so happened we all saw one come straight down to the south, fiery green, smoke trail and all.  We were all using some flavor of Sky Safari all night, a bunch of silhouettes walking around in the dark with dim, red flat panels in our hands. Tim DeBenedictis does a great job of trying to obsolete paper charts, yes he does.

I had obligations the next day, so my buddy Tim and I packed it up and were on the road back to the bay area a little past midnight.  We expected to see lots of wildlife on Coalinga Road, then highway 25, but we were all alone. All we saw, the whole way back, was the fuzzy tail of a scampering mammal, as it was disappearing into the roadside brush.  I won’t mention the small number of nocturns hanging outside the just-closed social establishments of Tres Pinos; they don’t count.

Summary:  This location is good for people looking for dark skies, and imagers, who don’t mind the drive and would be willing to spend the night, driving back the next day.  It’s not well suited in its current form for any sort of organized event.  The location could handle perhaps a dozen observers, perhaps a bit more, scattered throughout the ridge and the campgrounds.  I would certainly list it as a place to go and check out with your gear. The land managers are asking for suggestions for improvements and are trying to draw more visitors to come and use their sites in this area.  If you like remote, this is the place.

sundown at laguna

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Coyote Lake County Park

Hi folks,

Last night I joined Ed W, Bharath K, and Nham N out at Coyote Lake.  Those guys were doing some imaging while I was playing around with some recently purchased used equipment (Orion Deluxe 100mm Refractor and a William Optics EZ Touch Alt Az head and tripod).   We all set up at the end of the road down by the dam.   It was a very nice night – no wind, temperature was just right. 

But what is interesting is that the light by the boat ramp continues to be off.   So this appears to be a potential spot to start using again.   Ed did get a phone # for the main office to call.   He hopes to get the story on the light. 
It is my suggestion to start using Coyote Lake on nights that Rancho is not open.   Please set up at the boat ramp paved lot and let us know about your experience.
Here are the directions:
Take 101 South
Take the Masten Ave exit and turn left going back up and over the freeway
Turn Right onto Center Ave
Turn Left onto Rucker Ave
Turn Right onto New Ave
Turn Left onto Roop Road
stay on Roop Road for many miles as it twists and winds up into the hills
then Turn left onto Coyote Lake Road and follow it to the Ranger station, pull in on the right to the pay booth.
Pay $6 and then continue on to the Boat Ramp or to the Dam.
Dave Ittner
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Solar Eclipse at Green Island in Australia on Nov. 14, 2012

Author: Frank Geefay

My wife and I went on a tour of Australia in November 2012 with MWT Associates, Inc. (Melita Wade Thorpe) Melitatrips Travel specializing and Astronomical tours.  This is our 4th tour with them and actually the least enjoyable because it was one of the largest tours they had ever put on and coordination had something to be desired.  Until this trip we had nothing but praise for their service.  I guess the lesson is not to take large tours.

The highlight of the trip was the eclipse of the sun on November 14, 2012 on Green Island:

  • 1st Contact 5:45am
  • 2nd Contact: 6:38am Diamond Ring begins totality (Sun will be at 14 degrees)
  • 3rd Contact: 6:40am Diamond Ring closes totality
  • 4th Contact: 7:40am

We arrived at Green Island from Cairns by ferry at about 2:ooam to find a spot and set up.  It was dark but we had all brought flashlights so we could more or less find a good spot along the narrow beach.  When we arrived the tide was out and the coral beach extended out for about 75 yards.  By the time we left around 7:50am the water was literally lapping at our feet.

Stills and video shots of the Total Eclipse of the Sun were taken from Green Island Australia on November 14, 2012. Though there were clouds in the sky the majority of the eclipse was relatively unobscured by them. We later hear that those who stayed in Cairns Australia about 25 miles from Green Island had cloudy weather that obscured the view of the eclipse. There was a 50-50% chance of cloud cover for Green Island. We lucked out. The eclipse started about 5:45am, entered totality at 6:38am, and ended at 7:40am local Green Island time.

I brought with me a Nikon D5100 SLR using a 55-300mm lens with a sun filter and a Panasonic V500 camcorder and two cheap and light weight tripods.  I really didn’t have any experience taking eclipse photos at the time.   The earlier half of the eclipse photos were taken in auto mode where the shutter speed was about 1/30 sec. so images were slightly blurred due to shaking while pressing the shutter button.   The later darker images were taken in manual mode with 1/1000 shutter speed and are much sharper.  I took about one photo every 5 min. and at totality switched to my camcorder.  The tripod movement was jerky so it was difficult to keep it steady while taking photos and videos.

I was so busy taking photos that I really didn’t get a chance to enjoy the eclipse as did my wife.  I didn’t really see how dark it got at totality though my feeling is that it was like being under a shade.  It didn’t get really dark like in some eclipse where the moon is closer to the earth.  The YouTube below is the results of all my efforts as a beginner.  You can see some of the clouds that passed by.  There was a short period that the sun was almost half obscured by clouds.

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Grand Canyon Star Party

Sunset over Grand Canyon before the Star Party

Sunset over Grand Canyon before the Star Party

I expected that the highlight of my June trip to Arizona would be to attend two nights of the 23rd Annual Grand Canyon Star Party at the South Rim.  Just in case of clouds at the party, I packed my 10×50 binoculars, tripod, and camp stool, so I could go northern Arizona star gazing every clear night.  I also knew the moon would have a bigger impact each night.  The Star Party started at New Moon, June 8, 2013, but it lasts 8 days, so the moon would be nearly First Quarter by the time I got to the Star Party.

I was taking a Road Scholar program, an educational tour consisting of astronomy lectures by professors of Northern Arizona University at Flagstaff , field trips to Lowell Observatory and Meteor Crater, and culminating with the Grand Canyon Star Party. (I made separate blog posts for Lowell Observatory and Meteor Crater.) There were a few star gazing enthusiasts like me (one couple drove from Tennessee so they could bring their 8” telescope), but there were also folks from Manhattan and Brooklyn who said they never got to see stars, and just wanted to see some stars. The first night in Flagstaff, elevation around 7000, was cloudy. The next night in Flagstaff was very clear, and I was eager to see the view through the 24” Clark refractor at Lowell Observatory.  But I called and was told that it was so windy that they could not open the Clark dome.

I did the best I could on my own, even without a car. Flagstaff is designated an “International Dark Sky City”, but there were still lots of streetlights around the motel. It is located at the end of a street which dead ends at a little hill with no lights to the north, but lots of street lights on all other sides.  I put up the hood of my sweatshirt, pulled it out as far as I could to block the light from the sides, looked to the north through my binoculars, and, oh my goodness, so many stars!!! Even with all these street lights around me, I could just glance up and see the Coma Berenices Cluster. Walking back to the motel, I could see Scorpius shining brightly, so I decided to try to see globular cluster M4. I thought it would be futile because I was looking straight into the street lights, but I gave it a try. To my delight, with my binoculars I could see M4 very clearly. Flagstaff skies at 7000 feet are so different from Silicon Valley skies.

Then it was on to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.  The Grand Canyon Star Party began as the first anniversary of Dean and Vicki Ketelsen’s honeymoon there, and telescopes set up by the Canyon proved so popular with tourists, that the event became an annual tradition as a public oriented event.  Skies are typically clear in June at the Grand Canyon whereas monsoon season typically begins later in the summer.  Arizona does not observe Daylight Savings Time, so skies get dark earlier in the evening at the Grand Canyon than in Silicon Valley.  The Tucson Amateur Astronomy Association hosts the Star Party on the South Rim and the Saguaro Astronomy Club based in Phoenix hosts the Star Party on the North Rim.


Mercury and Venus over Grand Canyon

I took this photo of Venus and Mercury above the Grand Canyon from Mather Point. Mercury is barely visible at a 45 degree angle to the left and above Venus. I photographed this scene over and over as the sky darkened. People asked me what I was doing, and I got to point out Mercury to many people who had never seen it before. Using Venus as a guide, everyone was eventually able to spot it.

Sitting with my binoculars at Mather Point watching the canyon darken and the stars come out was absolutely the highlight of my trip.  The moon was out, and I could see my shadow clearly, so I felt no fear that I would accidentally fall into the canyon.

Also there are big strong metal railings at Mather Point.  By all the green laser lights pointed to the sky, I could see that the Star Party had begun, but I did not want to leave the glorious vista of horizon to horizon bright stars above and the moonlit canyon below with only one small light at Phantom Ranch  It was hard to do, but eventually I pulled myself away from the canyon and walked in the moonlight and the light of my flashlight to the Star Party.  By the time I got there, the crowds had thinned, and I got to see fabulous views through the big telescopes.

 The night was very short so close to Summer Solstice, and I didn’t get up in time to see the sunrise.  The South Rim gets quite hot by midday, so I was up hiking a little ways down the Bright Angel Trail before breakfast and before the sun got very high.


Solar Viewing at Grand Canyon South Rim

Members of the Tucson AAA set up for solar viewing right on the South Rim between the shuttle bus stop and the Bright Angel Trail head.  I got to see solar prominences, but no sun spots.


View of Grand Canyon from Powell Point on Hermit Road

The weather was beautiful, and the daytime sightseeing spectacular, especially strolling along the Rim Trail and enjoying many viewpoints along Hermits Road.  Not having a car was no problem due to the excellent free shuttle buses.  Then it was time for the second night of star gazing at the Grand Canyon Star Party.


View of Canyon at sunset from Yavapai Point

A group of Road Scholars skipped the ranger talk to photograph the sunset from Yavapai Point.


Setting up telescopes for Grand Canyon Star Party

The amateur astronomers set up their telescopes in the employee parking lot at the Grand Canyon Visitor Center at Mather Point. The area is several hundred feet from the rim, so there is no danger of anyone falling into the canyon. As recently as last summer they had set up their telescopes at Yavapai Point, but that had the big disadvantage that the shuttle buses came by every 15 minutes, spoiling everyone’s night vision each time.

I was very impressed with the large reflecting telescope whose mirror you can see to the right of the tall ladder.  The view of the M13 globular cluster from that telescope was fantastic!  To me it looked just like the photo of M13 in my star gazing app.


Star Party has just begun

In this photo the ranger talk was just over, the crowds were arriving, and Star Party had just begun. I took this photo with ISO 1600, exposure time 1 sec, so the scene appears light, but it was actually quite dark, and the astronomers were sharing very good views of Mercury and Saturn.  I estimate there were forty telescopes, mostly set up by amateur astronomers from Tucson, although I spoke to one who made an almost annual trip from Texas.  At first the crowds were heavy, and the lines at the telescopes were quite long, but they thinned out after 10 PM. The evening also included a bright Iridiuim flare, a very nice pass by the International Space Station, and hourly green laser Constellation Shows, all announced ahead of time by the astronomers.

I had a wonderful time, and I especially loved sitting at Mather Point watching Mercury and Venus sink while the canyon got dark and the stars appeared. One thing that I missed was watching the Milky Way rise over the canyon.  I would like to go back in the dark of the moon so I could see that.

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Meteor Crater, Winslow, AZ


Below are photos of Meteor Crater, Winslow, Arizona from my visit in June 2013.   The crater is located about 40 miles southeast of Flagstaff. It was formed when an estimated 45 meter meteorite hit about 50,000 years ago. The first photo shows the crater, nearly one mile across, 2.4 miles in circumference, and about 550 deep.


Panorama of Meteor Crater

Click to enlarge this panorama which was stitched together with Photoshop Elements.  Viewing platforms are in the foreground. Remnants of mining for the meteorite are still visible at the bottom of the crater.  The visitor center is at the far right.  Above that in the photo are the trail used for the guided Rim Tour, and a group of people taking that tour.

At first the crater was thought to be of volcanic origin.  In 1902 Daniel Moreau Barringer, a mining engineer, became convinced the crater was caused by the impact of a large iron meteorite.  He spent the rest of his life mining in the crater in an unsuccessful attempt to find it.  According to the excellent museum at the visitor center and their very informative website, he could not find it because it did not exist–it was broken up into tiny pieces:

  • Very small percentage stripped away by atmospheric friction before impact
  • Very small percentage vaporized upon impact, then recondensed into tiny fragments raining over a 7 mile radius
  • About half blasted out upon impart, landing on the rim and surrounding plain
  • About half is present in very tiny fragments beneath the crater floor to a depth of 3,000 feet

Barringer did live long enough to see the scientific community start to accept his theory that the crater was formed by a meteorite.


Meteorite found in Diablo Canyon

This piece of the meteorite is on display at the Lowell Observatory visitor center.  The sign says, “Meteorite. 535 lbs. 242.6 kg. Found in Canyon Diablo near Meteor Crater. This is a small particle of the meteor which formed Meteor Crater, about 50,000 years ago. 92% iron, 8% nickel, traces of gold, silver, platinum and diamond.”


Strata along the rim

This photo shows the strata at the rim.  Impact craters have been called “nature’s drills” because they sort of invert the strata.  Apollo astronauts trained at Meteor Crater under the guidance of Dr. Eugene Shoemaker (part of the team that discovered Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9) because Meteor Crater is so much like craters on the moon.  By recognizing impact craters on the moon, the astronauts could collect samples of rocks originally from below the surface without having to drill for them.


Distant view of Meteor Crater

Here is a distant view of the crater. The land around the crater used to be flat until the meteorite hit, creating the impact crater and depositing debris around the rim.


Its really static trip means to say historical Meteorite its 50,000 years ago i love such like precious and limited places and things.thanks allot to share your great tour here it my hobby i research and trip such places.
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Lowell Observatory, Mars Hill, Flagstaff, Arizona

Below are photos of the historic telescopes of Lowell Observatory , Mars Hill, Flagstaff, Arizona, elevation 7,200 feet, from my visit in June 2013.  The first photo is of the Clark Telescope , a 24” refractor, which Percival Lowell had built in 1896 so that he could study the “canals” on Mars.  The lens was designed by Alvan Clark, the last lens he designed before he retired.

Clark Dome

Observe the non-spherical shape of the Clark Dome.  It was built of locally grown ponderosa pine by the Sykes Brothers, bicycle mechanics, who advertised themselves as “Makers and Menders of Anything”.Mars Hill is an easily accessible hill about one mile west of downtown of Flagstaff.


Clark 24″ Refractor Telescope

The Clark Telescope is now used only for public outreach.  It is open for daytime tours and, if weather conditions allow, nighttime viewing until 10 PM every summer evening.   The dome rotates on tires, obtained from the Ford Motor Company and installed in 1957, most including hubcaps, replacing the original worn out metal wheels.

Inside of Clark Dome

The dome is composed of flat planes of wood instead of today’s spherical surfaces.  The roof doors are flat panels that open outward, and turn into sails in high winds, so cannot be opened if the wind exceeds 15 mph.  I did not get to view through the telescope due to the wind.  The lens cover of the large finderscope on the left is a skillet stolen from a good cook’s kitchen.


Dome of Pluto Discovery Telescope

Lowell started searching for “Planet X” in 1905 because he thought an unknown planet changed the orbit of Neptune and Uranus, and he continued this search until his death in 1916.  Once his estate was finally settled, Lowell’s younger brother, A. Lawrence Lowell, president of Harvard University, provided funds to construct the dome and telescope used to continue the search.  It was completed in 1929.


Pluto Discovery Telescope

Clyde Tombaugh, a Kansas farm boy who got a job at the Lowell Observatory based on the sketches of planets that he had sent, used this astrograph to find Pluto.  The “Pluto Discovery Telescope” has three 13” lenses and 14” x 17” glass photographic plates.  Clyde took one hour exposures of a portion of the sky, then photographed the same portion six days later, and compared the plates.

The tour guide told us that Clyde used the smaller telescope mounted below the astrograph to manually monitor that the astrograph was accurately tracking the stars during the one hour exposure, and manually nudged the astrograph if it was getting off track.  Clyde had to endure cold temperatures because he captured the view of Pluto in January, the dome was unheated, and the elevation of Mars Hill is 7,200 feet.

Pluto Discovery Plates

Clyde used the “Zeiss blink comparator” which switches the view between plates for comparison.  Here are replicas of the plates that he used to discover the new planet in his office on February 18, 1930.  It was subsequently named Pluto in homage to Percival Lowell whose initials P.L. are the first two letters in Pluto.  Our tour guide told us, I think tongue in cheek, that in Flagstaff, Pluto is still a planet.

The Lowell Observatory is a non-profit research institution, and it runs several other telescopes which are outside the Flagstaff city limits, including the new $53 million, 4.3 meter Discovery Channel Telescope located 40 miles southeast of Flagstaff.

Even though the “canals” Lowell was observing were optical illusions and not signs of life of Mars and even though later evidence showed that no planet was disturbing the orbits of Neptune and Uranus, he made a substantial contribution to astronomy:

  • He was the first to build an observatory on a remote site to take advantage of optimal viewing, and now this is standard.
  • His enthusiasm about life on Mars spurred public imagination and inspired science fiction writers.
  • In 1912 – 1914 Vesto Slipher used a spectrograph attached to the Clark Telescope to determine the red shift in most galaxies which means the galaxies are moving away.  Edwin Hubble used this information with his own research to conclude that the universe is expanding.
  • Initial work in the discovery of Pluto.
  • The Clark telescope was used to map the moon for the Apollo missions.
  • His enthusiasm for public outreach continues.  The visitor center at Mars Hill hosts over 80,000 visitors a years, and also hosts “Uncle Percy’s” summer day camps for children from age 3 through 6th grade.


  1.   darkmuzikJune 27, 2013 at 7:40 AM
    pretty cool history stories.
  2.   SaraSmithJuly 10, 2013 at 3:18 AM
    very impressive post historic telescopes of Lowell Observatory, Mars Hill, Flagstaff, Arizona, elevation 7,200 feet, visit in june 2013 and its a good step to share your views with others via any way as you share it via this post.
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