Moon rising over mountains in Death Valley

Death Valley Dark Sky Festival

Living in Las Vegas, star gazing is pretty difficult.  Luckily we don’t live too far from Death Valley, an International Dark Sky Park.  Depending on traffic and the route you take, Death Valley is about a 2.5 hour drive from Las Vegas.  It makes for a great spot for a day trip, but in this case we were traveling at night.  Seeing Death Valley at night is always exhilarating.

Stars Above Death Valley

Furnace Creek Star Party

This year, on February 10th-12th, Death Valley hosted a Dark Sky Festival.  They featured key note speakers, astrophotography workshops, and a variety of talks at different locations around the park.  We headed up Saturday night to take advantage of the Furnace Creek Star Party.

Once we arrived at the parking lot, a park ranger handed us red plastic bags to store our phones in.  The entire place was lit with glowing red lights to protect everyone’s night vision.  A park ranger kindly explained to my kids that they also use the red lights to help land helicopters.  While we walked down the row of telescopes, one lined up next to another, a ranger gave a talk about our solar system.

Telescope image of the green comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF)

There was a large crowd around the first telescope.  The person manning the telescope had pulled up an image he had taken moments earlier on his computer monitor.  We could see a bright spot that was Mars and the faint, green glow of C/2022 E3 (ZTF), the green comet that had been in the news the previous week.  We had packed the kids up in the car and headed out to Moapa last week to try and catch a glimpse of the green comet, but we were unable to see it thanks to the brightness of the moon and the proximity to Vegas.  I was relieved to find we hadn’t totally missed our chance.

“Where’s the big dipper? Is that it?” my nephew consulted one of the park rangers. She explained that he was most likely looking at Orion’s Belt as the big dipper was hiding on the other side of the mountains we were standing near.  She pointed out Orion’s Belt while the kids peppered her with questions about the galaxy and locations of other constellations.

Moon rising over mountains in Death Valley

Bad Water Basin

With the Furnace Creek Star Party at an end, we bundled back in the van and drove south towards Bad Water Basin.  The moon was still hidden behind the mountains and while parts of the sky were a little cloudy, the sky was ablaze with so many stars.  You could see the haze of the Milky Way spitting the sky.  We walked out on the salt flats without any lights.  The salt beneath us offered a gentle glow and was flat enough that we didn’t need any.  Ahead of us, far in the distance we could see other star chasers.  The red glow of their flashlights gave them away long before we could hear the sounds of their voices.

While Death Valley has plenty to offer during the day, staying after dark is its own reward.  Death Valley offers the darkest skies within easy driving distance of Las Vegas and is the closest International Dark Sky Park (Joshua Tree and Great Basin are other great contenders).  Keep an eye out on the park schedule for other cool events happening soon.  Have you been to Death Valley or another Dark Sky Park at night?  Tell us about your experience below!

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