Tips & Tricks For Nevada Stargazing
Each August the brightest meteor shower of the year comes to its peak. The Perseid Meteor Shower, or the Perseids, is the one of the most prolific regularly occurring meteor showers with 60 “shooting stars” visible per hour during the peak. This year, their peak will be on the nights of August 11th and 12th. Don’t want to miss out or just interested in astronomy any time of year? You’re in the right place!
The biggest factor in viewing astronomical events such as meteor showers is having a dark enough place to do so. Being in the dark to see the night sky may sound redundant, but over 80% of the US population lives in cities and urban areas. This means light from streetlights, buildings, cars, houses, casinos, billboards, signs, you name it. All of this light produced by humans is called “light pollution”, and as the name suggests it “pollutes” the night sky and makes it less visible by both washing out dimmer objects and impacting your night vision. In order to get the best stargazing experience, you need to reduce the light pollution between you and the night sky as much as possible. You can take this to whatever level you feel comfortable with, whether that’s traveling hours away from the nearest hint of civilization or simply heading to a darker part of your home. Both ends of the spectrum are covered below, so read on and decide what works best for you!
Dark Sky Places
There are two locations in Nevada that are officially designated Dark Sky Places: Massacre Rim Wilderness Study Area in the far north-west of the state and Great Basin National Park in the far east.
The International Dark-Sky Association is an international organization founded on combating light pollution. In order to do so, they offer education and lighting programs, free online resources, and official recognition of places making notable efforts to reduce or even eliminate light pollution. There are multiple designations, each with specific and strict requirements that need to be met. Dark Sky Communities are “legally organized cities and towns that adopt quality outdoor lighting ordinances and undertake efforts to educate residents” about light pollution, Dark Sky Parks are publicly or privately owned conservation areas that provide dark sky programming for visitors, Dark Sky Reserves are protected areas of darkness surrounded by or very close to populated areas, and Dark Sky Sanctuaries, which must meet the strictest light pollution requirements, are quite literally some of the darkest places on Earth. Massacre Rim is one of only 13 Dark Sky Sanctuaries in the entire world, while Great Basin National Park is a Dark Sky Park and features programs, tours, and special events dedicated to stargazing.
The appeal of the certifiably dark skies of these locations come with a drawback though: remoteness. Since Great Basin National Park is an established National Park it has some resources available near or on location, though it’s quite literally on the opposite side of the state from Reno, but Massacre Rim is desolate. No maintained roads once you’re in the core of the Sanctuary, hours from a gas station, primitive camping only levels of desolate. When visiting Massacre Rim it’s strongly recommended you bring extra supplies in case you get stranded and let someone not on your trip know your schedule and exact location just in case anything happens. If this sounds like the adventure of a lifetime, then by all means check out this unique and incredible location! If the idea of a 6 hour drive from Reno to Great Basin National park or going off-grid for Massacre Rim is a little too much for you though, then don’t worry. There are more, though less official, destinations with great stargazing opportunities!
Other Good Destinations
While these locations aren’t officially designated by the International Dark-Sky Association, they’re also great choices for dark skies and likely closer to where you live than the far reaches of Massacre Rim and Great Basin National Park. Black Rock Desert, Tonopah, and campgrounds are all wonderful for stargazing, plus have their own unique perks.
Black Rock Desert is best known for being the locale for Burning Man, but Black Rock also has some great dark skies. With few people around, dry conditions that keep clouds at bay, and some space between you and the mountains that block the horizon, Black Rock has all the makings of a great stargazing spot. In fact, every year Friends of Black Rock-High Rock host a weekend long group campout for paying members to catch the Perseids! This event includes astronomers of all levels hanging out together, telescope viewings, and guest speakers. Of course, you can visit any time of year though if the Perseids or group activities aren’t your thing. While you’re there, Black Rock is also fittingly a great place for rockhounding (the fun word for collecting rocks and minerals you go out and find yourself). Geodes known as thundereggs are found here, as well as more common Nevada minerals such as agate, gypsum, and obsidian. If you’re looking for a trip to enjoy the best of both sky and earth, this might be the place for you!
Tonopah is an oft overlooked place for astronomy in Nevada. This town, maybe most famous for its Clown Motel, is also home to Clair Blackburn Memorial Stargazing Park. Located in central Nevada, Tonopah is far away from the big city lights of Reno and Las Vegas. As a result, thousands of stars are visible on any clear night. The Stargazing Park even has concrete pads specifically for setting up telescopes, as well as regularly occurring astronomy events like star parties and photography classes. While you’re in town, Tonopah also has plenty of mining history and local shops you can check out to get the most out of both your day and night.
Nevada is a state of open spaces so if these spots don’t strike your fancy, check for a campsite that does! There are hundreds of campsites in Nevada, and I’m willing to bet all of them have darker skies than the cities. This is also a great way to check out all sorts of small towns, ghost towns, historic places, archaeological sites, rockhounding spots, hotsprings, wildlife, and just about anything else you can think of in the Silver State.
If these places are still a little daunting, or if it’s too last minute before the astronomical event you’re aiming to view, then let’s get into city stargazing tips!
If you have to stay nearby but have some freedom of movement, getting just outside of the city limits can suffice. Nearby campgrounds are great spots to try. If there aren’t any near you though, then the general idea is to block out as much of the city as possible from view. If you’re in a hilly area, get to the top or other side of a hill and let the geography block the light. If you’re in a flatter area, you’ll likely have to drive out until the distance dims the city lights for you. While highways are generally safer for night driving, try to avoid well-lit streets if possible as the street lights will be a problem when it’s time to stargaze. A quiet back country road is also much safer to pull off on the side of than a busy freeway. Always keep traffic and personal safety in mind though and don’t do anything that makes you uncomfortable!
If you have to stay in the city, then suburbs are generally better than the inner city if you can move between neighborhoods. Rooftop seating areas and backyards can also be good spots to cut down on at least some of the light pollution. The key is to do your best to block any light coming from other buildings or streets while leaving as much of the night sky visible as possible. This might mean a particular window is better than the others or one corner of a yard. If you can, test a couple different spots on a night before the event you want to see so you’re not scrambling around the night of and missing out!
Another part of the battle is keeping your night vision as strong as possible. Red light is your friend! If you’re walking somewhere and need a flashlight, don’t just use the one on your phone. Get a red flashlight or cover a regular one with red film so the light is red. Humans have 3 different color receptor cells in our eyes: red, blue, and green. Red is the lowest wavelength light that is visible to us, so by using pure red light we’re only activating one type of color receptor without activating the others, plus we’re activating the lowest wavelength one so our eyes adjust back to darkness easier after seeing it. Long story short, it helps you see a bit better in the dark without completely resetting your night vision. Things that glow in the dark, such as glow in the dark constellation maps, can also be helpful as the glow emitted from them is weak enough to not mess with your night vision too much while still being bright enough to be read in the dark.
Personally, and I’m not just saying this, I’ve found that local parks can be fantastic places to stargaze without leaving the city, or even your neighborhood! Parks with few or no lights can be great locations to at least take the edge off of city light pollution. They also frequently have parking lots where you can stargaze from the comfort of your car, places to sit, playground equipment you can climb on to get up higher for better views, and grass or maintained grounds that you can lay on to get a full view of the night sky without the cramped neck. You can look up local parks in the Reno/Sparks area at our Parks Project directory and from there whittle down which one is the best for what you’re looking for out of a stargazing experience (closeness, places to sit/lay, bathroom access, etc.). Just make sure to check park hours and any park rules ahead of time so you don’t get in trouble while trying to simply enjoy the night sky.
Now that you’re in the know on stargazing tips, tricks, and locations, go enjoy the Perseids peaking August 11th and 12th or any of the other incredible astronomical events throughout the year!