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Traveling at the speed of light, it would take four years to reach the sun’s closest neighboring star. Luckily we don’t have to get in a spaceship to take in the beauty of the night sky.
Summer is the perfect time to go stargazing; things have cooled off from the heat of the day and the hectic schedules of the school year, and it’s OK if the kids stay up a little past their bedtime. The trick is finding a spot where your views are unobstructed by buildings or light pollution. Fortunately, we’re surrounded by open space in the Bay Area and there are many places to practice some amateur astronomy.
To help with your night sky explorations, we’ve compiled some tips on where to go and what to look for. Here’s what you need:
The coast is the darkest area of the Peninsula, making the historic Pigeon Point Lighthouse a great place to stargaze. You can stay overnight in the picturesque hostel (complete with a hot tub overlooking the Pacific), or just drive out in the evening and pick a spot along the bluffs to take in the stars. POST bought the land from a developer in 2001 and the site is now a state park.
Little Basin is another great option if you want someone to guide you through what to look for in the night sky. In collaboration with the Sempervirens Fund, POST bought Little Basin from Hewlett-Packard in 2007. There are now periodic (and free) Astronomy Nights here and similar programs available next door at Big Basin as well. Be sure call ahead for the schedule.
On August 11-12 of this year, we’re hosting our second annual Family Campout at Little Basin, just in time to catch the Perseid Meteor Shower! It’s happening during a new moon this year, which means visibility will be particularly good (get ready to wish on a falling star!), and we’ll have a whole astronomy program so you can learn more. Feel free to come even if you can’t spend the night.
Another more adventurous camping opportunity is the Black Mountain Backpacker’s Camp at Monte Bello Open Space Preserve, which POST has helped protect with several acquisitions over the years. The hike is only 1.5 miles, but you quickly arrive in another world. The camp is in an open field, making it the perfect spot to view the Milky Way. If you don’t want to spend the night, docents lead night hikes at Monte Bello.
There are a ton of apps out there to help you identify stars and learn more about them. SkyView Lite is free and highlights the constellations for you when you point your phone at the sky, even giving a little background for each constellation. If you’re stargazing with kids, Star Walk 2 has an app especially for younger folks complete with educational videos.
If you’re looking to do a little more in-depth reading up, Turn Left at Orion by Guy Consolmagno and Dan Davis and Discover the Stars by Richard Berry are two excellent guides for beginners. They both focus on objects you can see with the naked eye, binoculars, or a simple telescope and include detailed star charts for the northern hemisphere.
Don’t forget that the moon is also an important factor in stargazing. For the best view of the stars, avoid times when the moon is full (here’s a calendar).
You’ll want a blanket, yoga mat, or reclining chair so you don’t strain your neck standing up. Layered clothing is a must, and be sure to switch off any nearby lights and put your phone on night mode to keep your eyes adjusted to the dark. Binoculars are a great tool to start with— unless you want to go pro with a telescope.
Now that you know where to go and how to prepare, get out there and stargaze!
Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST) protects and cares for open space, farms and parkland in and around Silicon Valley. Since its founding in 1977, POST has been responsible for saving more than 75,000 acres as permanently protected land in San Mateo, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz counties.