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Guide to Stargazing in Joshua Tree


Stargazing in Joshua Tree


Internationally certified for its dark skies, Joshua Tree National Park protects the night for current and future generations to enjoy. Joshua Tree and the surrounding areas offer ample opportunities for taking in these world-renowned dark skies. We've made a list of our favorite stargazing locations so you and your family can take in the full Joshua Tree experience.



Credit: NPS / Lian Law




Where to Stargaze in JTNP


Cholla Cactus Garden

Located 20 miles from Twentynine Palms through the North Entrance to Joshua Tree National Park lies a magical collection of Cholla Cacti. Arrive before night to see the spines glow from the setting sun. Located towards the eastern side of the park, this location is shielded from more light pollution than the west side. Staying until complete darkness, approximately an hour after sunset, will provide a spectacle of stars rivaled by little else.


Ocotillo Patch

Located a little further into the park than the Cholla Gardens, this location is in a secluded valley that offers sheltered views of the night sky. Close to the road with ample parking, this is an easy stop to explore the famed dark skies.


Cap Rock

A little deeper into the national park near the Ryan Campground lies Cap Rock. Although less accessible, it is an astrophotographer's dream. With beautiful rock formations and surrounding Joshua Trees, it is the perfect backdrop when exploring the night sky through photography.




Credit: SJT / Kramer Ditty




What should I bring?

No matter the time of year, temperatures can drop significantly at night. Bring a jacket or blanket just in case. White light is harsh on your eyes, affecting your night vision and how many stars you can see. Best to not look at your phone and use a red light if possible. 




What can I see?

As the earth makes its 365.25 day journey around our closest star, different objects in the sky become visible at different times of the year. Below you will find a detailed description of what is visible in different seasons. 


Summer

Summer, aka Milky Way Season. The core of our home galaxy is high and visible in Joshua Tree’s dark skies. It will be mostly defined in the southern sky. Slightly to the west will be the beautiful constellation of Scorpio. It is among the most identifiable of the zodiac constellations, and provides a collection of stars resembling one of Joshua Tree's native creatures. Look for the arrival of our largest planetary neighbors later in the season. Saturn, then Jupiter, rise in the east, the latter unmissable as the brightest object late on a moonless night.


Fall

Saturn and Jupiter travel across our evening autumn skies. Catch Jupiter and Saturn shining brightly in the southern sky all season. The 4th brightest object in the sky after the Sun, Moon and Venus, Jupiter is easily found in the Southeast. Look approximately 45 degrees to the west to find Saturn, fainter but noticeable as the brightest object in the area.  Although lower in the sky and less defined, the Milky Way band can still be seen on moonless nights in early fall. 


Winter

Saturn and Jupiter are up and shining brightly throughout winter. Saturn will be slipping close to the western horizon by season's end, not to be seen again in the evening for 6 months. In the colder months, less moisture is contained in the atmosphere, the perfect conditions for astronomical observing. Orion, the hunter, is striking throughout the winter. Look for his belt high in the southern sky and just below it, his sword, where the famed Orion Nebula is located.


Spring

With spring comes galaxy season. Although the Milky Way band isn't visible until the early mornings, many other galaxies are available to observe in binoculars or a small telescope. Look towards the constellation of Virgo, high in the southern sky, to find many of these, located in what's called the Virgo Supercluster of galaxies.


*Accurate for evening stargazing, 2-3 hours after sunset.




How does the moon affect darkness?


The second brightest object in our skies only surpassed by the sun itself, the moon affects how many stars can be seen in the evening sky. If viewing the moon either in binoculars or a telescope is a priority, the best time for moon gazing will be when the moon is up and visible during the evening hours. This occurs a couple days after the new moon to a couple days after the full moon. The darkest skies occur when the moon is not visible or highly illuminated. This happens when the moon rises late in the evening or morning sky, and when the moon sets shortly after the sun. Many of the fainter stars can be viewed at this time as well as the band of the Milky Way in summer. This occurs from a couple days after the full moon to a couple days after the new moon. 



   Credit: SJT


Happy stargazing Earthlings and keep looking up!


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