It’s July and that’s Milky Way season around here. July and August give us a lot of clear nights in Texas as well as a lot of hot nights. But, I don’t mind a night of heat to get a good look at the night sky. So, I planned an overnight camp out on a moonless night in a state park that is well situated for dark skies at night – Lost Maples State Natural Area. Lost Maples SNA is out near…. nothing, that’s what makes it so great for the night sky.
My daughter loves astronomy and the stars as well and she was up for the hike in camping so I naturally brought her along as well. Unlike my previous trip here in which I packed in everything on my back (which was brutal), this time I decided to strap everything to a two-wheel moving dolly and pull that up the rocky trail. It was a lot of work getting this up the trail, but I wasn’t carrying the weight on my shoulders so it was worth the effort.
The trail was gradually climbing and crossed a rocky stream bed several times and was a little over a mile and half (see the green section on the map below). We stopped at Primitive Campsite D, though my initial plans were to attempt the climb from there up to Campsite F. When we got to D, I could see that I wasn’t going to be able to make the rest of the climb with my 2-wheel cart. But, campground D was nice too.
After setting up camp, I did hike up to the top of the ridge to look around. There is a much wider view of the sky from up there and a better breeze, but a difficult climb when carrying a load. Below is a picture looking back along the trail at the top of the ridge. I was trying to get the dying rays of evening sun across the valley.
I spent most of the day worrying about all those clouds in the above picture, but as the sun set, those clouds went away and the stars came out. We stayed up a while watching the fireflies and satellites go across the sky, and then set the alarm for midnight to see the Milky Way.
As luck would have it, some noisy wild hogs woke us up with all their snorting around just before midnight anyway and we got up to look at the sky. It was not hard to see the Milky Way through the trees with eyes adjusted to the dark. The gap between the trees for the campground did line up nicely with the southern horizon and allow us to see the Milky Way.
Below is a photo taken with a 14mm f/2.4 lens. It is a 20 second exposure at ISO3200. The initial pictures are a little bit orange because of the glow of the air, but I reduced this in processing, cleaned up some noise, and brought up the contrast in the Milky Way a bit. You can see that it was so dark that the trees are only silhouettes even with the long exposure.
For the next photo, I put a little lamp in the distant camping tent and went back and framed that in for fun. You can see Jupiter shining brightly as it is just past opposition and very prominent during the course of the night.
In hindsight I might have gotten closer to the tent for that last shot. I also thought about shooting the sky with a 20mm lens instead, but I didn’t bother. I think my results were pretty good.
We admired the sky for a while and went back to the tent to sleep and be periodically awakened by little animals foraging about. The hike out in the morning was much easier being downhill most of the way. It was worth the long drive and it was about the most socially isolated one can be on dry land as we didn’t see anyone until we were leaving the next morning.