Camping to See the Milky Way

Several months ago I was hiking at Colorado Bend State Park (in Texas, not Colorado) and went up the Windmill Trail. I took a few phone photos at the time and thought about how this would look on a clear night in the summer with the Milky Way in the sky. It is summer now and the Milky Way is quite prominent in the night sky now if you are somewhere without much light pollution on a moonless night. Colorado Bend State Park doesn’t have a completely dark sky at night, but it is far enough away from towns than the light pollution is minimal at night and you can easily see the Milky Way out there on a moonless night. So, last week I developed a plan to do this.

Below is my phone picture of the windmill from last winter, late December I think. This will give you an idea of the harsh central Texas winter conditions I had to hike through to get this picture. The windmill collapsed at some point and sits in a state of disrepair, which I kind of like for my photographic purposes.

I checked the weather and moon and found that it would be very clear Saturday night with low humidity and the moon was scheduled to rise at 12:53AM. The low humidity is nice because humid air is much hazier than dry air and can act to disperse the star light especially toward the horizon where you are looking through the most air. I didn’t mind the moon coming up after midnight as it gave me the option to shoot with a moonless sky and then shoot with some moonlight on the landscape. So, I made my reservation for a hike-in camp site at the Windmill area for Saturday night and looked forward to seeing and shooting the night sky.

The hike from the parking area to the campsite is about a mile over a mostly level, rocky trail though there are a few elevation changes. I had my camera backpack on my back, a duffle bag containing my tent, sleeping pad, and water bottles, and a folding chair on my shoulder. I didn’t have to worry about bringing a sleeping bag or blankets as the low temperature would be about 78F.

I scoped out the shot with the old windmill using the Photopills app and found that the Milky Way would be in a pretty good place to frame the windmill and old stock tank. Below is a screen capture of that app showing the approximate location of the Milky Way in the sky at 12:31AM before the moon rises. The orange circle represents the galactic core, which is where the biggest part of the Milky Way is in the night sky.

So, I set my alarm for 12:20AM as my tent was about 50 yards from this location and all I had to do was get up and walk over to my spot. I hiked around a while, read some of a book, looked at my phone, and after the sun set the bugs eventually drove me into my tent. My tip for this is that bugs are attracted to light so don’t have any lights (or phone) on when opening the zipper to get in to or out of your tent. I had a bug-free night in my tent by following this procedure.

I woke up at 12:20AM and could clearly see the Milky Way in the sky as I got out my tent. I walked back over to the windmill to shoot. It took me a few photos to get the framing as it was really dark and I couldn’t really see much other than the sky. The below photo is the windmill and the Milky Way above. The Photopills app was using the 26mm equivalent camera on my phone to show location of the Milky Way, but the photo below was shot at 14mm focal length taking in much more of the sky so it does look a bit different. The galactic core is just above the tree line as I was shooting kind of low and closer in to the windmill. I used my headlamp placed inside my shirt to cast light on the windmill; it doesn’t take much light at this exposure.

Milky Way Over the Windmill at Colorado Bend State Park

You can see that there is some light pollution on the horizon showing up in the photo. I could just barely make out that light pollution with my eyes. Even a little light pollution can out-compete the Milky Way for brightness, so you have to be far out of town for a good view.

In the photo below I moved around to get a more direct view of the windmill blades. It was kind of difficult to find a good angle for this shot. I was using my shirt to filter the light from my lamp and my shirt was red which meant I had to spend a lot of time in post toning down the red on the windmill blades.

Milky Way Over the Windmill at Colorado Bend State Park

I kind of prefer the first photo that shows the windmill tail. What do you think?

The moon eventually began to rise, and it had probably been contributing a lot of the light pollution on the horizon before it rose anyway. As the half-moon crested the horizon, it was a deep orange and I thought it might make an interesting photo. The photo below is a 20 second exposure to get the Milky Way, and the moon appears as bright as the sun on the horizon. You can see that the Milky Way will be struggling to compete with the light of the moon as it rises.

Moonrise and the Milky Way at Colorado Bend State Park

And lastly, I have the obligatory glowing tent photo.

I went back to bed and had a warm slightly breezy rest of the night. Thanks for reading.

19 thoughts on “Camping to See the Milky Way

  1. The photo of the moonrise looks unreal. I like it the best, just because it’s so unusual. Plus, I like the golden light of the moon. If you had said it was the sun, and through some tricky photography you managed to get the sun and Milky Way at the same time, I would have believed you.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Here I thought that being this late I would be the first one to comment! But I have to agree with you the moonrise pic is the best! And yes it could pass for the sun, though I wouldn’t have fallen for it if he would have said it was the sun. 🙂

      Liked by 3 people

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