Telescope Tales from Joshua Tree National Park

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When the kids heard they would be spending several days with Pop and Nona Five just outside of Joshua Tree National Park, they had two things they couldn’t wait to share: rock-climbing and star-gazing. Joshua Tree is really two parks in one: by day, miles of rock formations perfect for bouldering; by night, clear desert skies ideal for watching the heavens.

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We got an early start to scramble on the rocks before the heat set in, The Younger Fives literally ran the entire way from the car to the nearest rock they could climb. The limitless options for exploring kept us busy for hours, and Pop Five got a hands-on feel for why this is one of our favorite national parks as he followed the kids over, around, and even under the sea of monzogranite, formed from molten rock underground that was pushed upwards through the surface.

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We definitely needed some down time during the heat of the afternoon to recover from our climb, but after dinner we were ready to venture out into the park yet again for a completely different experience. During our last visit to Joshua Tree we had an amazing experience renting from Coyote Telescope, and this time around we decided to give the digital telescope a try. The owner, Darryl, met us just outside of the park to show us how to use the telescope and ensure we had a great night out. As always, we were thoroughly impressed with his knowledge and enthusiasm for astronomy and the night sky. After walking us through how to set up the telescope, he not only gave us his tips for the best stars and planets to look for that evening, but he also provided an entertaining account of the fun facts about each one. The kids were hanging on every word 🙂 Darryl is definitely a natural story teller, and while we wanted a chance to explore the night sky on our own for this visit, we would not hesitate to go on one of his night sky tours next time around (which includes him as the personal guide and some extra powerful telescopes for viewing the stars).

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Following Darryl’s advice, we set up in the parking lot of the Boy Scout Trail, just a little ways past the Visitor’s Center and park entrance. The location was perfect, and in no time we had the base of the telescope level and the telescope itself mounted. As the sky darkened, we waited eagerly to spot three stars in different parts of the sky to calibrate the telescope. The kids shouted with glee as they started to pop out, and Pop Five entered the time and date, directed the telescope to each star and pressed the “align” button on the keypad, and we were good to go. This was all the keypad computer needed to know where everything was in the sky, and from here we just chose from the computer’s list of visible planets, stars, double stars nebulae, etc. Then the telescope automatically moved to the right position and did all the work for us.  Under the swirl of the Milky Way visible to the naked eye, we saw the rings of Saturn, the Crab Nebula where stars are born, and several double stars that separated through the lens of the telescope. It was a memorable evening to say the least 🙂

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After a solid evening of star gazing, the Younger Fives were more than prepared the next day to dig into their Night Explorer Junior Rangers booklet. This is an unusual booklet in that it is not based in a single park; instead, it can be completed in several different national parks with good star gazing opportunities (we originally picked them up in Great Sand Dunes National Park). They had fun working through activities such as a night sky word scramble and a make-your-own planet walk, in which Five of Hearts placed 8 rocks a certain number of steps apart to show the relative distance between the sun and the planets. They completed the booklets by the time we had to head back home, and earning their very cool Night Explorers patch was a wonderful way to end our visit. We couldn’t have asked for a better place for an action-packed visit with family!

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3 thoughts on “Telescope Tales from Joshua Tree National Park

    • We did notice a haze on the northern horizon that made the stars there hard to see. We later found out that was the smoke from the wildfires in Northern CA and OR. You’re right that we were fortune, though; last month during CA’s Lake fire you couldn’t see a clear sky for weeks.

  1. Pingback: Granite Glow | Fives on the Fly

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