Spend a Night Stargazing in Our National Parks

One of the most incredible aspects of America is its incredibly diverse collection of national parks, 59 in total. From the awe inspiring sheer cliffs of El Capitan of Yosemite in California to the jurassic wetlands of the Everglades in Florida, there is truly something for everyone. However, when the sun goes down, that’s when the true beauty of nature comes to life.

Darkness has the power to transform. The absense of light stirs the imagination. The often dormant survival instincts in your brain conjures up possibilities of what might be lurking in that dark corner. Think back to when when you were a child, convinced a monster was lurking under your bed, or in the shadows of your wardrobe. Now close your eyes and imagine that same sensation in the middle of nature, in the middle of a national park, far from the polution of light, and our modern society.

Open your eyes. Can you imagine it? A good friend of mine, Shane, and I could, and we decided to head to Joshua Tree National Park to spend a night stargazing, letting our immagintion be our guide.

I departed San Francisco, the plane piercing through the fog enroute to the San Diego. After a short flight, I grabbed a rental car, picked up Shane, loaded our camera and camping gear and hit the road. Joshua Tree is only a few hours drive from San Diego, and with the raw power of the rental car — also known as the worlds fastest cars, and best 4wds regardless of what make and model it is — we arrived in plenty of time to set up camp, and catch the sunset.

The national parks always bring friends together

The sun dipped low painting the horizon like a master painter, their brush streaking the sky in pastel hues of red, orange, and blue. I walked further from camp, seeking the perfect Joshua Tree. This was the first time I had seen a Joshua Tree up close. They are remarkable, different to anything else I had seen.

The sun continued to set as I marveled at the surreal landscape around me. I felt like I was back in Altiplano of Northern Chile and Bolivia. I knelt, took a deep breath, and watched the sun disapear with a final burst of color. If you don’t believe in miracles, go watch the sunset. You can’t help but be moved.

I found my perfect Joshua Tree

The sky was getting darker, and I could hear the coyotes howl on the wind. I began to head back to camp snapping a photo of this gnarled and twisted tree on the way. I marked the spot. I’d come back here later. It would make a fantastic foreground when the sky was filled with a million stars.

Gnarled tree in a crevase. I’ll come back here at night
The final gasps of the day. Now the true fun can begin

Shane and I prepared our food and cooked it over small backpack stoves. The night sky was perfectly clear, but not very dark. The Wanning Gibbous moon would have to sit low on the horizon before we had a chance of catching the nebula. I checked my Photopills app. There was still a decent chance of catching the Nebula.

I dont usually plan well. If I wanted spectacular nebula shots I should have planned my trip to coincide with the New Moon when the sky is darkest. I starred at my air mattress and sleeping, nestled near a two large rocks to protect it from the wind. I’d be sleeping outside tonight, my fabulous planning skills forgot to pack a tent. Oh well, the night is warm and I wanted to see the stars anyway. Besides, there is something primal about sleeping outside totally exposed. You know you are alive. In the distance, a coyote howled. The wildlife was alive too.

Phases of the moon from AuroraHunters.com

I set my alarm for 1am. We would head out to shoot the stars when the moon as lower. Before I went to sleep, I retraced my steps to the gnarled tree and took this shot. The landscape had changed to something straight out of a Dali painting.

Gnarled tree at night

Finally, the time had come to explore. I climbed out of my sleeping bag, my nightlight, a million stars overhead. The sky was as dark as it was going to get. Shane and I packed our camera gear and headed out capturing shot after shot of the surreal landscape.

The stars are beginning to pop
Lone Joshua Tree and a galaxy far, far away
The deep, dark night
The long road to nowhere. Oh, and Shane

Eventually, the sun began to rise, dawn’s colors washing over the land. It felt like we were on Mars. The shadows of night, filled with the creations of our immagination, paled in comparision to the landscape around us. I was truly in awe.

Dawn rising on the horizon
4am on Mars, er Joshua Tree National Park
Waitng for the next bus to Mars

Exhausted, tired, and elated we headed back to the campsite to pack our gear. We ate oatmeal and ramen, flipping through the shots we had taken, before heading back to civilization.

The next few days were a blur of work interspersed with moments of editing the photos I had taken. We only had one night in Joshua Tree National Park Life is always too busy, but never too busy to stop and stare at the night sky. It always puts everything into perspective. Life is too short to spend it looking down experiencing the world through a phone or computer. Try looking up in the night sky. You will be amazed at what you see.