Star Gazing and Night Hiking Resources
Picture of a Perseid meteor from 1993. The colors are representative but digitally enhanced. As the meteor streaked across the night sky, different excited atoms emitted different colors of light. The origin of the green tinge visible at the right is currently unknown, however, and might result from oxygen in Earth's atmosphere.
(c) AlltheSky.com. Credit & Copyright: S. Kohle & B. Koch, Bonn University
To See the Stars
Well do I know that I am mortal and a creature of one day;
but when my mind follows the massed wheeling circles of the stars,
my feet no longer touch the earth…
—Ptolemy, epigram to the Almagest
Observatories & Planetaria
Visiting the Chabot Space and Science Center (510-336-7300; located on Skyline Boulevard in the Oakland Hills, is a great preamble to a night hike. On Friday and Saturday nights, The Sky Tonight runs in the planetarium at 7:30 p.m. You can learn to identify the constellations and find out about comets, quasars, galaxies, meteor showers, and other heavenly bodies. After the show, if the sky is clear, you can peer through one of Chabot’s three free public telescopes for a peek at the real night sky. Be sure to dress warmly; the telescope domes are unheated, and the air can be chilly. The 20-inch refractor is California’s second-largest refracting telescope. (The largest is the 36-inch Clark at Lick Observatory on Mount Hamilton, east of San Jose.) On many nights, members of the East Bay Astronomical Society set up their telescopes at the observatory complex, and they’re happy to share information about what’s on view above.
Other places around the Bay Area to learn about the night sky:
Robert Ferguson Observatory, Sugar Loaf Ridge State Park, east of Santa Rosa; (707) 833-6979. The Valley of the Moon Observatory Association in cooperation with the State Park opens the observatory for stargazing nights to the general public. Longer series on topics such as constellations or relativity for the non-scientist are offered in collaboration with Santa Rosa Junior College.
California Academy of Sciences, Morrison Planetarium, San Francisco; (415) 750-7127. The planetarium runs a variety of shows for all ages from noon to 4:00 p.m. on weekends and at selected times during the week. In honor of their 50th anniversary, through November 24th the Planetarium is rolling back admission fees to 1952 levels—74¢ for adults and 30¢ for kids.
Hume Observatory, Pepperwood Preserve, Santa Rosa; (707) 523-1127. See Star Gazing below for coming activities. Please note that the California Academy of Sciences’ Pepperwood Preserve, where the Hume Observatory is located, is open by reservation only.
Lick Observatory; 20 miles east of San Jose; (408) 274-5061; (daily observatory tours; not open to the public at night). An active research facility atop Mount Hamilton, operated by University of California Observatories/Lick Observatory, there are tours nearly every day, but the domes are closed at night because all the astronomers are hard at work. Check back next year for the summer series, Music of the Spheres, with talks on astronomy.
Fremont Peak Observatory, in Fremont Peak State Park outside San Juan Bautista; (831) 623-2465. The seed for the Fremont Peak Observatory was a telescope (built by Kevin Medlock) looking for a home. A local astronomy group collaborated with Fremont Peak State Park, and the observatory was born in 1986. The observatory is open to the public on Saturday evenings from April through October, unless there is a full moon. October 5, 12 and 26 will be the final public events of the 2002 season.
Charles F. Hagar Planetarium, San Francisco State University, San Francisco. Graduate students hold public programs in the planetarium as part of their docent training; call (415) 338-1852 for details. The SFSU Observatory (aka SOEFA, the Stonestown Observatory for Extreme Ultra-Foggy Astronomy) is open Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday evenings. Call (415) 338-7707 to check times and fog conditions.
Minolta Planetarium, De Anza College, Cupertino; (408) 864-8814. Selected Saturday evenings the planetarium offers programs open to the general public. Often geared towards specific age groups—i.e. The Little Star That Could (preschool to 3rd grade), or Honey, I Shrunk The Universe! (4th grade and up)—be sure to check the website for details.
William K. Holt Planetarium, Lawrence Hall of Science, Berkeley; (510) 642-5132. Shows happen every Saturday and Sunday, and most holidays, in this small, friendly award-winning planetarium. Check the website to choose your program—moons of the solar system, light pollution, and space flight are some of the current topics. Teachers: Check out the inflatable planetarium that you can bring to your school.
To Know the Dark
To go in the dark with a light is to know a light.
To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,
and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings
and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.
by Wendell Berry, from Farming: A Handbook, 1967
Moon Walks and Starlight Hikes
Warning: We don’t have space to list the full schedules for the places/events below, and in many cases there may be restrictions. So please be sure to call the sponsor to confirm our listing, reserve a spot, and get all the details
With their ability to expound on both complex cosmologies and terrestrial attractions, naturalists are wonderful guides for night hikes in the hills. Fortunately, quite a few groups around the Bay Area sponsor naturalist-led twilight and nighttime hikes. Here are some to check out:
Saturday, October 26, 6:30 – 9:30 p.m. Two of the best night-hike naturalists in the business—Alan Kaplan and Norm Kidder—work with the East Bay Regional Park District (EBRPD), which sponsors regular twilight and night hikes at its parks and preserves during the summer months, and occasional ones during the rest of the year. The schedule can be found online at www.ebparks.org. This fall, you can take a guided evening hike to “Little Yosemite” at the Sunol Regional Wilderness with naturalist Cindy Taylor Gateno to look for creatures of the night. Stargazing also, weather permitting. Dress in layers, bring one flashlight per person. (925) 862-2601.
Sunday, October 20, 6-8 p.m. (full moon) and Monday, November 4, 4-6 p.m. (new moon). What goes on at night in an old-growth redwood forest? Join a naturalist at Muir Woods for a short hike (under 2 miles) and find out. Bring warm clothes and a flashlight. Call for a reservation: (415) 388-2596.
Saturday, October 19th at 6:30 p.m. Join Lynda and Rob Ross of the Mount Tamalpais Interpretive Association for a two-mile hike to view Mt. Tam under the Big Wind Moon. Bring sturdy shoes, a small flashlight, some water, and meet in the Pantoll parking lot. Call (415) 455-5370 or (415) 388-2070.
Watch the night shift come on as twilight settles over the salt marsh at the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge at one of several upcoming twilight walks; please call for reservations.
October 18, 6:30 p.m. – 7:30 p.m.
November 16, 4:00 p.m. – 5:30 p.m.
Visitor Center, 1 Marshlands Road, Fremont (510) 792-0222. Led by Mary and Gene Bobik.
November 16, 4:30 p.m. – 6:00 p.m.
Environmental Education Center, 1751 Grand Blvd. Alviso (408) 792-0222. Led by Sharon Lee.
Saturday, October 19th, 4:45 to 9:30 p.m. Dinner and a night hike? Walk 4.5 miles through Long Ridge Open Space Preserve at a moderate to brisk pace through grasslands; oak, madrone, and Douglas fir forests, and alongside creeks and ponds. Picnic while the sun sets behind a sweeping view of the Santa Cruz Mountains and the Pacific Ocean. Sponsored by the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District and led by Debbi Brusco, Katherine Greene, and Paul Billig, this hike is intended for those who have not yet been on a guided night hike. Reservations are required; call (650) 691-1200.
If you’d rather hike independently, go with a friend or take Spot along on a leash, and let people know where you’re headed. To see the stars, it’s best to avoid the full moon. To walk at night by natural light, go with the full moon. Consult the nearest calendar, or if you are tickled by e-gizmos, click to this nifty website which calculates the phases of the moon. In any case, be sure to carry a flashlight; if you’d like to preserve your night vision, cover the light with red cellophane.
The last of this year’s free, public astronomy evenings on Mount Tamalpais will be held on October 12 at 7:30 p.m. Tinka Ross of the California Academy of Sciences will speak on “Astronomy is Women’s Work,” stories about astronomers who were women. The San Francisco Amateur Astronomers will host a star party afterwards, setting up their telescopes for everyone to look through. If you’d like to learn about topics such as a new airborne observatory flying through the earth’s stratosphere, whether we are made of stardust, how to design your own universe, etc., check out next year’s annual program hosted by Mt. Tamalpais State Park and the Mt. Tamalpais Interpretive Association held at each new moon between early spring and late fall. For schedule, directions, parking information, and star party etiquette, see the website, or call (415) 455-5370 or (415) 388-2070.
Saturday December 7 at 5:00 p.m. to Sunday morning at 9:00 am. Observe Saturn’s rings, the moons of Jupiter, and Uranus in the winter night sky at Hume Observatory, at the California Academy of Sciences Pepperwood Preserve in Santa Rosa. After exhausting your curiosity (or yourself), scamper for the comfort of your sleeping bag and fall asleep under the stars on the cottage porch.
Saturday, October 26-27, from 5:00 p.m. to 9:00 a.m. on Sunday morning. A version for families with aspiring astrowizards age 6 and up will look at Saturn, the Andromeda Galaxy, and our local moon. Fall asleep on the porch, and best of all there is a bathroom close at hand. Fees vary from $35 to $45 per adult or child. Contact the Education Department at (415) 750-7100 to register and pay fees.
Join a star party at Joseph D. Grant County Park, part of the Santa Clara County Park system.
Saturday, October 5th, 7:15 to 10:30 p.m. Halley Hill, (gates close 10pm)
Saturday November 11th, 5:30 to 10:oo p.m. Telescope Row (gates close 6:30pm)
Saturday December 7th, 5:30 to 10:00 p.m. Telescope Row (gates close 6:30pm)
Keep an eye on the Santa Clara County Park website for starlight paddles offered on Coyote Lake and Anderson Reservoir. Or call (408) 274-6121.
Have you ever walked down a nighttime city sidewalk and tripped over a telescope set up smack dab in the middle? Well, you’re in luck! You’ve fallen neatly into the clutches of the Sidewalk Astronomers doing what they do best—”urban guerilla astronomy.” Fall into line, if there is one, and count the stars until it’s your turn to have a gander. 24-hour Telephone Hotline for Sidewalk Astronomy Events: (415) 289-2007
The San Francisco Amateur Astronomers have come up with a list of the best star-gazing spots. A transect from urban to wilderness, the list includes some delightful surprises. The rating system is totally subjective: the more stars, the better; ease of access and travel; darkness of sky; and fog factor. Other qualities such as social interaction and groovy campsites were included at the whim of the reviewer.
“At night, the world is reduced to its essential elements: shape and light. As the clutter of daytime life slips away, objects and scenes that look mundane in sunlight take on a mysterious, abstract elegance. Night photography helps me pursue my vision of capturing beauty in the ordinary, the ugly, and the unexpected.”
–Jennifer Hattam, photographer
With a nucleus in San Francisco, the Bay Area is home to an unusual cluster of photographers, committed to photographing at night. Visit the Nocturnes, for a surprising nighttime look at some familiar landmarks and local places. Passionate, they like to share their enthusiasm, expertise, and knowledge with others, and usually have a workshop or two in the offing.
The Nocturnes have a free online exhibit to celebrate their 17th year as a photography group.
iStars, and e-Galaxies
The internet offers the ability to study the skies even when the atmospheric conditions are less than perfect, or when you just can’t get outside and you have your trusty computer at hand. But the web continues to make possible more amazing things—looking at the earth from space, virtual telescopes, and other ways to see that go beyond our eyes.
Blow your wonder wide open. Start your morning with the Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD). A golf ball with dimples turns out to be a 30 meter wide asteroid, KY26, which passed within two times the earth-moon distance in June of 1998. Each day, APOD posts an image, and astronomers explain what you are looking at. This award-winning site gives us a window out of our world into others.
Click to Nine Planets by Bill Arnett, for the current state of knowledge for each of the planets in our solar system, or explore history, mythology. Rich with images, sounds, and movies, the Nine Planets has won the Scientific American web award for two years running. For example, find out the names of the planets in 47 languages, among them Tahitian, Uzbek, and Icelandic, which Arnett collected through e-mail.