Star Gazing

The Milky Way, our home galaxy- Wikipedia Commons

The Milky Way, our home galaxy- Wikipedia Commons

The Snake Range is far from major population centers and the high elevation skies are clear and dry much of the time. As a result, the area has some of the darkest skies in the United States, perfect for enjoying the glories of the universe.

Where to Go

Choose a location that is open and away from artificial light. Two of the best spots in the park are the meadow at the lower end of Wheeler Peak Campground and Mather Overlook along the Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive. Outside the park, the Baker Archaeological Site, just outside Baker, has a view that is unobstructed from horizon to horizon. Backpackers can pick from sites that are even farther from man-made lights. The Table in the Mount Moriah Wilderness is an absolutely stunning place to camp under starlit skies. Johnson and Baker Lakes lie at timberline, and though the horizon is slightly constricted by the surrounding peaks, the view of the sky is enhanced by the mountains. See the following hikes- Baker and Johnson Lakes, Timber Creek, Johnson Lake, Hendrys Creek, and The Table. When you arrive on site, especially if you drove or used a flashlight to find your way, allow 20 minutes for your eyes to adjust to the dark. This is especially important when looking at a meteor shower.

When to Go

Although you can look at the stars any time of the year, winter nights can be bitterly cold. Spring, summer, and fall are the best times of the year. Watch the weather forecast and pick a night that is predicted to be clear. Even high clouds dim the stars. Seeing individual stars and other objects is best on nights with a new moon, because a bright moon washes out faint objects. On the other hand, a night with a full or nearly full moon is good for learning the major constellations, as the dimmer stars are hidden and the constellations stand out more.

Moon Phase Calculator:

What to Bring

  • Warm clothing, gloves, and hat
  • Thermos with a hot drink
  • A blanket, ground cloth, or reclining camp chair
  • Binoculars- even small backpacking binoculars will review many more stars and sky objects
  • Star chart- available at the park bookstores
  • Red-lensed flashlight to protect your night vision. You can cover a white lens with red paper.

What to Look For

Use a star chart to orient yourself to the sky and see what is above the horizon at the present date and time.

Milky Way

The Milky Way is a faint band of light across the entire sky composed of millions of stars that are too faint to see with the naked eye. These stars make up the Milky Way Galaxy, of which our Sun is a member star. When you're looking at the Milky Way, you are literally looking at our home galaxy edge-on.


From ancient times, humans have found patterns in the stars. Today, 88 constellations are recognized, covering the entire sky. All stars and other objects are found within one of these constellations, which in modern usage define a precise region of the sky. About half the constellations are major, made up of bright stars in a easily recognizable pattern. Learning the major constellations is the first step to knowing your way around the night sky. A few of the major constellations to look for during a summer night around 9 PM:

Ursa Major, the Great Bear: Look north to find the "Big Dipper," a group of stars that make up a dipper hanging from its handle with the bowl pointing right. The Big Dipper is an asterism- a named group of stars within the Great Bear constellation. The lower two stars of the dipper are the "Pointer Stars." A line drawn to the right through the pointer star passes through Polaris, the North Star. In turn, the North Star forms the end of the handle of the "Little Dipper", part of the constellation Little Bear. The Little Dipper is much smaller and fainter than the Big Dipper.

Cassiopeia: To the right and below the North Star is a bright group of stars forming a sideways "W" in the sky.

Lyra: Nearly overhead in the summer sky, Lyra is a small but bright constellation representing a lyre, an ancient musical instrument. A nearly perfect triangle shares one star with a parallelogram. The very bright star at one point of the triangle is Vega, one of the brightest stars in the sky.

Sagittarius, the Archer: In the southern sky, near the horizon, look for a group of bright stars forming an almost-perfect teapot, complete with handle, lid, and spout.

Scorpius, the Scorpion: Just to the right of Sagittarius, a large group of stars looks like a huge scorpion, with a bright pair of stars on the left making up the stinger, and a small group of fainter stars on the upper right representing the head. The bright red star in the middle of the constellation is Antares, a giant red star that is the heart of the scorpion.


Meteors, or "shooting stars," are small pieces of rock that enter our atmosphere from space at tremendous speeds. The streak of light is the object burning up in the atmosphere. Most meteors are the size of a speck of sand, but occasionally a larger one will create a spectacular "fireball" in the sky, bright enough to light up the ground around the observer. Most meteors are natural objects, but occasionally you may spot pieces of a man-made satellite burning up in the atmosphere. You can tell the difference by the color- natural meteors are yellow, orange, or red, while artificial objects are usually bluish or greenish.

Meteor showers appear at certain times of the year and the show may include dozens or even hundreds of meteors per hour. The best meteor showers are the Perseids in August, the Orionids in October, the Leonids in November, and the Geminds in December.

Major meteor showers:


Five planets are visible to the naked eye- Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. Even small binoculars will show you the phases of Venus, the red color of Mars, the moons of Jupiter, and the rings of Saturn. Because the planets orbit the Sun at various speeds, they appear to move across the sky, but always along the Ecliptic, the plane of the solar system.

Planet finder:


There are thousands of artificial satellites orbiting the earth, and many are easily seen by the naked eye. The best time to observe satellites is just after dusk, when the observer is in the dark but sunlight still strikes the satellites high overhead. Lie on your back and let your gaze wander over a broad patch of sky, looking for a "star" that moves. Some satellites, such as the Iridium series and the International Space Station, are very bright and are in low orbits that cause them to move quickly across the sky.

Heavens Above is a good Web site for satellite information: